By Denise Trull
Happy feast of St. Blaise. It is odd to think that for years I have known almost nothing about this Bishop and Martyr except that he is part of my earliest childhood memories. Lining up as a little Kindergartener, and kneeling solemnly at the communion rail to have my throat blessed with the rest of the children at Christ the King School was a beautiful, mysterious thing. I was especially taken by the two snowy candles wrapped crosswise with a white satin ribbon and tucked under my chin as Father prayed. I remember the smell of beeswax. Being so small, I felt a vital part of something immense, even though I could not articulate it at the age of five. You are never too young to enter the mystery. Holy traditions wrap it around your child’s soul like sweet incense.
This year, I thought perhaps I should actually find out more about St. Blaise than I knew as a little girl, and what I discovered is wonderful.
Blaise lived in 4th Century Armenia. He was said to have come from a wealthy family and took up medicine as his career. He was born with a particular sensitivity to the physical sufferings of others, and he determined early on to bring comfort and hope to those carrying the heavy burden of pain. He worked day after day among the poor in his city and in the countryside around it. Many miracles flowed from his healing hands. He was generous and kind to all and was not above treating even his people’s work animals, knowing how vital they were to the lives of the farmers who depended on them for their livelihood.
As the years passed he felt the stirrings of a priestly vocation in his soul and offered himself wholly to Christ in this way. He still practiced medicine, but now added the healing of souls as well as bodies through his prayers and the Sacraments. Eventually his goodness got him chosen Bishop of Sebaste, Armenia.
The Roman Governor of said city, one Licinius by name, decided, on a malicious whim, to round up all the Christians and march them off to prison. Blaise was captured, and suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced to be beheaded at the end of the long march, simply for being the spiritual father of this rag tag group of Christians.
In the midst of this, his death march through the city, his sensitive ear heard a mother’s voice pleading from the crowd. Her little child was choking on a fish bone. Blaise stopped immediately and calmly blessed the child with great tenderness.
It struck me, at this point in his story, that saints are asked to do selfless things up to the very bitter end of their lives. Blaise didn't say, ‘Woman! Can't you see I am in grave danger, here? Can't you see that it is almost over for me? I'm done now with my work.’ No. He cured the child just as Jesus forgave the thief from the cross; in the very last minutes of his life. Every minute counts. Each moment is rife with the possibility of grace. Great things can suddenly happen in the odd little minutes we decide to give to God, whether they seem convenient or not. We must always be ready for God to work through us if He so chooses. St. Blaise teaches us that, and we remember it each year at the blessing of throats.
In prison, Blaise encouraged his friends and continued to quietly heal their bodies and souls. But soon, Licinius recalled the sentence he had pronounced on Blaise. He had him scourged and beaten with combed fetters and then beheaded in front of his frightened flock. Blaise’s calm bravery filled them with courage to face their own martyrdoms. It was his last act as a bishop. Giving courage to his flock.
I still had one question after reading about his life. Where did the candles come in? Why do we now bless the throats with satin wrapped candles? And the story is lovely!
As the legend goes, an older lady from his parish, whose pig had been cured by Blaise, did not forget him after he was marched off to prison. She thought to bring him candles, two at a time, so he would not have to sit in the darkness. She thought that this would bring him cheer - to see the light. And it did cheer him each night the darkness descended in the prison. He lit the candles until they were no more than stubs.
I can't help but think that he saved those little candle stubs and put them in his pocket on the way to his death, perhaps squeezing them for courage - thanking God for the lovely old lady who only sought to bring him comfort in his time of need. Oh, those little things given with great love.
The customs that grew up around this feast throughout the world are varied and wonderful. Throats are still blessed, but different countries have different customs. In Germany, the blessing of throats is given with LIGHTED candles! That might be quite an amazing experience! In Italy, there is a Church dedicated to St. Blaise where the pastor blesses the throats with an actual relic of the martyr. In Spain and Mexico, there is a custom of wearing a satin ribbon around the neck to be worn for nine days after the blessing. So many beautiful traditions to remember a small but exquisite miracle Blaise performed on the road to his martyrdom.
I have always loved this feast day for the satin wrapped candles. Now I love it for the martyr who gave over his kind, peaceful, healing life to Christ and his Church.