The Reverend Dr. John Macquarrie, 1919-2007
The Reverend Dr. John Macquarrie, priest, theologian and longtime friend of
Saint Mary's, died in Oxford, England on May 28, 2007.
Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
The Rev. Dr. John Macquarrie (1919-2007) was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland in 1944.
After he came to New York City to serve as professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary, he underwent a
gradual transition toward the Anglican Church, in part due to his relationship with Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. He was
ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of New York on June 16, 1965, and the next day, Corpus Christi, his first Mass was
celebrated at Saint Mary’s. The Reverend Canon Robert Wright, of General Theological Seminary, remembers that Father
Macquarrie also gave benediction in the Lady Chapel of Saint Mary’s during his first week of ordination.
Father Macquarrie’s “Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament” first appeared in AVE, the monthly bulletin of the Church of
Saint Mary the Virgin, Volume xxxiv, no. 8, November 1965. The article was reprinted and included in “A Tribute to the
Church of Saint Mary the Virgin,” a special centennial anniversary edition of AVE, in 1968.
The Mass is the center of all Christian worship, and there can be no substitute for it. It is “our bounden duty
and service,” for it is the way appointed by our Lord for the recalling of him. For the past hundred years and
more, the Church has been engaged in stressing the centrality of the Mass, and has tried to ensure that its
place is not usurped by other devotions, public or private, however laudable these maybe. The duty and
privilege of the Christian is to play his part in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in receiving the Holy
We may be grateful that so much has been done to restore the Mass to its central place. But our aim must be
to extend the action and meaning of the Mass out from the center to the furthest edges of life, so that the
whole of life is conformed to the living Lord who gives himself to us at the altar. While it is right to stress
the priority of the Mass, it would be a mistake if we were led to neglect or despise other acts of worship
which have their proper place in the building up of the Christian life. The Mass is the indispensable center,
but there are many additional acts of devotion which help to extend it into all our activities and
relationships. Such, for instance, are the daily offices of Mattins and Evensong. Their value is beyond
question. However, my purpose in this article is to point to the value of another of the Church’s acts of
worship--- Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
I remember very well the first occasion on which I was present at Benediction. This happened many years
ago at what was, for me, an important moment in my life. I was serving in the British Army, and had
received notice of posting overseas. I had been home for my last leave and was now waiting with other
troops in a transit center in the London area for the ship that would take us to Egypt. On the Sunday
evening before we sailed, I was wandering through the streets of the city. I came to an Anglican Church—St.
Andrew’s Willesden Green, I think it was. The bell was summoning the people, and I went in. The first part
of the service was familiar to me, for it was Evensong, with its splendid collects and canticles, and its readings
from Scripture. But then followed something new to me, though I had indeed read about it and was able to
understand what was going on—the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Perhaps I was in an
impressionable mood that night, but this service meant a great deal to me. I did not know what lay ahead of
me or when I might come back home again, but I had been assured of our Lord’s presence and had received
his sacramental blessing. I felt rather like Jacob when he was far from home at Bethel and heard the divine
voice: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I
will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you” (Gen. 28:15).
Looking back, I do not think I am wrong in seeing in this incident a step on the way by which God, in his
merciful providence, was calling me into the fullness of the Christian faith. In the years that followed, both
overseas and after I returned home, whenever I had an opportunity to attend at the service of Benediction, I
never failed to find in it the strength that comes from knowing that God is near.
There can be no doubt that in a very real way Benediction meets a need of many Christians. This need is one
that has always been felt in religion – the need to have before us some concrete manifestation of the divine
Reality, toward which we can direct our devotion. As Baron von Hugel was never tired of saying, spirit and
sense go together in religion. It is true that the demand of sense for some visible, tangible manifestation of
God can lead to an idolatry if we let our minds rest in the visible manifestation rather than letting it lead us
into the unseen mystery of God; and this kind of idolatry happened often enough in the history of Israel. But
there is also a danger, possibly a more serious one, if we try to do without the objects of sense, as if we were
purely rational or spiritual beings; the danger here is that of pride and false spirituality, and there are many
instances of this in the history of Puritan sects.
Spirit and sense go together. This is obviously true in the Mass itself, where material elements are used as the
vehicles of its inner action. As I have said already, it is above all in the action of the Mass that Christ comes
to us and we know his presence, so that this is the central act of worship. But Christ’s promise is to be with
us always (Matthew 28:20). So at a very early period in the Church’s history there arose the practice of
reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. In those days, perhaps because of the dangers of persecution,
celebrations of the Mass could not be frequent, and between celebrations the faithful reserved the Sacrament
in their homes and communicated themselves from it from time to time. It must have kept them always
mindful that Christ was with them in his living presence, and so when the times of persecution were past, the
Sacrament continued to be reserved, but now in churches where people might go to pray and worship in the
very presence of Christ.
A further step was taken in the Middle Ages when there grew up the practice of exposition of the Blessed
Sacrament. The sense of living presence, already ensured by the reservation of the Sacrament, was intensified
by opening the doors of the tabernacle or even by exhibiting the Host on a throne in a monstrance. This
practice is easily understandable for, as St. Augustine noted, seeing has a priority among our senses, and every
one of us has a strong desire to see that which claims our attention. We feel that a person is really present to
us when we are able to look upon him, face to face. It is simply a fact of human psychology that the
worshippers’ awareness of the Lord’s presence was intensified and brought home in a lively way as they
looked with their eyes upon the spotless Host.
At some time too along the way there developed another practice, still to be observed in many of our
churches. The priest, in delivering the Communion, would first make the sign of the cross with the Host
over the head of the recipient. This is perhaps an unnecessary elaboration in the midst of the Eucharist, but
the meaning and intention are entirely admirable, and one can see how there is the possibility of employing
this sacramental blessing outside of the immediate context of the Eucharist.
It was from a combination of these practices that the service of Benediction came into being. The practices
were wedded to some magnificent wording, drawn partly from the Psalter, partly from St. Thomas Aquinas,
and partly, at a later time, from the Jesuit priest, Fr. Louis Felici. Thus, in response to the needs of worship,
there finally crystallized the service of Benediction as we know it today.
I am well aware that critics of Benediction would brush aside as unimportant many of the things that I have
said so far about the value of this service. They would say – and they would be right about this – that one
cannot justify an act of worship on the grounds of personal preference or what it has meant in one’s personal
history, and that one cannot even justify it in terms of general psychological needs or of esthetic
excellence. In the long run, the only justification can be to show that this particular act of worship has a
sound theological basis. But it seems to me that it should not be difficult to expound such a basis, especially
when we remember that so much of the wording of Benediction is taken straight from St. Thomas, himself a
very prince of theologians.
If there is one theme that runs clearly through St. Thomas’ writings, it is surely this, that when we look on
creaturely beings within the world and consider them “in depth,” so to speak, our mind is carried beyond
them to that divine Being by whom every creature exists and whom every creature in greater or lesser degree
makes manifest. This theme is plainly stated in the foundations of St. Thomas’ theology, when he discourses
on the “five ways” by which the mind rises from the consideration of the created world to the apprehension
of God on whom the world depends. But it is essentially the same theme that gets expressed in his
magnificent Eucharistic hymns which speak of the “glory” hidden “beneath these shadows mean” and of
how “faith, our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear.”
This theme is precisely what one might expect to find in a Christian theologian, for Christianity is the religion
of the incarnation. It proclaims that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”
(John 1:14). Thus Archbishop William Temple could say that Christianity is the most materialistic of
religions, because through the incarnation it sets a new value on the material world, and makes it the vehicle
for divine grace and truth. This is a sacramental world where creaturely being becomes transparent so that
we can see through to the God from whom all things flow.
God does not leave us with just some vague general knowledge of himself. It is true that St. Thomas believed
that there is a “natural theology” and that every thinking man can form some idea of God. But beyond this,
we believe also in God’s “revelation” by which he has himself extended and purified our knowledge of
him. We may think of revelation as meaning that at particular times and places and in particular events and
persons, God, as it were, has focused his presence and has caused to shine brightly and clearly before us that
knowledge of himself which otherwise we can only dimly grasp. The great events in Israel’s history were
“revelations” of this kind. Above all, Jesus Christ was “the true light that lightens every man” (John 1:9), the
great focus of God’s presence and acting in history. But Christ in turn appointed the bread and wine of the
Eucharist to be the focus in which generations to come would find anew his presence. Anglican theologians
have wisely avoided trying to give too precise a formulation of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but
they have consistently affirmed it and it is, of course, implicit in our liturgy. It is in terms of this focusing of
our Lord’s presence that the service of Benediction is to be understood – and also justified, if anyone thinks it
needs justifying. Psychologically speaking, we need some concrete, visible manifestation toward which to
direct our devotion; theologically speaking, this is already provided for us by our Lord’s gracious focusing on
his presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
When this is understood, complaints about “idolatry” or “fetishism” are seen to be beside the point. Let us
assure any who may be perturbed over such matters that we are not being so stupid as to worship a wafer,
nor do we have such an archaic and myth-laden mentality that we believe the object before us to be charged
with magical power. Rather, it is in and through the Sacrament that we adore Christ, because we, being men
and not angels, have need of an earthly manifestation of the divine presence, and because he, in his grace and
mercy, has promised to grant us his presence in this particular manifestation.
With these thoughts in mind, let us now consider what happens at Benediction. It is an amazingly simple and
beautifully proportioned act of worship, and although it is very brief, it has a wonderful completeness. We
can think of it as made up of three main parts.
The key-word for describing the first part is “contemplation.” The doors of the tabernacle are opened, the
Host is exposed and censed, and two great hymns of St. Thomas are sung, honoring the “saving Victim” who
condescends to be with us in “this great Sacrament.” I want to stress the word “contemplation.” We need
more of this, for even in our religion we are most of the time so busy talking or doing things or going places
that God hardly gets a chance to say anything to us. It is good for us just to let God soak into us, so to speak,
and surely this does happen as we direct our gaze to the saving Victim and kneel quietly in his presence. As
the hymns end, we hear the words, “Thou didst give them bread from heaven” (Ps 78:24). We are reminded
of how God fed his people with manna in the wilderness, how his providence never abandons us, and how
above all he has come to us in Jesus Christ who called himself “the living bread which came down from
heaven” (John 6:51). The first part of the service is then summed up in the beautiful collect which St.
Thomas wrote for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and in which we pray that we may so “venerate the mysteries
of thy Body and Blood that we may evermore perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption.”
There follows immediately the second part of the service, which is also its climax – the actual sacramental
blessing of the people. The priest, wearing the humeral veil, makes with the Host the sign of the cross over
the people. I am reminded of some rather striking words of Fr. Hugh Blenkin: “God can never be the object
of a man’s worship, he is always the subject.” God always takes the initiative and comes to us, even before
we think of turning to him. Whatever we may bring to him, he gives us far more in return. Now at the very
heart of the service he gives his blessing through Christ. I explained already what this blessing meant to me
long ago, and I hope that it may always mean as much.
The third part of the service is our spontaneous response of praise and thanksgiving. “Blessed be God!” we
say, using the words of the Divine Praises, said to have been composed by Fr. Louis Felici at the end of the
eighteenth century. These Divine Praises bless God for the innumerable ways in which he has been present
and manifested himself in the world – in the Name by which he made himself known, in Christ, in the
Sacrament, in the Holy Spirit, in the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints. How indeed could we know him at
all if he had not manifested himself in earthly and historical realities? Then, as the final burst of
praise comes the psalm, Laudate Dominum, calling on all nations to praise the Lord for his merciful kindness
and truth (Ps. 117).
Benediction is very much an act of waiting upon God, of letting him make his presence known, of letting him
speak to us. We are told that “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah
40:31). Certainly, this act of devotion offers an important opportunity to renew our strength, and one wishes
that it was more widely observed in the Church. “Let us for ever adore the most holy Sacrament!”
The Rev. Dr. John Macquarrie (1919-2007) was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland
in 1944. After he came to New York City to serve as professor of systematic theology at Union Theological
Seminary, he underwent a gradual transition toward the Anglican Church, in part due to his relationship with
Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. He was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of New York on June 16,
1965, and the next day, Corpus Christi, his first Mass was celebrated at Saint Mary’s. The Reverend Canon
Robert Wright, of General Theological Seminary, remembers that Father Macquarrie also gave benediction in
the Lady Chapel of Saint Mary’s during his first week of ordination. Father Macquarrie’s “Benediction of the
Blessed Sacrament” first appeared in AVE, the monthly bulletin of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin,
Volume xxxiv, no. 8, November 1965. The article was reprinted and included in “A Tribute to the Church of
Saint Mary the Virgin,” a special centennial anniversary edition of AVE, in 1968.