by Dianne Rachal, Director of Worship
The feast day of St. Blaise is celebrated on February 3 with the unique ritual of blessing the throats of those with throat disorders and anyone who wishes to avoid getting such a malady.
The blessing of throats is usually done by priests, though deacons may also serve, and it is considered a sacramental of the Church.
Unfortunately, very few facts are known about St. Blaise, and much of what is known about the life of St. Blaise comes from various traditions through the ages. All sources agree that St. Blaise was the Bishop of Sebaste in Armenia who suffered martyrdom under Licinius about A.D. 316. Even though the Emperor Constantine had granted freedom of worship in the Roman Empire with the Edict of Toleration in A.D. 311 five years earlier, persecution of Christians still raged in Armenia.
The legendary Acts of St. Blaise were written 400 years after his death. According to the Acts, St. Blaise was a good bishop, working hard to encourage the spiritual and physical health of his people.
From here on, we rely on the traditions which have been associated with our liturgical celebrations over the centuries. In accord with various traditions, St. Blaise was born to rich and noble parents, and received a Christian education. He was a physician before being consecrated a bishop at a young age.
Due to the persecution of Licinius, St. Blaise received a divine command to move from the town and live as a hermit in a cave. There he lived in solitude and prayer, and he made friends with the wild animals, healing any that were sick or wounded. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the game in the amphitheater stumbled upon St. Blaise’s cave. They were surprised to find the bishop kneeling in prayer surrounded by wolves, lions and bears.
Legend has it that hunters hauled St. Blaise off to Agricolaus, the governor of Cappadocia, who imprisoned him. On his way there, St. Blaise encountered a woman whose pig was being seized by a wolf. He commanded the wolf to release the pig, and the pig was freed unhurt. The woman brought St. Blaise candles in prison so that his cell would have light and he could read the sacred Scriptures.
While St. Blaise was in prison, a mother came with her young son who was choking to death on a fish bone lodged in his throat. St. Blaise miraculously cured the small boy by commanding him to cough up the bone.
Agricolaus tried to persuade St. Blaise to sacrifice to pagan idols. The first time Blaise refused, he was beaten. Eventually Agricolaus condemned St. Blaise for upholding his Christian faith rather than apostatizing (denying the faith). St. Blaise was suspended from a tree and his flesh torn with an iron comb (an instrument designed for combing wool, but used here for shredding the skin). Finally, St. Blaise was beheaded.
Intercession of St. Blaise
By the sixth century, St. Blaise’s intercession was invoked for diseases of the throat in the East. As early as the eighth century records attest to the veneration of St. Blaise in Europe, and he became one of the most popular saints in the spiritual life of the Middle Ages. One reason for St. Blaise’s popularity arose from the fact he was a physician who cured, even performing miraculous cures. Thereby, those who were sick, especially with throat ailments, invoked his intercession. Eventually the custom of the blessing of throats arose, whereby the priest held two crossed candles over the heads of the faithful or touched their throats with the candles while he invoked the prayer of the saint and imparted God’s blessing.
The Blessing of the Throat
The feast of St. Blaise is celebrated on February 3. The blessing of the throat is carried out using two white taper candles that were blessed on the previous day, February 2, Candlemas Day, the Feast of the Presentation. The white color of the candles symbolizes purity. Often a red ribbon will be draped over the base of the candles, the red symbolizing the martyrdom of St. Blaise. The candles are grasped in an X-shape and held up to the throat of the person receiving the blessing:
“Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
St. Blaise is the patron of physicians, sick cattle, wax-chandlers, wool combers, wild animals and those with throat maladies.
From an article by Fr. William Saunders in the Arlington Catholic Herald, 1/3/2013.