Recently, there was a small discussion on a friend’s Facebook© page concerning Orthodoxy and the blessing of weapons. Below is an ancient service for the blessing of weapons. Above is a photograph of a Russian priest blessing weapons. It should be noted that the Great Book of Needs, published by St. Tikhon seminary in 1999 has no such service within its pages. And, though it says “book,” it is actually a set of four encyclopedia size volumes.
Blessing of Swords/Sabers and Soldiers
The Bishop or Priest comes out of the Altar to a table before the Ambon on which the weapons are placed, and he censes the weapons crosswise while the Reader begins as is common:
Reader: O Heavenly King …, Trisagion, etc. … Psalm 35. Alleluia … Deacon: Let us pray to the Lord
The Bishop or Priest reads this prayer over the weapons:
O Lord our God, God of Power and Might, powerful in strength, strong in battle, You once gave miraculous strength to Your child David granting him victory over his opponent the blasphemer Goliath. Mercifully accept our humble prayer. Send Your heavenly blessing upon these weapons (..naming each weapon..). Give to them power and strength that they may protect Your holy Church, the poor and the widows, and Your holy inheritance on earth, and make them horrible and terrible to any enemy army, and grant victory to Your people for your glory, for You are our strength and protection and unto You do we send up praise and glory, to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Then the Priest sprinkles blessed water on the weapons saying:
Let the blessing of the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, come down on and remain upon these weapons and those who carry them, for the protection of the truth of Christ. Amen.
After this the soldiers carrying the weapons are blessed, with the prayer:
Be brave and let your heart be stronger and win victory over your enemies, trusting in God, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Needless to say, this brought up questions as to whether this was a quite appropriate blessing for a clergyperson to give. To me, it also brings up the question as to why the prayer over weapons and soldiers is still used in the Old World while it is not even available in the New World. But, that is a question for another time. In the meantime, let me quote to you something that was written by Metropolitan Hilarion back in 2004. It may give you a different possible interpretation of this subject.
In the Facebook© discussion, there is even a hint of the difficulties of this subject. One person comments, “By economia and acknowledging the realities of the fallen world. I can imagine a hypothetical reality in which these weapons would be manufactured for the defense of the poor and widows – I don’t think that’s where we live though.” Then the other one says, “How else ya gonna keep the Turks outta yer face?”
And, here is the problem the Church faced many centuries ago. What happens when the majority of people in a country become Christian? One option is that the state becomes pacifist, quickly founders and is taken over by non-Christians. That actually happened in the Slavic area. Around the year 1015, the brothers Boris and Gleb the Passion-Bearers, who were Christians, submitted to being killed by their older brother Sviatopolk the Accursed Prince, rather than raise a hand against their brother. Sviatopolk promptly took the throne and showed the perils of a pacifist leadership.
The other option is to take what Saint Paul said in Romans 13 as an explanation that governments are given leave by God to use violence in the protection of the people of that country. With rare exceptions, that has been the approach taken by most Christians, once they considered the implications of having the majority of the people in a country being Christian and the leaders being Christian. The fourth brother in that Slavic area, Yaroslav, raised an army, and in 1019 won the war. His brother Sviatopolk the Accursed died while fleeing to Poland. Yaroslav was far from being a saint, but he did lead a Christian Rus.
In that context, Metropolitan Hilarion says:
When the Nazi army invaded Russia in June 1941, the whole nation – men and women, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians, Russians and non-Russians, soldiers and civilians – stood in defence. More than twenty million people, mostly men, were lost during the war, and the demographic consequences of this loss are noticeable even today.
The Russian Orthodox Church by the beginning of the war had been devastated by the severest persecutions of the 1920s and 1930s, when ninety-five per cent of its clergy and monastics had been executed, imprisoned or exiled, all monasteries and theological schools closed, and thousands of churches blown up or transformed into secular buildings.
In spite of being almost completely annihilated, the Russian Orthodox Church – or rather what remained of it – from the very first day of the war joined the nation in its struggle for liberation. Indeed, priests blessed the troops and weapons before battles, gave absolution to the dying soldiers, and were involved – along with thousands of ordinary believers – in the patriotic activity in many other ways.
But can one responsibly claim that these actions were sinful? When a nation defends itself against foreign invasion, should the Church stay aside and let its children die without absolution? Or should the soldiers be deprived of the Church’s blessing before the battle? …
In examining the problem of war and peace, the Russian Orthodox Church states in its ‘Basic Social Concept’ that any war is a result of human sin. However, it makes an important distinction between defensive and aggressive war. The Church does not call its faithful to refuse military service and participation in a military action of defensive character. In other words, it does not proclaim pacifism as a fundamental principle:
While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not forbid its members from participating in military action if they are aimed at defending one’s neighbors or restoring justice that has been violated. In such cases war, though undesirable, is considered a forced means of action.
“… any war is a result of human sin. … While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not forbid its members from participating in military action if they are aimed at defending one’s neighbors or restoring justice that has been violated.” The problem with Western just war theology is that it can give the impression that if a war is just, then there is nothing evil in what your side has chosen to do. In the East, war is always evil and sinful at its root. I have before quoted more than one jurisdiction in the USA when they have stated that we should never state that war is good nor give that impression. At best, we can say that it is, “a forced means of action.”
It is in the context of a forced means of action, in the context of war being an evil, in the context of defending one’s neighbors or restoring justice that has been violated that the prayers over weapons and soldiers takes place. Notice that the prayers over the weapons are that they may be strong in the defense of the poor and the widow. That is, make them instruments of justice. And, of the soldiers, it is protection and victory that is prayed over them, which is a good prayer if they are actually fulfilling a defense function.
Does this always happen that way? Of course not! The problem is that we often do not take into account the messiness that is the world we live in. Nor do those who are against weapon-blessing prayers. The reality is that we live in an impure world, a world in which wrong choices are consistently made. We participate in those wrong choices every day of our life. I baptize children whom I know will sin over and over again. I pronounce absolution on people whom I know will go out and sin over and over again. All priests give communion to people whom they know will go out and sin over and over again. Just like the weapon-blessing prayers, we bless those whom we know will take the freedom given to them by Our Lord Jesus Christ and will sin. That does not stop us from giving them a blessing. The same is true of weapons and soldiers.