Columnist Rev. Andrea Ayvazian: Invovocations, benedictions: Still striving for the right note

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian


Published: 01-19-2024 7:01 PM

Modified: 01-19-2024 7:10 PM

Earlier this month, I was asked to offer the benediction at the Northampton inauguration ceremony, when elected officials are sworn in to their positions of leadership in our city — a request that I was honored to fulfill.

These inauguration ceremonies, which happen every two years, are solemn and important occasions. They always include an invocation at the beginning and a benediction at the end. For many years, I have been asked to offer the opening or closing words.

This year, the invocation was given by Rabbi Jacob Fine of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. Rabbi Fine shared deeply moving, thoughtful, and inspiring words to begin the proceedings. I was to give the closing words, offering a benediction to bring the ceremony to an end.

Although my benediction was not long (about a dozen sentences), I labored over writing it — discarding draft after draft that did not seem to sound the right note.

Every year I labor over this task. I want to be inspiring, but not too religious; thought-provoking, but also comforting; and multifaith, but without mentioning faith. I find the invitations to offer the invocations and benedictions at inaugural events a challenge and a worry. I craft each word with care, always fearing that I will miss the mark.

Soon after the inauguration this year, I was invited to speak on the weekly “Have Faith” segment of the “Talk the Talk” radio program at WHMP with Bill Newman and Buz Eisenberg. As Bill and Buz had warned me ahead of time, we jumped right into the discussion! “So tell us, Pastor,” Bill said as the program began, “why do secular events in this city include clearly religious components? Aren’t invocations and benedictions part of a liturgical worship service?”

I replied by saying that yes, invocations and benedictions are certainly part of every Christian worship service I lead at my church in Springfield. I also reflected on why they are included in secular events, like the swearing in of elected officials. I believe that in solemn gatherings when we are instilling a sense of call, service and dedication in those being recognized, we long for something with moral heft, something that sets our hearts and minds on a purpose larger than ourselves, even something reverential (if it is acceptable for me to use that term).

To achieve that goal, I try to speak in philosophical and ethical, but not specifically religious, terms. I avoid using the word “God” — although for this inauguration, I did break that rule and I used “God” once. I did, this time, also speak of “righteousness.” I quoted the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures, and I referenced “divine messages” and “miracles.”

Bill and Buz asked me to read my benediction on the air. When I finished reading it, they asked, “What about the separation of church and state? And what about the atheists and agnostics who might be present?”

Because Bill and Buz are both lawyers, I tossed the question of the separation of church and state back to them! As for their question regarding atheists and agnostics, and all those with spiritual and religious beliefs that are not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I responded that I hoped they would be inspired, or at least not offended, by my words.

But that was a very weak response. What about those folks? How do they feel about God being mentioned, along with references to Genesis and “divine messages” and “miracles”?

Since the inauguration ceremony, I have been thinking a great deal about those questions and my role at that gathering. I stood in my clerical collar before a crowd of people of many faiths and no faith and offered a closing benediction that was perhaps too religious for some, and not religious enough others. Is there a way to strike the right balance? I struggle with this quandary before each of these ceremonies.

After the inauguration, I was helping myself to coffee and pastries at the back of the Great Room in the Senior Center, where these ceremonies are held. A woman who I do not know came up to me as I clutched my coffee and a delicious beignet.

“Thank you for your words,” the woman said, but in a way that made me think she was not very happy with my benediction. “I liked the Margaret Wheatley quote,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “that’s a great quote.” The line the woman liked was this: “Go from this place remembering the words of author Margaret Wheatley, who writes, ‘Whatever the problem, community is the answer.’”

Yes, I thought to myself, “community” defines that in-between space that combines both the secular and the religious.

I like to think that Rabbi Fine and I both helped to build community, at least for a few passing moments, during a ceremony that has pomp and laughter, oaths and promises, solemnity and a very slight touch of the sacred. I am deeply honored that they included us, and I want to believe that my contribution was valuable. I know that I was moved by and grateful for Rabbi Fine’s beautiful invocation.

Now I am already thinking about next year! If invited back, I may use more literary and philosophical reflections, no divinity, and no Bible.

Building a big tent, where everyone feels that they belong and no one is left out, is a hard task when it comes to a gathering that includes a somewhat religious component and clergy up front in clerical clothes. For years I have written, rewritten, discarded, started again, crafted, edited, and honed these short messages. And the whole process remains a work in progress.

[To hear the Rev. Ayvazian read her benediction, on the radio go to].]

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Ministerial Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield, is also founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.