Every year, my home parish invites parishioners to bring sprigs of fresh basil to Mass to have them blessed. As an avid home cook and wannabe gardener, I love this tradition, especially because the following week I can look forward to buying a tub of delicious homemade pesto from the church’s Women’s Club.
The tradition is not arbitrary. The annual “Blessing of the Basil” is held in honor of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14.
It turns out, my favorite herb was a key ingredient in the discovery of the true cross.
After Emperor Constantine reunited the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in A.D. 312, he attributed his victory in the war to Jesus Christ. He instituted laws that guaranteed religious tolerance throughout the empire so that Christianity would be protected. Constantine gave his mother, St. Helena, unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to uncover as many important Christian relics and historical sites as possible.
Not only did she discover the likely location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (where the Church of the Nativity now stands) along with many other sites and relics, but she also unearthed the true cross.
According to liturgical legend, in A.D. 326 St. Helena found a large patch of a beautiful, fragrant, yet unknown, plant on an otherwise barren hill. She ordered the area to be excavated and discovered three crosses underneath. The story then goes that a sick woman was brought to the site and kissed each cross. After kissing the first two crosses she was unaffected, but upon kissing the third cross, she was miraculously and instantaneously healed. Thus, the true cross was identified.
It was after this discovery that basil got its name: “Vasiliko,” or “of the king,” which comes from the Greek “Basileus,” which means “king.” I had no idea that the word for basil was a reference to Jesus!
The basil colony is said to have grown where the Precious Blood of Christ and the tears of the Blessed Mother fell during the crucifixion.
Blessing the basil
Does your church hold a basil blessing on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross?
If not, you can see if your priest will bless your herbs for you using a prayer just for the occasion.
What to do with your blessed basil
You can use your blessed basil as a sacramental object and dry the leaves upside down in a bouquet in your kitchen or use the dried leaves as incense in your house.
Alternately, and this is my preferred option, you can use it to make pesto and enjoy an extra-special meal in honor of the cross. I like to call it Holy Pesto, aka “Blessed-o.”
The easiest way to use your pesto is to toss it with some pasta. I also like adding sautéed bell pepper, eggplant, and fire-roasted tomatoes. Or, you can use it in a delicious pesto chicken panini with oven-roasted tomatoes.
How to make Holy Pesto, aka “Blessed-o”
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil
2-3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup fresh shaved parmesan (I used a vegetable peeler to shave bits off a block of cheese)
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
- Have your basil blessed by a priest.
- Add basil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese to a small food processor. Pulse until finely chopped.
- Continue blending in the food processor while drizzling in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. I used about 1/2 tsp kosher salt; it may be less if you use table salt.
- Enjoy immediately over pasta or refrigerate overnight so the flavors can blend even more. The second day it’s even better!