God bless you. We say it all the time. When someone sneezes, we reply without thinking, “God bless you.” When someone is going through a rough time in life, we show our concern and compassion when we tell them, “God bless you.” Dave was raised in the Catholic faith and therefore had a godmother. His godmother was his Aunt Jean. Aunt Jean was a very religious woman, a devoted Catholic and follower of Christ. She had a hard life and relied on the strength of God to see her through many ups and downs in her 90+ years. Every time Dave would see his Aunt Jean, she greeted him with “God bless you, David.” And whenever he left her presence, she again told him, “God bless you.” She truly loved Dave and offered that blessing for him. Aunt Jean knew she was loved by God. She had found life and strength in her faith in Christ. She wanted her godson to know that he was loved by her and by God. She wanted Dave to know the peace, hope, and joy that God can provide.
In order to say, “God bless you,” to our students with honesty and sincerity, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at what a blessing really is and what its value might be for our lives. The dictionary has several definitions for blessing. The first is that blessing is something really good that comes our way. “Your help with the project was a real blessing to me.” Another understanding of the word blessing is approval or good wishes, as parents would give to their children when they decide to marry. Blessing can also be the act of calling for divine protection or aid. That is what we do when we say “God bless you” to someone after a sneeze. We call on God to offer good health.
The Hebrew word for blessing is barak. It literally means to bow the knee in reverence and awe. The concept of blessing appears very early and frequently in the Old Testament. After God created the fish of the sea, the birds in the air, and humankind, God blessed them, telling them to be fruitful and multiply. When God finished the work of creation, God rested on the seventh day. God blessed the seventh day and called it holy. In Genesis 9 God blessed Noah and his sons and told them to be fruitful and multiply in order to repopulate the earth. God called Abram to leave his home with the promise that God would bless Abram by making him the father of a great nation. There are a number of Old Testament texts that indicate God’s blessing was in the form of wealth, good crops, water, or a restoration of homes and community (Westermann 18). Blessing in the Old Testament has a lot to do with an abundant life and with holiness and reverence.
Blessing is not mentioned as often in the New Testament. Many of the blessings in the New Testament are quotes from the Old Testament or blessing practices that originated with the Hebrew people, such as the blessing of food. The gospel of Mark tells us Jesus blessed the children. Jesus frequently blessed bread before he broke it. In the beatitudes, Jesus referred to the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the outcasts as blessed. And Jesus taught us to bless our enemies and not curse them. The New Testament also gives us the sense that blessing has to do with abundant life as well as holiness and reverence for God. God’s blessing is a foundation of the practice of our faith. Through his example of blessing others, Jesus invites us to continue to offer God’s blessing to others.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the importance of blessing. She says we should bless people and things just because they exist (203). A blessing does not make something or someone holy (203). The holiness is already there. “Because God created everything, all things and people share in God’s own holiness (Taylor 203). When we give a blessing, we actually remind ourselves of the God created holiness in all people and things. We begin to see everyone and everything differently. We begin to treat everyone and everything with a new sense of reverence and awe. Pronouncing a blessing on something or someone is to see it through God’s eyes (Taylor 206). Taylor writes,
“Pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get.
To learn to look with compassion on everything that is;
to see past the person outside to the crying heart within;
to make the first move toward the other no matter how many times it takes to get close;
to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be;
to surrender the priority of your own safety for love;
this is to land at God’s breast” (Taylor 206).
For Taylor blessing others blesses us for we experience a new closeness to God. Blessing others enriches our own lives and deepens our relationship with God.
In the book, The Blessing, authors Gary Smalley and John Trent state that not
only do we benefit from giving a blessing, we need to be blessed. The parental blessing given to the eldest son in Old Testament times was extremely important. For the ancient Hebrew people the father’s blessing designated the eldest son as God’s choice of the man who would carry on the family name and preserve the family property. In the story of Jacob and Esau, Esau, the eldest son, had been tricked out of receiving his father’s blessing. And the Bible tells us that Esau was devastated when he learned his blessing was given to Jacob instead of to him. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “’Bless me, me also, father!’” (Genesis 27:38 NRSV). You can feel the pain and the betrayal and the longing for affirmation in Esau’s cry (Smalley 17). Esau longed for the acceptance and love that a blessing from his father communicated.
Smalley and Trent believe that blessing another is vitally important. A blessing affirms that we are a treasured child of God. A blessing communicates love and acceptance just because we are (23). Jesus offered blessings to children and others to let them know they were loved and accepted in a world in which children were little more than possessions. In our society where performance, success, and appearance are used to judge a person’s worth, the need to bless others is vital. When we offer a blessing to someone, we are saying, in essence, “You are a child of God and because of that and nothing else, you are loved.”
Smalley and Trent advise that blessings should include a meaningful touch (24). A gentle placing of the hand on the head, a hug, an arm on someone’s shoulder. Touch has the ability to break down barriers and convey a real sense of caring and compassion. A blessing should include spoken words of affirmation. People need to hear how others see the holy in them. People need to be told of the gifts that others see in them. As Christians we are called to bless those around us, offering unconditional love and acceptance. We are called to recognize the God-created holiness in each person.
In Jewish families, there is a tradition of offering a blessing to each child during the Friday evening Shabbat meal. In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Remen shares her memories of this custom.
On Friday afternoon, Remen writes, when I would arrive at my grandfather’s
house after school, the tea would be already set on the kitchen table. After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.
When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say “Come,
Rachel.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had slept for even a short nap without my night-light, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah and Leah to watch over me.
These few moments were the only time in my week that I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test, my father would ask “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world
without him in it before and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, “Neshume-le,” which means “little beloved soul.” There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me, and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.
Many years later in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began
to light candles and talk to God herself. I told her about my grandfather’s blessings and what they had meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly. “I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel,” she told me. “I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud.”
God calls us to bless one another out loud. To tell God and each other that because God has created us, we are absolutely enough. Each of us is loved and treasured simply because the light of God lives in us. God calls us to say out loud to one another, you are enough. To say out loud to one another, May God bless you.
Words of individual blessing: God bless you, Name. God has created you and God
Loves you just for being you.
Benediction: May God bless you and keep you; 25 May the face of God shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the joy and kindness of God’s countenance be lifted up to you and give you peace. Amen.
Remen, Rachel Naomi. My Grandfather’s Blessings. New York: Putnam, 2000.
Smalley, Gary & Trent, John. The Blessing. Nashville:Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Westermann, Claus. Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church. Translated by
Keith Crim. Philadelphia:Fortress, 1978.