Pope Francis just blessed thousands of Harleys in Rome. Millions say a blessing over meals every day. And when we sneeze, there’s always someone quick to say, “God Bless You!” There are blessings for everything, everyone and every situation. Animals are blessed, so are ships and buildings and marriages. But what exactly IS a blessing? What does it mean to bless and what would happen, bless me, if all these blessed blessings were no more?
In the years I was a Christian Minister I said many a blessing. You raise your hands or place them on a head or a shoulder and you say something. Usually you say, “Bless You” or “Blessings” expecting that those words actually DO something. But what do they do? What is really going on? I had to ask myself why I was blessing so much and so many. Did I NEED to bless the person or the food or the bread and wine? Weren’t they already good enough, blessed enough? Did I have the power (or the right) to make them “better”?
In my decades as a Chaplain I also said some blessings, but usually (in my liberally progressive way) I would turn it back on the person or assembly: “We all bless each other here.” I knew I had no magic powers and mystic words that would somehow, someway change the reality of the moment. . . Poof! All is well and good! I sometimes thought saying blessings or giving blessings was a little like the habit some people have of saying “We pray” over and over while praying. That never made any sense. It always sounds so circular and self-conscious without content or meaning.
“The LORD bless you and keep you;” “Blessed are the poor;” “May you be blessed;” “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb;” etc, etc. We all know the scriptures and the traditions around blessings. Countless times we quote the ancient texts or speak “sacred” (magic?) words, expecting something to occur, something to change, without honestly thinking about the What and the Why.
In college and seminary Greek classes I learned that “to bless” is “to make happy” or something along those lines. So, to make happiness happen seems one purpose of blessing. Nice thought. But is that realistic or reasonable? For someone to stand up and say, “Be Happy!” or “May You be Happy!” sounds very lovely, but there has to be something more going on, and there is.
Putting hands on another person and saying a particular word does not, in my experience at least, instantly bestow happiness (or health or anything really). It may make a person or a congregation feel uplifted, and maybe that is ultimately the goal, but why do we do this?