Bless You! The Last Blessing
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?
Here are some reasons I think we continue this whole blessed business of blessing:
1) A blessing assures us we are making God very happy (it’s really about GOD’S happiness, not ours. Before you say that God is happy when WE are happy, hold that thought. Do you really think that or believe that? That may be the Religion of Happy but that has little to do with any historic religious tradition I know of).
2) A blessing asserts and affirms that the one who is blessing (usually in a robe and collar) speaks for the Creator of the Universe and their touch is the Touch of God (it’s mostly about the Blessor more than the Blessee).
I’m sure there is much more going on here, but let’s really stop and think about this. Making God happy, bringing pleasure to the Lord of the Universe, may bring to mind the line from the Gospels, “In you I am well pleased.” Yes, heavenly words spoken to Jesus, but the intent is the same. We want to know, to desperately be reassured, that God is pleased with us and with what we do. “God Happiness” makes us feel better, makes us happier. Is this what is happening? If we’re so worried about pleasing or displeasing God I wonder how a word or gesture will make us feel better.
“Blessed (happy) are the Poor.” Really? I’ve never understood that one. I know people who are really very poor and they might say from time to time that they feel “blessed.” I see no need to put that down. Yet, using blessings often appears to serve the unspoken (maybe unintended) purpose of keeping people poor, in their place, where God has put them in order to bless them! Blessing a person who is poor, just because they are poor, assures them (and us?) that God is happy and takes great pleasure in their poverty. Once again, a blessing assures the suffering person (no matter what economic situation) they are being “watched over,” cared for, not only by “higher hands” but the “holy hands” of God’s own blessed representatives on earth: Ordained Clergy (skilled professional Blessors chosen by other Blessors). I know, I was one.
Here’s the rub that rubs me the wrong way. When I was the Blessor it made me feel quite special, almost like I had special powers few others had. It felt at times that I was passing along something, onto someone’s head or bread. “God Bless” was another way of saying something we would never say outloud: “As I touch you, God touches you; my words are God’s words to you; you need to come to me (or another special toucher like me) to feel and hear and know God’s pleasure.”
Ouch. Now, wait. I know the arguments, especially from the robed Blessors—“I would NEVER say that or even think that! It makes people feel God’s presence when I touch their head or their bread, their house or their child. We are simply and sacredly symbolizing God’s good pleasure toward ‘His’ people and ‘His’ creation. This is not a power-thing at all!”
Alright, I hear you; I understand. But, sorry, I can’t accept or even respect that. I don’t need to argue or belabor the point. But it seems quite clear to me and I think the time has come to disrobe the dishonesty. This is the age-old issue of Who is My Mediator and Who “Represents” God? Who can stand between a person and their idea of God? Who stands above (even one inch above) another person, the rest of humanity? Who is just a bit more blessed and thereby more pleasing to God? Who can raise their hands, who is authorized to place their hands on the head of a child or a dying person or the handlebars of a Harley and assure all who are watching that they themselves can assure us of anything, especially assure us we are in the good graces of the Great Power Over All?
I must ask, do YOU know if and when God is happy? Do YOU feel you know how the Creator of the Universe feels or thinks? Should the rest of us mere mortals sit back and look up to you, asking for your blessing? Or should we ask for a hug once in a while, a handshake, a handout or a hand in our times of joy or suffering?
If you, who claim to “bless” us, who offer us consolation or comfort or confirmation of a blessing from above or beyond, if YOU truly share our full humanity down here on the “blessed” earth, then maybe, just maybe, WE, believers and unbelievers alike, may offer you a hand or a hug when you feel the need, when you need some happiness. Wouldn’t that be more honest? You see, in the end, we really need no blessing at all. Why would you or I need that ever again?