“Blessing”: Does It Actually Mean Anything?

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost / Sixth Sunday of Matthew, July 8, 2018
Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today I would like to speak about blessing and cursing. Our epistle reading from Romans 12 ends with this verse: “Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14).

Blessing and cursing have fallen somewhat on hard times these days, I think, not so much because we don’t do those things any more, but because we don’t know what those things are. And since we don’t know what they are, we aren’t consciously making use of them well.

If someone says, “God bless you,” what are they actually saying? They seem to be wishing that God would bless you, but what does it mean that God “blesses” you? Does that just mean some kind of mystical good vibes being bestowed from on high?

And what about places in Scripture like this one, where Paul tells us to “bless” those who persecute us? This is essentially a repetition of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:28, where He tells us to bless those who curse us. Paul adds, “Bless, and do not curse.” What is he telling us to do to those who persecute us, exactly? And what did Jesus mean when He said to bless those who curse us?

Blessing is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, right from the creation in Genesis, where God blesses the creation, including the animals and mankind. Blessing is everywhere. But what is it? Why is it so important? We are used to hearing about blessing in religious language, but what does it actually mean?

Let’s begin with what we know. We can see that blessing and cursing have to do with language. Just about any time the Bible mentions God or someone else blessing, there are words spoken, such as when God creates mankind, where the Scripture reads, “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:28).

So it has to do with language, for certain, and there are different words for different blessings.

In the Biblical witness, we also see that there are sometimes actions that go along with blessing, such as in Mark 10:16, where Jesus places His hands on children and blesses them, or in Luke 24:50, where He lifts up His hands to bless His disciples before the Ascension.

In Leviticus 9:22, the high priest Aaron lifts up his hands to bless the people of Israel. The Psalms also speak in several places about lifting up our hands when blessing the Lord. And in Nehemiah 8:6, while the prophet Ezra blessed the Lord, the people all lifted up their hands and answered, “Amen! Amen!” then bowed down and worshiped God.

So there are also often physical actions, usually using the hands, either laying them on someone or lifting them up before someone.

To get us further into this, I would like to add a story that was once related to me from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Mary Ford. During her time studying in Great Britain, she was the spiritual child of the renowned holy elder Fr. Sophrony (Sakharov), who was himself a disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite.

One time when she was visiting Fr. Sophrony at his monastery in Essex, south of London, she approached him and asked him for a blessing, as an act of greeting to a priest, the abbot of the monastery. Instead of simply greeting her and giving her a blessing, he took her by the wrist and brought her to the church. There, he stood before the iconostasis and put his priestly stole around his neck. Then, very deliberately and solemnly, he lifted up his hand and gave her the blessing.

So what are we to make of all this? First, that a blessing means language is perhaps obvious to those who first heard the word for “blessing” in ancient languages. In Greek, for instance, it is evlogia, which means literally “a good word.” In Latin, it is benedictus, again, “a good word,” specifically a good spoken word.

But we live after the advent of a philosophy called nominalism, which includes the idea that language is basically arbitrary and simply assigned by people to whatever they happen to like. So, the fact that we might use this word or that for something is not because of any inherent meaning in that series of sounds but just because we conventionally agree on it.

And that means that the good words spoken in a blessing don’t necessarily mean anything. How often when someone sneezes and someone else says, “God bless you!” do we actually think that God is going to give a blessing that is going to do something?

But even if we accept nominalism’s ideas about language, there is still the thing that is meant when a blessing is spoken. Whatever words we use to bless, we still intend a blessing. And whatever words God uses when He blesses, He still intends a blessing. The same goes for whatever gestures are made in giving a blessing. These good words are spoken with a specific purpose in mind, with a specific action being intended.

So what is that? What is the point in giving a blessing? Why does God bless? Why do we bless? Why do we receive blessings? Why are there so many blessings in our services, usually spoken as “Peace be to all”? They can’t just be greetings or polite niceties, not if we are to take the Scriptures and all the tradition of our Church seriously.

Blessings have power. And so curses also have power.

If you’re not sure whether you believe me, think about something good that someone said to you that touched you deeply. Or think about a time when you said words to someone that you hoped were deeply meaningful. Now think of a time when someone hurt you by their words or when you tried to hurt someone else with your words. Now think of what a difference those words, either good or bad, made as you remembered them, as they shaped your understanding of yourself, as they shaped your relationship with that other person or with many people in your life.

Words really do have power to shape who we are. And so good words—blessings—have power to do good. And evil words—curses—have power to do evil.

Words spoken by God and by us are inherently creative. They make things happen. God’s power to make things happen in His blessings and curses is much greater than ours, but we also have power in our blessings and curses.

Words are never just words. It is true that our actions can disfigure our words when they do not match. That is why we sometimes say that someone is “just talk” or that we have to prove our words to be true by our actions. But we can’t disconnect words from actions and pretend that words do not matter at all. There is a reason why the devil is called the “father of lies,” and that is because lies are not “mere” words but are actually evil actions—they are curses.

Words do indeed matter. That is why language is so critical to our worship, why God speaks the world into being, why the Son of God Jesus Christ is called in both the Old and New Testaments “the Word of God,” most notably in John chapter 1. He is the Word.

So today we hear Paul telling us to avoid evil, to love one another, to be diligent, fervent, serving the Lord, rejoicing, patient, steadfast in prayer, meeting needs and being hospitable. And then he finally says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse.” Give that blessing, that good movement of the heart in words and hands and actions, and see how God gives that blessing power.

To the blessed Word of God Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

5 comments:

  1. The blessing after sneezing originated,as you know Father,in the time of Plague when people could be dead within a few hours,or a couple of days after the first fit of sneezing . “May God Bless you! ” So it was a hope that God would bless the sufferer,wasn’t it?

    1. It is true that there are sources which indicate this in the medieval period (e.g., a decree by St. Gregory the Great in AD 590), but there are also early Roman sources that mentioned blessings being spoken after sneezes, e.g.:

      “Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observation which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?” (Pliny, Natural History, ca. AD 77-79)

      “‘Bless you, my dear!’ he said, and ‘bless you, bless you!’ at the second and third sneeze.” (Apuleius, Golden Ass, AD 150)

  2. Father, I ask for your blessing.

    I have been listening to your series on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy as it was recommended by a Deacon in Russian Orthodox Mission here in Peoria, IL. ( I am a former Roman Catholic presently attending a Protestant Church). I have inquired before, but nearly 20 years have passed.

    Your research and work in this area is both thorough and inspiring. Thank You.

    I ask for your prayers as I continue to inquire about the Holy Orthodox Church and as I have begun praying the Morning and Evening cycles of prayer. I have also begun attending Matins on Saturday nights.

    Yours,

    Adam Sheehan
    Peoria, IL

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