The Meaning of Blessing
The Meaning of Blessing
Blessing is a common feature of Christian worship. We conclude our services of worship with a commissioning but also with a benediction or blessing. Blessing is an integral part of the marriage rite. Baptismal water and marriage rings are blessed before their liturgical use. Traditionally, church buildings are blessed in a very solemn rite known as consecration. Today I would like to explore the meaning of blessing: what is intended by a blessing.
Some stories in the bible seem to suggest that the power to bless is a force held by certain people because of their place in the order of human relationships. In the story of Isaac and his sons, for instance, Isaac holds a blessing which he intends to give to Esau, his eldest son, before he dies. However, Isaac’s younger son, Jacob, masquerades as the elder brother and tricks his blind father into giving the blessing to the wrong son. The blessing passes almost like an impersonal force, and the deed once done cannot be reversed. Esau weeps and begs his father to bless him too, but Isaac is powerless and the gift remains with Jacob.
Another strand of biblical thought suggests that blessing belongs primarily to God and is given only at God’s initiative. In one story, Balak, king of Moab, watches with horror as the people of Israel march triumphantly towards his land. He hires Balaam, a soothsayer, to curse the Israelites. But God tells Balaam that he has already blessed the Israelites, and warns him not to curse them. When Balaam is pressed by the king of Moab, God allows him to proceed with the ritual but commands him to repeat only what he is allowed to say. Three times Balaam tries to keep his contract with the king of Moab, but three times the words that come from his mouth are words of blessing. It is a lovely irony that the words of Balaam’s unwilling blessing, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel,” are now part of the introduction to the daily synagogue liturgy. (See Num 22–24.)
Some stories tend to imply that a blessing opens the gateway to wealth and success for the person who receives the blessing. In other stories, like the story of Abraham, blessing has implications for the long-range future. God’s blessing of Abraham is a covenant which will extend to future generations. As the story of Abraham’s descendants unfolds, it becomes apparent that a blessing may be withheld because of disobedience. The absence of a blessing then may take the form of judgement.
The first appearance of a blessing in a congregational setting of worship is recorded in Numbers 6. Part of this particular form of blessing is still used by both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Lord commanded Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to use the following words in blessing the people of Israel: May the Lord bless you and take care of you; May the Lord be kind and gracious to you; May the Lord look on you with favour and give you peace. And the Lord said, “If they pronounce my name as a blessing upon the people of Israel, I will bless them.”
In Hebrew thought a name connotes identity. Blessing the people with God’s name identifies them as the people of God. They are, as it were, inscribed with God’s signature.
The first creation story (Gen 1.1—2.3) contains a whole theology of blessing. Some non-biblical creation stories seem to suggest that nature is sacred in itself or may be infused with sacred qualities through the practice of ritual and festival. The creation story at the beginning of Genesis stands stoutly against that tradition. The world is not divine but is here because God made it, and it has vitality because God blessed it. The creation story unfolds in the sequence of the days of the first week, but twice the flow of events is interrupted for a blessing (Gen 1.22 and 28), and a third blessing is added at the end (Gen 2.3). There appear to be two moments in the Genesis view of creation: first God creates, then God blesses. God’s blessing confers the vitality and power which the world will need for its fullness.
Blessing in the Hebrew Scriptures is about life, full and overflowing. God blesses the creatures of water and air. God blesses the man and the woman with fertility and with responsibility for the world. Finally, at the end of the process of creation, God blesses the day of rest. Blessing is not just a gesture of good will. Blessing is a state of well-being given for the fulfilment of creation. It is wholeness. It is everything we have come to understand by the Hebrew word shalom.
We may untangle a sequence of thought in which blessing is presented in the scriptures of the Old Testament:
God blesses all life for its extension and well-being; humans participate in this blessing through procreation and by accepting responsibility for the created order.
People bless people: parents bless their children, ministers bless the congregation, couples bless one another when they marry as a sign of their common participation in God’s blessing.
People bless God as a response to God’s blessing and as prayer for their participation in God’s blessing (see Psalms 103 and 134 as examples).
While the Hebrew Scriptures abound with examples of people blessing each other and blessing God for his goodness, there are few occasions when a blessing is offered for a place. Perhaps a close example is Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, a rite that was clearly intended to inaugurate the use of the new liturgical space he had built. However, his prayer of dedication (1 Kings 8.22–61) is less concerned with the state of the Temple as a blessed place than with the use of the Temple in the piety of Israel. When his prayer is ended, Solomon blesses the people by blessing God (vv. 55f).
As Judaism developed, an elaborate scheme of blessings was created, to be recited on most important occasions of life, including everyday occasions like eating, drinking, being in a storm, on seeing a rainbow, etc. A prayer of this kind is called a “berakah”, because of its opening word in Hebrew. Rabbis taught that “It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a benediction, he commits sacrilege.” Another rabbi said, “To enjoy anything of this world without a benediction is like making personal use of a thing consecrated to heaven, without acknowledging that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’”
Jewish blessings often begin with the formula, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe.” They continue with a statement of the reason why the blessing is offered. A simple blessing before eating bread continues, “who brings forth bread from the earth.” Longer blessings include petitions. Such blessings are prayers related to the ongoing process of life and the fulfilment of God’s creation. Prayer of this kind passed into Christian practice. In the Benedictus, for instance, Zechariah blesses his son John by blessing God for the covenant of salvation (Lk 1.68–79). Paul refers to the Communion cup as “the cup of blessing that we bless” (1 Cor 10.16). However, at a very early date in their history, Christians began to translate the Hebrew word for “blessing” into the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” especially when it referred to the communion. The practice of blessing the food of the communion by giving thanks continued, but other blessings eventually appeared to be prayers in which we ask God to do something quite different. A split was created between blessing and thanksgiving.
If we analyze our traditional Western forms of blessing we find that they tend to suggest that something has to be done to things like wedding rings and candlesticks and vestments and church buildings to make them fit for the holy purposes in which they are to be used. There is an implication that the object in question is not holy but has to be made holy. At this point a return to the Jewish roots of blessing may be helpful. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written: “Contrary to popular opinion, ‘blessing food’ does not add to its sanctity, but the very reverse. Food in its natural state is holy, as it is a creation of God, who is holy . . . . We recognize it as a gift of God by acknowledging God’s holiness in a blessing.
Perhaps it is time to recover this sense that everything which comes from the Creator’s hand is holy and is released for our use by grateful praise and thanksgiving. In doing so we may discover again a vision of the universe as sacramental (and consequently of the environment as a sacred trust). We need to remind ourselves that although not every blessing is a thanksgiving, every blessing is an act of thanksgiving and finds its fulfilment and completion in that central Christian act of worship.
The same point applies to the blessing of people. We bless people not to increase their spiritual dignity but to give thanks for the role they have been called to play within the reign of God and thus to release them to play their part. Every communion prayer is such a blessing: we give thanks for the mighty acts of God and pray that those who gather at the table may be “one body and one holy people, a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Of course our traditional forms of blessing people may continue (e.g., “Almighty God … bless you”), but we should remember that they are prayers of thanksgiving for God’s goodness and grace already received, and for its completion in these people.
And so we cannot separate blessing and thanksgiving. Every prayer of blessing is thanksgiving for creation and redemption, offered in petition for the fulfilment of the divine purpose in God’s people and in the entire world. Prayers of blessing are the return of refracted light to its source. As we go from this place with a blessing, let us ever remember that it is for us a sign of thanksgiving and our recognition that we are the people of God!