May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace. [Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)]
The Lord instructed Moses that this prayer was to be used by Aaron and his descendants (Israel’s priests) as a blessing for the people of Israel. Since then, this familiar benediction, often said at the end of a worship service, has been used by synagogues and Christian churches throughout the world.
There’s another blessing that’s been around for centuries: saying “God bless you!” after a sneeze. The source of this tradition is murkier than the source of that beautiful benediction. It may have been because of an ancient superstition that the soul left the body during a sneeze; the blessing was a way to keep evil spirits from invading the sneezer while his soul was out wandering. Another notion was that a sneeze expelled evil spirits and the blessing kept those spirits from invading a new person. Some people thought that one’s heart stopped beating during a sneeze so the blessing welcomed the sneezer back from the dead.
Some scholars credit Pope Gregory I with starting this pleasant tradition. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the late 6th century, the Pope commanded unceasing prayer to stop the epidemic. Since sneezing and coughing were plague symptoms, he asked that a sneezer be immediately blessed so he wouldn’t develop the disease. How ever it came to be, “God bless” following a sneeze is considered common courtesy. What does is actually mean when we ask God to bless someone?
A blessing is a divine gift (whether spiritual, physical, or material) that either directly or indirectly affects the life, health, or well-being of an individual or community. As with any true gift, a blessing is offered unconditionally. When we ask God’s blessings on someone, we are asking for God’s divine favor to rest upon him or her. It’s a prayer that God will care for someone and keep that person from harm. It’s a request for God’s kindness and mercy to someone. A blessing asks God to shower someone with His approval and to bring him or her harmony and peace.
We’re not Levitical priests, bubonic plague is not a concern, and we know our spirits don’t run off nor do our hearts stop beating when we sneeze, so we don’t need to ask God’s blessing on someone for any of those reasons. What does God’s command to Moses mean to us? As Christians, we are members of a royal priesthood. As Christ’s priests, we are called to bring His love into this dark and troubled world. Asking God’s blessing upon someone is more than good manners; it’s our job. We shouldn’t save the words “God bless you!” to be said unthinkingly only when people sneeze. As His priests, we should sincerely, thoughtfully, and regularly be asking for God’s blessings upon all of His people. May God richly bless you!