When someone sneezes in your presence, I wonder what your first reaction is? In this day and age, possibly to get as far away from them as possible. But in more normal times, I imagine for many of us, the response would be an automatic: ‘Bless you!’
But what does it mean? The word ‘bless’ is one of those words which lots of us use, but we’re not sure why. Sometimes it can be patronising – ‘awwww, bless’ – much of the time it’s a comforting soundbite in response to a human nose repulsing germs, which dates back to the days of plague.
Which is all very well – but when it comes to blessing, I fear familiarity has bred contempt. So today, let’s recover its true power – it’s worth it!
The practice of blessing has a long and noble tradition. Indeed it goes back to the very first chapter of Genesis, where God blesses. Interestingly, even before he blesses human beings, God blesses fish and birds first. God then blesses Noah (ch9) and Abraham (ch12). Each time, the blessing gets bigger, and better. And this all reinforces the basic truth: our God is a God who blesses.
Which is really the heart of it, when it comes to what it means for us humans to practise blessing too. At its heart, to bless is to bestow God’s goodness on something or someone. We usually do that in one of two ways: sometimes when we bless we offer a concrete sign of that goodness – we do something practical to help them. At other times, when we bless it’s more of a prayer, naming things we’d like someone to experience, perhaps more in hope than expectation.
In today’s passage, Aaron, inspired by God, declares the most iconic blessing of all. The God would keep us, be gracious to us and grant us peace. And at its heart is this beautiful phrase: that God’s face would shine upon us. Or to use the adaptation quoted in Psalm 4, that God would ‘lift up the light of his countenance upon us.’ (Psalm 4:6)
God is light. And light always shines. It can’t help it. So this blessing is a prayer that God’s light would be directed towards us, for our wellbeing. It’s not just a prayer for us, but also for others. It’s a great prayer to pray over those we love, those in need of comfort and support.
May God’s glorious light shine on us today. And may it shine too on those we bless, in his name.