When I was growing up, a simple invitation to dinner at a friend’s house could set off a small wave of panic in my mind. The thing that terrified me was the possibility that, as the family settled at their dinner table, the presiding parent, mom or dad, would smile at me and suggest that I “ask the blessing.”

The “blessing” of food was not a ritual we practiced in my home. I would be astonished if my father called for a holding of hands at our table while he intoned a request to the Lord to “bless” our meatloaf. If we had any ritual at our dinner table, it would be my mother’s inquiry as to whether I had washed my hands before coming to the table. I became pretty devout about hand-washing at dinner time, but I never learned the appropriate words to “ask the blessing.”

On those unavoidable occasions when I sat cornered at an unfamiliar dinner table, invited to “ask the blessing” and feeling the expectant and hungry eyes of my friend’s family focused on me, I must have stammered out a few disjointed phrases seeking the “blessing” of the food we were about to eat. Those were not my best moments, and I did not often dine at friends’ houses.

The whole business about blessing things baffles me to this day. In spite of my lack of comprehension, I am compelled to use the word in some situations. For example, if somebody sneezes nearby, I will say “bless you!” It is an automatic call and response reflex. It is good manners, but what does it mean? Why do we ask a higher power to “bless” the sneezer?

Which of the several dictionary definitions applies here? Are we asking for the sneezer to be “consecrated” or “made holy?” Does the sneeze call for us to “feel gratitude toward” the sneezer or to “seek divine favor” for the sneezer? Do we seek “approval” for the sneezing? Do we call for the sneezer to be “favored,” “endowed,” “congratulated,” “gladdened” or otherwise “glorified” for sneezing?

I am baffled by blessing, whether in the sneezing context or in many other common blessing situations. For example, it has been suggested that I “count my blessings.” Here, I suppose it is meant that I take account of those good things that life has given me. I should be thankful for my health, for my family and friendships, for my abilities and my accomplishments. Whatever counts as a “blessing” should be counted. I don’t know why the number of blessings should be important to me.

And then there is the expression “God bless.” It is an expression commonly used by politicians at the conclusion of a speech, as in “God bless the United States of America!” It is a blatant supplication to a higher power to grant our nation special favor or holy protection. This overt manifestation of the ideology of American exceptionalism, however, makes me uneasy. It seems to me that there are many other perfectly good countries in the world that should be as worthy of divine favor as our own.

“God bless” is also utilized as a stand-alone expression, sort of a general purpose salutation. In place of the serviceable but mundane “good bye,” some people affect the more sanctified “God bless!” upon a parting. The expression is frequently added as a codicil in black marker on those corrugated cardboard signs held by the evidently homeless on street corners. It seems vaguely ironic for the beggar to be calling on a higher power to show favor when what is really being sought in that situation is the favor of a few bucks from a passing motorist.

Really serious blessing comes in the form of the two-syllable past participle of “bless.” The Beatitudes spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are most commonly expressed orally today using the two-syllable form: “Bless-ed are the meek, for they will inherit the world.” I don’t know what evidence there is that Jesus himself warped “blessed” into a two-syllable preciousness. Personally, I have my doubts. I think He would have chosen to be more plain-spoken and less pompous about it.

The Beatitudes usefully tell us who should be blessed and why. Without this useful context, we don’t know the who or the why for the unadorned imperative, “Blessed Be.” This expression might be heard, for example, as a hushed benediction at the conclusion of a sermon or religious service. Using the two-syllable form—“bless-ed”—makes the words somehow more magical but less comprehensible. One may well wonder who Ed Bee is and why he warrants our blessing.

There is a quaintness about the benediction, but its meaning is ambiguous. It could be an admonition to the congregation to “be blessed,” but being blessed is a passive activity. Someone else must do the blessing, and the blessee has nothing to say about it. On the other hand, “blessed be” may be a kind of universal acknowledgement that all is blessed. While that may be true, if all is blessed, then blessing becomes a hollow and indistinct characteristic. If all is blessed, what is blessed?

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