What’s in a Blessing? And What Difference Does It Make When People Sneeze? 11

A while back, a fellow blogger asked the following question in a comment on my post, “Blessed Are the Merciful, They Will Be Shown Mercy.

I have pondered the words bless, blessed, and blessing three words we, myself included, use a lot. I decided I do not know the real meaning of them. So I got out the dictionaries and still cannot come up with an understanding for the way we us these words. Can you please help me make a clear meaning of these three words?

Great question!

Now before I get started, I feel obliged to say that the expert on blessings is my good friend and co-blogger on Biltrix, Fr Jason Smith. I think he could also be inspired to weigh in on this topic from a ministerial standpoint in a separate post.

In this post, I first want to point out the difference between the words blessed and blessed (Yup, there’s a difference) and then talk about why we bless people and things, like when we buy a new house, pray before meals, or when people sneeze.

Why do we say "God bless you!" when people sneeze?

Why do we say “God bless you!” when people sneeze?

Blessed and Blessed (that’s pronounced “Bless’ed” and “Blest”)

The question my fellow blogger (James @ Men of One Accord) asked had to do with blessings, primarily. Again, the post where he asked the question was “Blessed are the merciful…” That is important to note, because we need to make it clear that we are dealing with two different things.

There’s a semantic distinction between the words “blessed” (bless’ed) and “blessed” (blest), which have the same root in English but not in other languages. It depends on whether the word “blessed” is used as an adjective or as a participle.

And you thought the pronunciation was just a matter of good King James English. It’s not.

The word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) in the original Greek is the adjective makarios (makarioi, pl.), which really means “happy.” That’s why some English translations read, “Happy are the poor in spirit…” In Latin the term used is beatus(-i, pl). Hence the expression “The Beatitudes.” As an adjective, this word should be pronounced “bless’ed,” as in “Blessed John Paul II.”

Similarly, the adjective naked is pronounced “nak’ed,” not “nakt.” It would sound funny if someone were to say, for instance, “Adam and Eve hid themselves when they realized they were //nakt//.”

Speaking of Adam and Eve…

"Drat! We've been nakt! And by a snake of all creatures!"

“Drat, Eve! We’ve been nakt! And by a rackin’ frakin’ snake of all creatures!”

Ehem! Speaking of Adam and Eve… The state of bless’ed-ness (i.e., beatitude) is precisely what they lost about the time they realized they were nak’ed (does that help?). From then on, there would be no rest for the wick’ed (or the wickt either, for that matter).

To the contrary, “The Bless’ed” are those who enjoy the eternal bliss of the Beatific Vision in heaven. Now we can make more sense of what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Their happiness in this world is not involved in material things, and hence eternal beatitude (happiness) is their reward.

Now for ‘blest’, not ‘bless’ed’ — unless, of course, you are reading the Douay-Rheims Bible or praying the Angelus 

Another place where we find the English word “blessed” in the New Testament is when Elizabeth greets the the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Blessed are you among women.” The Greek term used in Luke 1:42 is not the adjective makaria, but the participle from the verb to bless, eulogomene (in Latin, benedicta).

As a participle, the English word “blessed” should be pronounced blest (which is also an alternative spelling for that word). Hence, Elizabeth called the Bless’ed Virgin blest (but when we pray the rosary or the Angelus, it’s usually pronounced ‘bless’ed’ as a matter of convention — as they say, don’t rock the boat!).

Regarding my fellow blogger’s question, the words “blessing” and “to bless” are related to the participle blest, not the adjective bless’ed. So from now on we will focus on that sense of the term.

To understand the meaning of the word “bless” as we use it today, we should consider the etymology of the Greek and Latin cognates used in the Gospel. In the most literal sense the Greek and Latin verbs eulogeo and benedico both mean “to speak well of,” i.e., to praise.

In the New Testament, the term takes on a new nuance, since now we are dealing with the theology of grace. In a Christian context the verb has the following meanings:

  1. to invoke blessings (e.g., Bless the Lord my soul!), as opposed to curses (e.g., Yosamite Sam: “Rackin’ frackin’ varmint!”)
  2. to consecrate a thing with solemn prayers
    1. to ask God’s blessing on a thing (e.g., an item set aside for religious use only, such as a rosary)
    2. pray God to bless it to one’s use (e.g., “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts,” or “May God bless this Bible and all who use it to proclaim his holy word”)
    3. pronounce a consecratory blessing on (e.g., Bless these your servants who freely will to consecrate their lives to you)
  3. of God
    1. to cause to prosper, to make happy, to bestow blessings on (e.g., A famous Irish blessing: “May the sun always shine on your face and the wind be at your back”)
    2. favored of God (e.g., eulogomene su en gynaixin, “Blessed are you among women!” — Luke 1:42)
  4. something we say when people sneeze (e.g., God bless you!) — More on that, later…

In all instances, a blessing is something spoken on behalf of something else with the intention of bestowing favor, grace, or good wishes upon it. The opposite of a blessing would be a curse. Both a curse and a blessing is something we do with our mouth.

The same mouth can be used to bless and to curse. When we curse — or as New Englanders say, “cuss” — we use our mouth to speak ill or condemn someone or some thing. When we bless, we speak well of, praise, or extol the person or thing. In both instances, the words express what is in our heart: love or hatred.

When we ask God to bless, normally our intention is to sanctify the person or thing, that is, either to make the person or his work holy, or to designate the object as something set aside for religious use only. For common objects we would not set aside for religious use, the blessing is for the wellbeing or protection of the one who uses it when they use it properly and for good purposes. For example, the blessings we say at meals (saying grace) is for the family and for those who prepared the food, not for the sake of consecrating the food (for which we give thanks).

Sneeze blessings are a little different. It’s an oddity in English. When people sneeze in other languages the typical response is, “To your health!” (not really but something to that effect) or else they just ignore the sneezing person like nothing out of the ordinary happened. In English, however, we like to invoke God when people sneeze. I never really understood why that was, but hey, it’s a nice thing to do. It makes everyone feel cheery afterward.

After all, it’s a free blessing! Take advantage of it.

I hope that was all clear and not too convoluted. And if you made it through all the pedantry, I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and God bless!

11 comments

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Blessing? And What Difference Does It Make When People Sneeze? - CATHOLIC FEAST - Sync your Soul

  2. I used to sent a gift of $$ to our pastor and his family every Christmas anonymously. I always included a letter which I hoped would be a ‘blessing’.
    One year I tried to find out exactly what the word bless, blessing meant. So I defined it for them and then blessed them. Great post! We all use terms we think we understand but sometimes really we don’t.

    • As the song goes, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… So I thought a few cartoons might go well with this grammar study.

      Thanks, Terry and God bless!

  3. Excellent post, my friend!

    I’d always heard as a kid that it was an old custom meant to warn off evil spirits, as it was believed that you could basically sneeze your soul out of your body.

    The alternate meaning I heard many years ago now was that it was attributed to Pope Gregory, during the Bubonic plague around the 6th (?) century (…assuming I have my timeline right at this point).

    I don’t believe that either of these origins have been proved, or disproved.

    So, I’m with you, James.
    Free blessings?
    Sure, I’m in!

    • I heard something similar. One urban legend has it that when you sneeze your heart skips a beat. Even so, the sneeze to mortality rate can’t be all that high. On the bright side, it’s an effortless way to rack up free blessings during allergy season.

  4. I am sooooooooooooo glad I am not the only one who ask you questions. The wonderful thing about you is, “the answers!” What would we do without you and thanks so much for this. God Bless, SR

  5. Sir James, I had no idea to the depth of my question! Thank-you for the time and great effort to put into answering this question. Thank-you for your words have placed joy into my heart! Thank-you helping me understand there are free blessing out there to give and receive! On the free blessing count me all in Also! God Bless, from the James of Men of One Accord.

    • Thanks James. And thank God the blessings abound for all of us. Since we are both Jameses I thought I’d add a little something here I left out of the post, from the Epistle of Saint James (3:9-10):

      With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers.

      Here James suggests that we should be more generous with our blessings. With that, count on my prayers and God bless you!

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