This is a re-post of a post originally written by Chris November 18, 2011 on his blog Sticks as Playthings.
It’s a bizarre little social expectation/superstition that dictates the issuing of a “bless you” after a sneeze. I’m sure it started as some sort of medieval protection against the devil, or a way for the dignified upper class of the Renaissance to save face after a minor public display of bodily functioning. The German “gesundheit!” makes more sense… my understanding is that it translates as “Good Health”, a lesson I gleaned while in the Frankfurt Airport, seeing anti-smoking posters signed by the “Gesundheitminister”, or Minister of Good Health. “Good Health.” I get that. But “bless you” after a sneeze? There are far more uplifting things we could say after a nasal explosion.
And yet I cling to the “bless you”. It has been ingrained in me from an early age. In my family, everyone said it after everyone else’s sneeze; cold & sinus season was a resounding chorus of reflexive ordinations. A visitor to the Lantz residence could reasonably expect a bombardment of blessings – not by virtue of their worthiness, nor by virtue of our outstanding hospitality, but by virtue of their sniffles. That was how it worked.
And there was power to the economy of the “bless you”.
I can vividly recall being upset with my Mom several times over some perceived injustices, and sure enough, several minutes later, she would sneeze. In my great act of juvenile defiance, I would cross my arms, arch my eyebrows, purse my lips, and turn away dramatically in a manner that made clear, “your sneeze shall receive no blessing.” It was damning. I behaved this way with each of my brothers as well. Were they being annoying in front of my cool friends? For at least an afternoon, no gesundheits. Did they lose my brand new road hockey ball? Forget it… today, the blessings are withheld. But fear not! For in my wide and resounding grace, upon the morrow, thy sneezes shall receive verbal reciprocation. My wrath lasts but an evening.
This, I hope you can see, is ridiculous. But it highlights a neglected truth that I and many other Christians often fail to take seriously enough.Read more
Believe it or not, the Church exists to bless the world through God’s presence and power. Followers of Jesus are to be imitators of His life; imitating the life of Christ means actively blessing those around us with our time, our possessions, our rights, our energy, our abilities, our prayers, our money, our virtue, our Truth, our relationships, our love, and our lives. What we have been given from On High (love, grace, justice, truth, daily needs) is ours to re-gift.
And so, if someone is in need of a coat, we bless them with the means to buy a coat; or (more perfectly), we give them our own coat and trust that God will re-bless us in return. If our neighbour asks us to help them for an afternoon with moving some furniture, we lend them our pickup truck; or (more perfectly), we spend all day and night lifting from the knees and trust that God will re-bless us with the time and energy to get our own business finished. If someone says something we don’t like about us, we hold our tongue against retribution; or (more perfectly), we talk it out with them and defend them despite the gossip.
In other words, when someone sneezes, we say “bless you”. And then hand them our own personal monogrammed handkerchief. (People still have those, right?)
This above-and-beyond type of blessing is commonly called “going the extra mile” for someone. And the phrase “going the extra mile” is a direct reference to a teaching of Jesus about blessing others. And this teaching about blessing others is in reference to blessing a certain type of “others”: our enemies.
In Jesus’ world, the Romans reigned supreme, and Jewish people were subject to their every whim. A Roman foot soldier, exhausted during a long march or series of military excursions, could demand a ‘commoner’ to carry their gear for them. Jesus says, in Matthew 5, that if a soldier demands you to carry his gear for one mile, you go the extra mile and carry it two. This is significant because the Jews loathed the Romans, and felt no need to participate in their pagan military conquests. From the perspective of Jesus’ Jewish audience, it would be like a Baptist preacher doing volunteer translation work for jihadist propaganda. It would sound counterintuitive to first century Hebrew Galileans. Aren’t they to organize a holy revolution against Rome, and defend Yahweh’s earthly kingdom of Israel against evil influence? Shouldn’t the Romans be packing our gear across the Judean wilderness?
Several paragraphs up, I described situations in which the relationship is friendly, or at least neutral. The giver of the blessing is in the position of power; naturally, if someone is asking for something, or in need of something, then they are situationally powerless. People are generally willing to see the virtue in this, and will sometimes go out of their way to bless others in this manner.
But what if the tables are reversed? What if the giver of the blessing does so from a position of powerLESSness? Isn’t it a greater act of love to shower blessings on those who persecute us, harm us, demean us, berate us, and hate us?
Jesus says this in Luke 6:
“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:32-36)
Blessings in the face of injustice and broken relationships; blessings on the razor’s edge of abuse; blessings absent of gratefulness and reward. It’s an insane teaching, but completely in line with the life (and death) of Jesus. You bless them above and beyond what they deserve, desire, or demand. This should be easy for me, seeing as I have very few people seeking to harm, hurt, or embarrass me. I am, fortunately, incredibly blessed (must have sneezed a lot as a kid) with very few genuine enemies. And yet the call to bless others abundantly (especially those we disagree with, or who annoy us, or hurt our feelings, or offend our sensibilities) flies directly in the face of my oh-so-human lusts for vengeance, power and comfort. To be a Follower of Jesus’ Way is to turn cheeks, lay down rights, offer necessities, go extra miles, and embrace the rain that falls on the just and unjust alike. Our first response to whomever we encounter (sneeze or otherwise), is Bless You, whether we feel they warrant that blessing or not (because really, what have I done to deserve the blessings I’ve received?). Bless your enemies. Love them – don’t hate them. Love them. Then you will be called children of the Most High.
That means the next time Zoey sneezes while she’s busy telling me off, you will almost certainly hear a (quiet and clipped) “bless you” coming from her Daddy’s lips.
You can read more from Chris here