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Following a sneeze into Eternity

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon for the third Sunday after Easter

Atishoo! And you say…?


Why do we say, “bless you” when someone sneezes?

Clearly, we hear the sneeze and one thing we don’t want is for the one who sneezes to be unwell. A cold can be miserable, but there are other, more serious things a sneeze can signify. We don’t want people to suffer, so we say, “bless you!”

We also hear Dick Dastardly exclaim, “curses!” when he has failed, yet again, to catch the pigeon. Whom or what is he cursing, and why? If he is cursing the pigeon, then what he wants is ill-fortune to befall that pigeon… perhaps a falling anvil or a large black ball emblazoned with the word “BOMB”.

“Bless” and “curse” are very much part of our vocabulary, but how does a Christian understand what they are?


We see Balak call upon the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Clearly, this is of great importance to Balak because he wants victory over the Israelites in battle. He says to Balaam, “he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.” What we can understand from this is that for Balaam, blessing is more than wishing good-fortune and cursing is more than wishing ill-fortune. If Balak is right, Balaam’s blessing will make good fortune happen and his cursing will make bad-fortune happen. Balak seems to think Balaam is some kind of magician who can command God. Both Balak and Balaam soon realise that God cannot be commanded to bring about good or bad fortune, but rather He and He alone will determine who is blessed. Balaam finds himself blessing the Israelites rather than cursing them because God will not have His people cursed!

So, it seems to be that blessing is tied in with good fortune and cursing with ill-fortune. That seems to sort it out, doesn’t it? Or does it? There is a problem.


How can we wish God good fortune or ill-fortune? Every day, Christians say, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” and, in the midst of his terrible torments, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die.” God is blessed daily and, most horribly, He is cursed daily but how does this affect His fortunes? It can’t, surely?

The word “bless” is certainly rooted in our understanding of good fortune. Properly speaking “blessed” does mean “happy” and the word “happy” is rooted in fortune, too. It’s the same “hap” in happy as in “mishap” and “happening”. The Latin word for “blessed” is “Benedictus” which literally means “spoken well of”. To the Ancient Mind, to bless someone means to speak well of them, commend them, wish them happiness, and desire to succeed. When we bless someone, we want to see them succeed and grow and flourish. When we curse someone, we want to see them fail, wither and die.

God does not flourish because He is perfect and He certainly cannot wither. In Christ Jesus, we see God Dead AND, crucially, God Alive. On Good Friday, we see Sin, the World and the Devil throw all their curses on God: Our Lord bears the full weight of all Evil upon His shoulders on the Cross. He is cursed for us as He hangs on the tree. Yet, we see all this cursing utterly nullified in His resurrection.


Perhaps this explains to us how the Lord can call blessed those who are hungry, who mourn, the down-trodden and oppressed, because their misfortune is fleeting. We may see Job sitting upon his dung heap together with all those like him in the world, but we also see their cursed lives utterly enmeshed with Christ Jesus’ life. Those who suffer for God’s sake are blessed not because of good fortune, but because God desires their flourishing. He and only He can put that flourishing to good effect. We can say the words, but any word that God speaks makes things happen. It is at His Word that Light comes forth from the Darkness. It is at His Word that we truly receive His Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar transformed from a little bread and a little wine. It is at His Word that goodness happens. When our priests pronounce the blessing, we can be sure that we receive from God something more wonderful than any happiness this world can give us. In blessing us, God shows that Good Fortune and Misfortune in this world are utterly and beautifully irrelevant to our flourishing in His arms.

In blessing things such as a rosary or church linen, God gives them a practical significance by which we can know His presence with us, again going beyond the fortunes of this world.


And when we bless God?

Ah! When we bless God, we are declaring something very wonderful. We are declaring our love for God and seeking to make real in our lives those words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Of course, if we really want to bless God, then we need to work to hallow His name and do His will as He commands it. Doing the will of God will allow our lives to speak, “blessed be the Name of the Lord from this Time forth forevermore.” And all Creation will join with us in that word, “Amen!”

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