The Ancient Tradition of Blessings: A Threshold from the Here and Now into the Future

The word “blessing” comes from the Old English word “blêdsian,” which means to sanctify or consecrate with blood. Blood was life, and so to bless someone was to connect the human to the divine life source, to invoke divine favor upon earthly life. Nowhere is the connection to life more evident than in Deuteronomy 30:16-19, when Moses speaks to the Israelites:

“I command you today to love the Lord your God . . . to keep his commands; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you . . . But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient . . . you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

God pronounced the first blessing in the book of Genesis, after creating the world. He blessed Adam and Eve with the words, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” blessing them with the gift of life.

After Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed them, resulting in death rather than eternal life in the garden. However God had a change of heart, and later offered this blessing to an obedient Abraham: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore . . . and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.”

God was not the only conveyor of blessings; many times they were invoked by one human upon another:

The Aaronic blessing:

“The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make His face shine on you

and be gracious to you.

The Lord turn His face toward you

and give you peace.”

Elizabeth’s blessing to Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.”

Blessings often share these traits:

They are hierarchical in nature (from greater to lesser, i.e., God to His children, an elder to someone younger, parent to a child, priest to the people).

They are spoken.

They often are combined with a touch.

Blessings often mark a beginning or an ending (as in an invocation or a benediction) or a threshold in life: a new day, a wedding, a birth, a graduation, a baptism, leaving home, a new job, a new church, for a journey, a new home, an ordination, a loss, an illness, a death.

A blessing is conferred upon us where we are, but sees us transformed into wholeness in the future through God’s favor. It is the deepest form of wish or prayer for someone. The late Catholic priest John O’Donohue says this in his book Blessing the Space Between Us:

“A blessing is different from a greeting . . . it opens a different door in human encounter. One enters into the forecourt of the soul, the source of intimacy and the compass destiny . . . a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together: where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.”

Celtic blessings, in particular, are written around the ordinary moments in a day or a life: waking, rising, making a bed, starting a fire, baking bread, planting/harvesting crops, taking a journey, going to bed. They are meant to invoke God’s deep desire for our well-being, as individual people and as a community. They are intended to convey God’s divine work through our ordinary lives.

Here are a few examples from that tradition:

Deep peace, pure red of the flame to you.

Deep peace, pure white of the moon to you.

Deep peace, pure green of the grass to you.

Deep peace, pure brown of the earth to you.

Deep peace, pure grey of the dew to you.

Deep peace, pure blue of the sky to you.

Deep peace of he running wave to you.

Deep peace of the flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.

Deep peace of the shining stars to you.

Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.

(Fiona Macleod, 1855-1905)

 

Christ be with you, Christ within you,

Christ behind you, Christ before you,

Christ beside you, Christ to win you

Christ to comfort and restore you,

Christ beneath you, Christ above you,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love you,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

(St. Patrick, trans. C. F. Alexander)

 

Lord of the Elements:

Come like fire and kindle love in our hearts

Come like wind and breathe life into our frames

Come like water and flow through our souls

Come like the earth: sustain and nourish our being.

(from A Holy Island Prayer Book, Ray Simpson, Canterbury Press)

 

God be in your head,

and in your understanding;

God be in your eyes,

and in your looking;

God be in your mouth

and in your speaking;

God be in your heart,

and in your thinking;

God be at your end,

and at your departing.

(Sarum Book of Hours, 1514)

 

These are some examples from various traditions for specific occasions:

Blessing a home:

Bless this house and those within.

Bless our giving and receiving.

Bless our words and conversation.

Bless our hands and recreation.

Bless our sowing and our growing.

Bless our coming and our Going.

Bless all who enter and depart.

Bless this house, your peace impart.

(traditional Celtic blessing)

 

Blessing a journey:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

the rains fall soft upon your fields

and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

(traditional Gaelic blessing)

 

Blessing a wedding:

Now you will feel no rain,

for each of you will be shelter to the other.

Now you will feel no cold,

or each of you will be warmth to the other.

Now there is no more loneliness,

for each of you will be companion to the other.

Now you are two persons,

but there is only one life before you.

Go now to your dwelling place,

to enter into the days of your togetherness,

and may your days be good and long upon the earth.

(Apache wedding blessing)

 

Another wedding blessing:

Blessed are you, God, who created life.

Blessed are you, God, who created loving people.

Blessed are you, God, who unites loving couples.

Bless these two who stand before you as you blessed the first couple in the Garden of Eden.

Blessed are you, God, who grants the joy of marriage.

May we all see the day when the world will echo with the sounds of feasting and singing.

Praised is love, blessed by this union.

(Seven Blessings of Marriage, Jewish)

Blessing caregivers:

Blessed be these hands that have touched life and felt pain.

Blessed be these hands that have embraced others with compassion.

Blessed be these hands that have been clenched in anger.

Blessed be these hands that have withdrawn in fear.

Blessed be these hands that have given and taken away.

Blessed be these hands that have assisted those in need.

Blessed be these hands that have anointed the sick and suffering.

Blessed b these hands that have comforted the dying.

Blessed be these hands that have prepared the dead.

Blessed be these hands that may grow stiff with age.

Blessed be these hands, for they are the hands of the Holy One.

(Blessing of the Hands, adapted from Diann Neu, Johns Hopkins Hospital)

Blessing the oppressed:

May God raise you up

above everything.

Spread out like water of a lake.

Be abundance that never ends,

that never changes.

Be like a mountain.

Be like a camel.

Be like a cloud––

a cloud that brings rain always.

And God promised that it would be so.

(Kenyan blessing from An African Prayerbook, Desmond Tutu, Doubleday

A Christmas blessing:

May the Light of the Word shine upon your path and guide your way.

May the Light watch over you and be a companion to you by night.

May the Light burn in your hearts and shine through your lives by day.

And through your living, may you be a witness of that Light to the world.

(from A Festival of Carols, Pamela Stewart, Shawnee Press)

A few resources:

Richardson, Jan. Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.

​Orlando, FL, Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015.

O’Donohue, John. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

​New York, NY, Doubleday, 2008.

Duncan, Geoffrey. 600 Blessings and Prayers from Around the World. ​Mystic, CT, Twenty-Third Publications, 2001.

Simpson, Ray. Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life. Chicago, IL,

Loyola Press, 1999.

A few choral settings in the Hal Leonard catalog:

A Blessing of Music (Martin)

A Christmas Blessing (Stewart/Larson)

A Blessing To Service (Paynter/Martin)

A Christmas Blessing (Purifoy)

Change the World with Love: A Parting Blessing (Martin, Nix)

God Be in My Head (Schwoebel)

The Lord Bless You and Keep You (Lantz)

The Irish Blessing (Nolan)

May the Road Rise Up (Rouse)

Gaelic Blessing (Lawson)

 

Pamela Stewart is a lyricist and librettist with over 200 published works.
In 2000, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure commissioned her to write a song cycle for chorus and symphony. Twice performed at Carnegie Hall, Sing for the Cure made its European premiere at Royal Festival Hall in London in 2010 and was recorded with Dr. Maya Angelou as narrator. In 2013, her song cycle for piano, solo violin, and men’s chorus entitled Tyler’s Suite debuted, benefitting the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Collaborating composers were John Bucchino, Craig Carnelia, John Corigliano, Nolan Gasser, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jake Heggie, Lance Horne, and Stephen Schwartz. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded the grant for the Suite’s recording. Her choral pieces have received both Editor’s Choice and Merit Series awards from top choral music distributors, and have been honored by Creator Magazine’s “Select 20.” Ms. Stewart lives in Austin, Texas.

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