Ever wonder why we bless those who sneeze?
I recently read the account of a woman was standing in her apartment on the fifth floor of a tall building. Her window was open, and when she heard someone sneeze on the sidewalk below, she yelled out the window, “Bless you!” to which the sneezer, unable to see who exactly had blessed her, turned to the direction of the sound and yelled back, “Why thank you, building!”
I was always told that this sort of bizarre exchange was due to the fact that your heart skips a beat with every sneeze, requiring a special blessing–a sort of prayer–to kick it back into gear, though we now know that our hearts don’t really stop when we sneeze.
Snopes.com, the website that debunks all sorts of urban legends, myths, and false information suggests a number of other possible explanations for this somewhat odd but common exchange that appears in ancient writings from as early as the first century. It was once thought, for example, that a sneeze actually expelled a person’s soul, so the blessing was meant to protect the soul from being snatched up by Satan.
Or, it was the expulsion of an evil spirit, and so the blessing was intended to keep the evil spirit from returning to the body. (I’m not sure what that says about those of you who sneeze in multiples of two or three or seven…more evil spirits than the rest of us?)
Alternatively, but perhaps the most believable: sick people tend to sneeze, and so a sneeze was a sign of impending death and those who are near death need special blessings.
Whatever the origin, it’s clear: a brush with, or the threat of, death calls for blessing.
Every year on this day–All Saints Sunday–we come face to face with the reality of death. We remember those who have died over the past year–in our case, we remember today Bud, Mildred, Verna, Paula, Judy, Shirley, and Ruth. Though we remember them all together today, family and friends of each of these individuals remembered them in individual services during which the most likely spoke of their lives in a positive light. In other words, we gave them eulogies–a word that comes from the Greek for “good words” and that’s just what we give them: good words about their lives.
Today, however, we turn to some words in Matthew’s gospel that don’t necessarily sound so good. The beatitudes are lovely words, often recited and quoted, but you’re not likely to hear them in a eulogy or see them in an obituary. I suppose we could spin the beatitude characteristics of being merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker in an uplifting light, but I’m not so sure about the others. Obituaries and eulogies are meant to highlight the accomplishments and good qualities of individuals, but what kind of accomplishments are being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and persecuted? If we use those phrases, it sounds like we’re describing someone like Eeyore here–well-loved and humble, but hardly a great contributor to the society of the Hundred Acre Wood!
These words suggest a certain amount of vulnerability that most of us would prefer to cover up, both in our loved ones and in ourselves. And since we come face-to-face with the reality of death this day, it is appropriate to acknowledge the truth that, perhaps with the exception of being born and nurtured through infancy, dying is the most vulnerable we’ll ever be. So maybe these words of blessing for those who are vulnerable provide a nice counter to traditional eulogies, for the beatitudes are not about the accomplishments and characteristics of individuals as much as they are about the mercy and goodness of God.
The people who are blessed in the beatitudes are not people who can necessarily pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They are not those whose lives are being preserved, not even by the most skilled physicians. They are, rather, those for whom total dependance on God is absolutely necessary. And, quite frankly, at the moment of death, total dependence on God is our only option.
Of course, your heart doesn’t not need to stop beating for you to experience a type of death. Little deaths happen every day in so many ways. The feeling of inadequacy or disappointment is a type of death that, frankly, makes living difficult.
In my greatest moments of clarity, I long for a that world focused less on our individual accomplishments and more on God’s faithfulness.I know, deep down, that this is the path of life and renewal. But try as I might, I cannot seem to escape, for my own benefit or for that of my loved ones, the obsession with eulogies–good words for good works. As much as I pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, the kingdom described with Jesus’ words of blessings, it will not come in its entirety until God’s kingdom comes in its fullest at the end of time.
Until then, we’ll still be living under the false hope of our good words for good works. And because this hope is false, we will also be living with disappointment and discouragement, and vulnerabilities which we would prefer to hide. This false hope is precisely why we need the beatitudes. We need the reminder that it is okay to be vulnerable because in such vulnerability we are in God’s care. It is okay when our eulogies don’t measure up, because God specifically promises blessing for those who are vulnerable.
That word–blessing–is difficult because it seems to mean so many different things. One scholar has translated it as “happy,” but “happy are those who mourn”? I find that to be a statement that is at many times, simply false, and one that denies a lot of real and important emotions. If, in the midst of grief, someone had told I was “happy” or that I needed to be happy, I’m pretty sure I would have liked to have plugged my ears with cotton. I prefer the way the dictionary defines it: “made holy, or consecrated.” That definition implies that being blessed sets you apart, which is exactly what being blessed in our vulnerability does–it says that we are made holy and set aside for God’s work apart from our pedigrees, or degrees, or successes, or accomplishments. Can you imagine if Eeyore could hear that? It might–it just might–bring him joy.
Who knows exactly why we bless those who sneeze. These days it absolutely seems superstitious and silly, even if it is considered good manners (is it?). Blessing those made vulnerable, however, is real, and serious, and life-giving. So I do bless you, not because you sneezed, not because of your accomplishments or the good words that will one day be said about you,but solely because you belong to God. In the name of Jesus, I bless you. For like the seven saints we remember today, one day, you too will die. And in your deaths you will surrender completely to God’s grace and will fully understand God’s goodness. Until then, in this life complicated by the desire for good words, in every little death you experience, in every disappointment, in every vulnerability, may you also come to depend fully on God, the one who loves you, the one who holds you, the one who brings you life.