Thirty minutes before our son and his fiancee walked down the aisle to exchange vows for a lifetime, the rabbi steered them into the large dining room of the house adjoining the chapel. We parents of this interfaith couple stood with them, alongside 10 elegantly dressed men and women from their wedding party. 

The rabbi announced our purpose. We were going to convert the freshly opened bottle of red wine on the table into a “carafe of blessing.” In time, all of us would pour a small portion of the wine into the empty carafe, carry the carafe over to the couple and whisper our own private blessing to Jacob and Rachel. The rabbi led by example. Each of us followed in turn. With one hand holding the carafe and the other on their shoulder, we looked the couple in the eye and spoke our own impromptu blessing upon their lives and marriage. Then we kissed them on the cheek and brought the carafe to the next person to engage the same ritual.

It was a peaceful moment of holy togetherness. The carafe held the wine for the Kiddush cup of the ceremony from which the couple also drank during the reception afterward. Our individual blessings accompanied them through every sip of their afternoon and evening. 

Blessing another person can feel awkward and uncomfortable. We’re not used to such demonstrative stuff in our Christian culture. Heck, I haven’t kissed my boy on his cheek since he was 9 years old. Those groomsmen and bridesmaids had never experienced anything like they did in that dining room, when they suddenly had to come up with deep and honest words to bless their best friends for life. But none of them would have traded the moment for anything. That was obvious.

To bless another person involves more than communicating some vague expression of goodwill, though we often do that when someone sneezes. The act of blessing actually transfers a portion of our soul’s energy and vitality into the soul of another. This is what happens when parents lean over their child’s crib to sing a lullaby or pray their little one to sleep. This speaking a word of grace and power is what occurs during a Christian healing service when participants discover, through the anointing grace of a friend or pastor, that the Lord’s grasp on their life is stronger than the grip of any personal affliction besieging them. 

The origin of all blessing comes from God, of course. The ancient Hebrew people understood blessing mostly in terms of material prosperity and success. Jesus of Nazareth altered that understanding to include spiritual well-being and joy. (Read the Beatitudes for hints of this revision in Matthew 5:1-12.)

In Genesis 12, God is the one who blesses Abram and, through Abram, all the families of the earth. The way in which blessing gets passed along to others through Abram, and through his descendants and us, makes clear that God’s blessing ought never stop with the recipient. We are meant to be conduits of blessing, not reservoirs. 

As German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, blessing is not privilege; blessing confers responsibility. God does not bless us to the exclusion of others, but instead blesses us for the benefit of others. This is why Christians do not spend their best energies counting their blessings. They give thanks for them and share them.

A word of caution: It can be easy to confuse happiness with blessing. Happiness is that sweet spot we feel with the world around us when our circumstances fall together in a positive way or our experiences bring pleasure. The countertop we selected for the kitchen turns out to look fabulous. The vacation flight and hotel arrangements fall into place with beautiful precision. The kids are playing well together. We’re happy.

Blessing is that sweet spot with God that never ends. We don’t seek this blessing any more than we can arrange our lives to be “right” with God. This blessing just comes — steadily and persistently. It shows up even when our circumstances are less than ideal.

This quiet contentment for life with God may be what prompted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to remark: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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