A blessing is different from a greeting, a hug, a salute, or an affirmation; it opens a different door in human encounter.
– John O’Donohue, “To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing” from To Bless the Space between Us.
Mary and Elizabeth: A teenager and an older woman with no children who, as scripture has it, was “getting on in years” (Luke 1:7). Angels appear, the Holy Spirit intervenes, and each becomes pregnant. It could not be more unlikely.
The record does not tell us why the pregnant Mary “went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth after Gabriel’s strange announcement. Maybe she needed to get out of Dodge and water-well gossip about her “condition.” Maybe she went to help her pregnant cousin. Maybe it was just what she needed to do.
But when Mary enters her cousin’s house, immediately Elizabeth’s baby recognizes the Christ in Mary and “jumps for joy” (Luke 1:41.) John the Baptist, as Elizabeth’s baby will be called, even now is preparing the way for the revelation of Jesus as God Incarnate – first to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and then to the world.
Elizabeth’s reaction comes down to us through the ages: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42).
And it is this that elicits the signature hymn of Advent – the Magnificat. It is in the coming together of the two women, two generations, that Mary recognizes the full import of what is about to happen to her. Mary’s words echo those of Elizabeth – “This is the Lord’s doing – He has looked favorably on me.”
Elizabeth calls forth in Mary, solidifies for Mary, God’s claim on her life. If Mary was still doubtful about what was happening to her, Elizabeth’s baby confirms it. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” Elizabeth responds.
Old Elizabeth and young Mary each carry a piece of the Kingdom of God. The promises God made to His people Israel through Abraham, calling them to be a light to the nations, are about to be seen by the radiance of God Incarnate in Jesus. The New Covenant does not replace the Old Covenant – it illumines it in a new way. The promise – the blessing of the Holy One from the beginning of time – passes from one generation to the next in the acts of these two women. Old Elizabeth can speak to young Mary about that which Elizabeth has witnessed over her long life: that God will reveal God’s self in the communion of two people coming together seeking God’s blessing.
“This intimate scene, this exchange between these two women who find themselves in a stunning intersection of heaven and earth,” says Jan Richardson in The Art of Blessing “is the stage by which Luke describes how God transforms the world. And it rests, in large measure, upon the act of blessing: one woman laying her hands upon another and speaking words that penetrate whatever anxiety and uncertainty may be present in Mary as she sets out into a wild and uncharted terrain.”
The gift of receiving and giving blessings has been bestowed upon us, also, particularly to those coming after us. “When you bless another,” says Richardson, “you reach below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you- namely the soul. Blessing is from soul to soul.”
As God blessed the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, God made clear to Moses that it was God who was the source of their blessing, for that generation and all the ones that would come after them:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27.
We are called to offer this same blessing to all who need it – whether or not they know it – trusting that God will remain faithful to God’s promise.
Questions for Reflection
How does the idea of blessing someone change when you realize God is the source of the blessing?
How might you incorporate the act of blessing others into your daily life?
Recall a time when someone blessed you. How did it feel?
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Beannacht – a blessing from JohnO’Donohue
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you. Read the rest of the blessing prayer.
Blessing in the Chaos – a blessing prayer from Jan Richardson
To all that is chaotic
let there come silence. Read the rest.
ESSAYS AND ARTICLES
The Practice of Blessing by Fiona Koefoed-Jespersen
When a friend blessed her as she said her goodbyes, it felt strange – but strangely beautiful – to realize that ordinary friends can bless each other. Read the reflection.
A Blessing Exercise from Upper Room Ministries
“Blessing is the art of being spiritually present to others in prayer. It is asking for God to surround a particular person or situation with love, healing, and peace” This meditation invites you to bless yourself, your friends, and your enemies. For you to practice.
UK Churches Sing a Blessing over the UK
Dozens of churches from all over the United Kingdom, of all denominations, join to sing a blessing over their countries. An incredible example of what “being church” means. And an inspiration to come together in our country. Watch the video.
Blessing resources from Spirituality and Practice
Book reviews, essays, and practices from the Spirituality and Practice website. Visit the site.
The Art of Blessing by Jan Richardson
During the Advent season several years ago, writer and artist Jan Richardson reflects on St. Luke’s account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. “In this Advent season,” she asks, “how will you use the power you have to bless? How might God be calling you to offer a blessing—or to receive one?” Read the reflection.
How Firm a Foundation – The Art of Blssing by Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager
In her sermon, the pastor of The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme revisits the Beatitudes
“Revisiting these nine beatitudes today can remind us of the blessings of a faith and our beloved church that calls us to enact a world of gentleness, compassion, justice and mercy as the rule of the day.” Read the sermon.
For more resources, see our reading list.