Advent, Day 23: Be blessed.

Today’s reading: Luke 1:39-45

I have come to believe that we don’t do enough blessing in our lives today. Yes, we do things that might be intended or interpreted as blessings–we offer kindnesses, say encouraging things, help when help is needed. But we don’t often specifically bless someone, not in the sense of literally saying the word. And we “bless the food” at dinnertime by offering up a thank-you prayer to God, but, again, the “blessing” is not so much literal as just a type of prayer.

I grew up marking the days of Hanukkah at this season, just as my dad did with his father, who was Jewish. I didn’t know it at the time but the prayer–no, the blessing–spoken over the menorah became part of my own mental prayerbook: Blessed art Thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who hast kept us in life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. I can hardly help but incorporate the “Blessed art Thou” formula into my writings and prayers.

Since then I’ve learned more about the Jewish tradition of blessing; the springtime Passover festival includes blessings for bread and wine and handwashing and bitter herbs and pretty much everything else that happens around the table. In fact, the whole Jewish year–the whole Jewish life–is marked by blessings. Literal, actual, use-the-word blessings.

This is what Elizabeth was doing with her young cousin Mary: living into this long tradition of offering blessing to others, and to God. This text is such a powerful example of the relationship between women, both of whom were experiencing God’s activity in highly unusual ways. (How’s that for an understatement?) But what I find really interesting about this story is that it is a powerful example of the importance of blessings. Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary and her baby functions as a prayer, but also as a commission, as an affirmation, and as a commitment: a commitment to the relationship that exists, and the relationship that was growing in the wombs of the two women. Blessing doesn’t happen all alone. It happens only in relationships: between people, and between us and God.

Surely Elizabeth and Mary, both newly pregnant, both carrying children who would become men of God in ways the mothers could not begin to understand, must have leaned heavily into their relationships with Yahweh. And prayed:

Bless the Lord,
o my soul;
and all that is within me
bless God’s holy name!
(Psalm 103:1)

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