Life is dangerous. Our travels can be hazardous in bad weather. We get sick and injured. We get our hearts broken. We get tides of bad luck when everything goes wrong. We do not have a nice weekend. We suffer and die.
Get well soon!
The language of blessing gives voice to our need to comfort others, to marshal the forces of goodness and healing in the universe to stand between those we love and the harm which must, sooner or later, befall them. We weave a shelter of words and intentions for health, safety, protection, and luck around them, hoping it will be enough, knowing it won’t.
I’m thinking of you.
Religious believers have ready-made blessings. Some friendly evangelical Christians I knew when I was a teenager used “God bless you” both as a parting greeting and as an all-purpose blessing for any need. Jews have different blessings for hundreds of purposes: for eating particular kinds of foods, for seeing a rainbow, for the healing of the sick, for the safety of travellers, for putting on new clothes, and yes, even for the czar. Quakers use the beautiful, poetic expression, “I hold you in the Light” to friends in need or distress.
Secular people, whether atheist, agnostic, or just reserved about their religion, have awkward, unsatisfying substitutes for blessings. Some are ungrammatical (what, please, is the subject of “Safe home”?), or lack agency (“Best wishes!”), or simply sound hollow (“Good luck,” as Holden Caulfield observes, is just depressing). They promise too much (“Have a great vacation!”) or too little (“Have a pleasant afternoon!”). They lack the poetry of “The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Namaste sounds musical, and some yoga teachers translate it creatively, but since it is Sanskrit for no more and no less than “I bow to you,” it doesn’t really qualify. What we say because we cannot say “God bless you” comforts neither the blesser nor the blessed.
You know you’re living in crazy times when the choice of saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” can start a fight. It seems silly to argue over something as unimportant as a greeting. But are those greetings, or blessings? Blessings can be worth fighting over. Ask Esau.
God Jul! (Good Yule!)
What we celebrate at this time of year, believers and non-believers alike, is the hope of survival. The celebration of the winter solstice, or Yule, is older than Christmas, older than Hanukkah, perhaps older than civilization itself. We kindle flames, feast on fattening foods, sing, drink, play games, give gifts to each other and to the poor. We have done so forever, since before either the birth of Jesus of Nazareth or the victory of Judah Maccabee. When the sun barely appears, when darkness and cold oppress and frighten, when snow and ice hide the life-giving earth, humans need a holiday that promises light, warmth, safety in numbers, food, and the return, someday, of summer.
Yule, no matter what retailers do to make it all about consumerism, or Bill O’Reilly does to make it all about politics, speaks to a human need so deep that it has survived artificial light, central heating, and the year-round availability of strawberries. It has survived Oliver Cromwell, A Very Brady Christmas and those dogs that bark Jingle Bells. It has survived Hanukkah bushes, frozen latkes (are you people kidding?), and that gigantic Chabad menorah on Fifth Avenue. It will survive the War on Christmas and the secularization of public life in the United States. Yule is too large, too profound, too necessary to perish.
God bless us, every one!
So, bless me any way you want. Wish me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah, God Jul, or Happy Holidays, or even a Safe Home (whatever that means), and I will wish you the same. When I am sick or sad or in danger, bless me with the aid of the God or gods of your choice, or none. I will be grateful for whatever blessing you offer.
And I, in turn, will hold you in the Light.