What’s In a Blessing?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 Genesis 25:19-34

July 10, 2011

What is in a blessing? “Blessing” is an old-fashioned word that we hardly use anymore. It conjures up images of a day when people were far more formal in their language and dress, and especially in how they related to one another. But maybe the whole idea of a blessing is something worth revisiting? Maybe there is something to be gained in giving and receiving blessings as a part of our normal daily fare? The Genesis story of Jacob and Esau is an interesting one, because it tells of two brothers, twins, actually, who vied for their parents’ attention. No surprise there, as all children want their parents to notice and appreciate them, right, and with twins the competition can be even more intense. But Esau and Jacob lived during a time when only one child, make that one son, could receive the father’s blessing. Vying for attention takes on a much more powerful meaning when your whole future livelihood depends upon it. The much-coveted father’s blessing included an inheritance of the family land, animals, servants and all other conceivable wealth. So, for both Esau and Jacob, receiving Isaac’s blessing was important.

The twins had fought one another in the womb, and nothing much changed throughout their lives. As they grew up, we hear that Esau won his father’s favor because he was such a great hunter, bringing his family game so that they had plenty to eat. Jacob was his mother, Rebekah’s, favorite, because he liked to stay close to home, helping her with kitchen chores and becoming a good cook in the process. This is how we get to this point in the story. Isaac is dying, waiting for his beloved Esau to return home so that he can bestow his blessing on him. Jacob has a great stew simmering, that fills the place with its scent. Esau comes in from a long hunting trip exhausted and hungry. Rebekah encourages Jacob to use the opportunity to get what she sees as his birthright, Isaac’s blessing. Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing and therefore the inheritance. It is strange to us that once this is done, once Jacob tricks Isaac, and once the blessing is given, it cannot be retracted. Even as Isaac realizes his mistake and the treachery of Jacob and even Rebekah who had urged Jacob to do this, he still cannot take the blessing back. And he has nothing left to give Esua, even though he wants to, even though he wishes he could.

Thankfully, blessings are not quite that “do or die” these days. In fact, blessings are rather a nice way of affirming someone and surrounding them with protection and love. John O’Donohue, Celtic author and former priest, comments that we do not bless one another enough these days. He says that we have lost the art of blessing, and in so doing have also lost some of the gentle ways of relating to and expressing our care for one another. In the ancient Celtic tradition, people used blessings throughout the entirety of their days and well into the night. The Carmina Gadelica, a group of blessings and prayers collected by Alexander Carmichael in Scotland between 1855 and 1910, includes blessings for almost every aspect of waking life you can think of, from opening the door in the morning to shutting it at night. There was a blessing for the family cow when milking, for starting a peat fire, for cooking the stew, for lighting the candle to see by and for tucking the children into bed.

Blessing each person or creature we interact with, blessing each experience we have throughout a day, blessing the work we do with our hands and with our minds most likely makes a difference in how we approach each of these. For me, the thought of offering blessings as I go along throughout my day, softens the edges a bit. It makes me ever more aware of the fact that each person has a story. Each person has needs and desires, pains and sorrows that I will never know about. If I have it in my heart and mind to bless them when I think of them or see them, I have to conclude that this can only be a good thing. And if I know that there are those who bless me in the same way, it helps me when facing small challenges that throw me off balance the slightest bit as well as larger difficulties.

When I reflect on Esau having to go through his life knowing that he might have had his father’s love, but he could not have his blessing, I imagine that this must have affected him in painful ways. After Isaac’s death, Esau had to leave his home and the land he had become a part of in his growing up years. He had to leave behind almost everything, and set out to find his own way in the world, knowing that his brother whom he must have had at least a little affection for, and his own mother had put this plan in motion. This could not have been easy, and his heart must have been heavy as he walked away from all that he knew. There is a story that tells a similar tale, of a widowed mother of three girls who sends them off to seek their fortune. She only has 3 small cakes of meal to send with them, and asks each daughter in turn if she would rather have a full cake and no blessing or a half cake and her mother’s blessing. The two oldest daughters are anxious to take their leave of their mother and of the place that they imagine to be holding them back from discovering their true fortunes. They each take a whole cake and rebuff the mother’s blessing. Only the youngest daughter says she would like her mother’s blessing, and is willing to forgo a half a cake for that blessing. As you might imagine, the youngest daughter proves through a series of adventures and misadventures, that her appreciation for the gift of her mother, and her own innate wisdom, enable her to succeed where her sisters fail. She ends up saving all of their lives and bringing her mother back enough of a fortune to set them all on solid ground for a good and fulfilling life. I think she wins the hand of the prince as well, but that is probably overkill.

The point is, that if you recognize the value of a blessing, then you probably recognize a whole lot more than that. The parable Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel reading is a familiar one to us. And it relates to this whole concept of the value of blessing in that the good, rich soil in which we need to live our lives is the soil of blessing. The seeds that would grow in our lives cannot grow without some help. If they land on ground that is not prepared, then the seeds will not be able to grow into anything. Even if they sprout, finding a small amount of dirt and gathering a tad of moisture, they have no way of surviving. They have no way of producing any fruit at all. They just don’t have it in them. My sense is, that there are a lot of folks out in the world these days who are like the seeds who have been thrown on rocky soil and barren earth. There are many who get trampled underfoot as a normal part of their growing up in their families and in the community of which they are a part. Maybe one way we, as Jesus’ followers might interpret this parable is to see it as our responsibility to provide some rich soil where we can, for whom we can. Maybe all it takes is to hold that understanding of the power of blessing in our hearts, and enact it in our daily lives. Are there ways we can offer blessings to those who need them? Are there ways that we can embody blessings in situations that desperately need a touch of this grace? Can we begin by counting ourselves blessed, no matter how challenging our lives might be. Can we seek out the blessing wherever it might be found, let it soak into our own souls, and then, when we are able, turn outward and offer that blessing to those around us? I don’t think blessings always have to be spoken, although they can be. Sometimes, all we need to do to create a different atmosphere, an atmosphere in which growth and life and joy can happen, is to imagine blessing to be there resting on everyone and everything. We are indeed blessed. God has given us so much. We just have to recognize the blessings for what they are. I close with one of John O’Donohue’s blessings, one called On Waking.

I give thanks for arriving

Safely in a new dawn,

For the gift of eyes

To see the world,

The gift of mind

To feel at home

In my life.

The waves of possibility

Breaking on the shore of dawn,

The harvest of the past

That awaits my hunger,

And all the furtherings

This new day will bring.