Seize Each Sneeze
In my childhood, many Christians refused to say “God bless you” when others sneezed, in order to avoid perceived superstition. No one is sure when the sneeze blessing started. But the story I grew up with is that centuries ago, superstitious folks thought that sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body, which prompted well-wishers to pray a quick blessing-shield over the sneezer to block the demons’ return.
Another version is that people feared that sneezes could eject the soul from the body; no doubt, an unfortunate occurrence that would be worthy of a blessing! But whatever the alleged superstition they wanted to avoid, many Christians used to ignore sneezes rather than bless them. Under this influence I grew up barely even noticing when people sneeze; which explains why a lot of people who’ve sneezed in my presence have gone unblessed! Sorry about that!
The more likely origin of this custom dates to the plagues; when sneezing was a symptom and spreader of disease. Every sneeze hinted at death, inspiring folks to offer a quick healing blessing over the sneezer. In this light, our recent COVID experience—think of the nervousness felt when people have coughed or sneezed in our presence—may help us understand the impulse behind the custom.
Whatever the origin, since no one superstitiously connects sneezing to a self-induced exorcism any more, there’s no good reason not to answer a sneeze with a blessing (not that there ever was). Instead, if a sneeze reminds us to bless others, then by all means, let us seize each sneeze to pray God’s favor upon them!
Blessings and Benedictions
In truth, we shouldn’t wait for a sneeze to bless others. I’m currently in a cover to cover study of the Bible to find every time a blessing or benediction is either commended or commanded in Scripture; and am discovering that blessings and benedictions form a standard Bible way for people to say Hello and Goodbye. For example, Paul begins and ends nearly all his letters with a blessing. Some form of “Grace to you” forms his standard greeting and/or farewell. Such blessings are actual prayers that extend God’s grace to others.
Hints of this ancient biblical practice trace down through time to our present day. Goodbye is a modern version of an old English word “Godbwye” which was a contracted form of a four-word blessing, God-be-with-ye. Similarly, the Spanish adios, means literally, to God; an abbreviated way of entrusting someone into God’s care.
Try to greet people with, “[May] the LORD bless you and keep you; [may] the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; [and may] the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:23-27)—and then go to war with them. It’s hard to do! It isn’t easy to pray that God would shine his smiling face on others while our face is wearing a scowl.
When sincere, blessings bestow divine grace upon others and produce relational grace in us. Both are very good reasons to learn how to say Hello and Goodbye all over again.
Tim Shorey is married to Gayline, his wife of 43 years, and has six grown children and 13 grandchildren. In his 40th year of pastoral ministry, he now helps to lead Risen Hope Church, in Delaware County, PA. Among his books are Respect the Image: Reflecting Human Worth in How We Listen and Talk, 30/30 Hindsight: 30 Reflections on a 30-Year Headache, and his recently released An ABC Prayer to Jesus: Praise for Hearts Both Young and Old. To find out more, visit timothyshorey.com.