Sneezing – God Bless you !

I was sitting on the bus traveling from my office due to an issue with my motorcycle that needs repair.    While I was sitting there, the bus stopped to pick up some passengers, and among them was a mother, and her teenage daughter.    The girl was somewhat absorbed in reviewing a map of a theme park that she wanted to visit, and was telling her mother all about the places she wanted her mother to take her to visit and the rides and things to see.

The mother was happy to listen and patiently listened while her daughter rambled on about each place rather excitedly.  In the midst of their conversation, the young lady sneezed.  I leaned forward a bit and said “God bless you !”  rather quietly.   The mother said thank you.. and after a short pause, the girl started talking again about her visit to the park..  The mother looked over at the girl and gave her one of ” THOSE Motherly looks”.. you know the one I mean.. “the disapproving” , “you need to respond and sooner rather than later” looks..  The girl said ” What?” and the mother responded, tell the nice man “Thank you”….  to which the young lady responded, turned her head slightly and said ‘ Thank you”… and then continued on her discussion.

While the journey moved forward, I contemplated the idea how odd it is that people responded in such a way, and are they truly aware of what happens in the interaction ?  Are they responding as a person of faith, or simply in a Pavlovian , ingrained, response to the cultural requirement of polite society ?  Is the question, or response truly appropriate for a person of faith ?

We are trained from the beginning of childhood from our parents, if we are fortunate, to respond to the act of sneezing with the phrase ” God bless you” …   In our society where we have pushed God out of so much of our lives, our society, our culture,  we have now shortened that statement to ” Bless you ! ”  for fear of offending anyone.   But why ?  Why do we say it to begin with ?  There was an episode of the television series “Seinfeld” where they went through an exercise of changing the response from ” God Bless you” or ” You are so good looking “.   That did not work so well for his television character as one might expect.

The tradition of asking for blessings for those who sneeze originated our of the time of the black plague when a person who sneezed was obviously sick and would probably die, and it was a prayer for them.    That act of sincere prayer for the soul of the person who might parish moved through time and was acclimated into a social courtesy rather than a prayer for some.     The act of saying  ” God bless you” should rather be a sincere prayer for a blessing for the person to whom you say it.    Indeed we do not know what particular cross they are carrying, or what their journey will lead them to or through.   The spiritual process of truly desiring a blessing to be given to the person who has sneezed is not only a blessing to the person who asks for the blessing, but is a point of blessing and spiritual formation for the person who is the vessel of the blessing.

This then leads me to the second part of the process, the recipient.   The person who has sneezed, having received to prayer, typically responds ” Thank you.”   This response however leads one to think about why.

We again are faced with the idea that for a vast majority it is the rather Pavlovian response that was engrained in us from a young age.   Much like the mother who gave her daughter “The Look”, the response was elicited out of politeness,… maybe.   In saying “Thank you” we should acknowledge the idea that someone has prayed for us.  They have asked God for a blessing on our behalf, which indeed is a wonderful gift.

This leads me to the final part of the communication, which is in the response ” Thank you”, is the response appropriate ?   In this case, since we try to take full appreciation of the exchange that has occurred, and recognize the magnitude of the gift we are given, is ” Thank you ! ” appropriate ?    In some cases I would think that for a person who is cognizant of what has occurred, that ” Amen”  would be the best response, and maybe a ” Thank you” to follow.

The last part of this reflection stems from the idea of being Thanked in this interchange.   A person of faith is fully aware that ALL blessings come from God.  We, with our human frailty, are only the vessels through which God works, and passes on the blessings if we are willing.     To be more succinct,  You don’t thank the bucket for bringing the water, but the one who brings the bucket with the water in it.

In each point in the exchange, God is present and active if we are sincere in our asking, or receiving of the blessing that is to flow.     So, the next time someone sneezes, take a moment, and pray for them the blessing that you speak.    Amen.

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