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August 1, 2014 4:41 AM   Subscribe

Some prayers invoke blessings on God. Is there a theological justification for this, or is it a translation error?

I've been musing on phrases in (non-English-language) prayers which seem to request, or invoke, blessings upon God. Some examples are the "benedìcimus te" in the Gloria of the Latin mass, or the omnipresent "ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו, מלך העולם" which prefaces Hebrew prayers.

As I understand it, both of these express a desire or assertion that God is "blessed", and I'm wondering (nitpickily, perhaps), just how that works. I'm used to the notion that blessings are something which devolves from higher states of Godliness/holiness/power onto lower ones, so asking God to bless you, your family, the angels, etc. is perfectlly comprehensible, and even asking for blessings from intermediaries (saints, angels, priests) makes sense with the whole blessings-roll-downhill notion. But there doesn't seem to be any source from which blessings could devolve onto God, so I'm wondering if there's either some translation nuance or theological justification I'm not getting.

In a nutshell: when we ask for God to be blessed or assert that God is blessed, is there an agent we're expecting to perform the blessing?
posted by jackbishop to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have a look here.
posted by slkinsey at 4:44 AM on August 1, 2014

It also might help to think of "blessed" as an adjective, and not the past-tense of a verb. It's not that someone went around blessing god, it's that god exists in a state of holiness.
posted by Andrhia at 4:52 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also to keep in mind is the relatively small vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew (~8,000 words) compared to the hundreds of thousands of words in modern English. Individual words were used for different meanings in different contexts out of necessity.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:09 AM on August 1, 2014

I saw a sign on a rural church the other day that said, "If we want God to bless America, America needs to bless God" and wondered the same thing: who are we to bless an all-powerful (assuming we believe in that kind of thing) being? So its definitely used in practice as an verb, not just an adjective.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:31 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Randle, I think in that context, it's more of the sense of "give one's blessing to" having a similar meaning to "sign off on" or "approve of" something.

So -- "If we want God to bless America, America needs to [approve of] God."

As to the OP's question, I think this is more "blessèd" (note the accent mark) than "blessed," i.e. that God exists in a state of holiness (blessèdness).

"benedicimus te," is in this case not "we bless You," but rather, "we revere You," or "we think You are holy." (Think of the Lord's Prayer -- "hallowed be Thy name," i.e. Your name is holy, or blessèd.)
posted by tckma at 7:13 AM on August 1, 2014

Best answer: "Glory to God" sing the Angels according to scripture and tradition, but orthodox Christian (and, I think, Jewish) theology states that the glory of the Angels is derived from and a reflection of, God's own glory. The Angels nevertheless, in some sense, "give" their glory, which is already God's, back to God. This is a gesture of piety and, perhaps, an act of substantive justice: returning to God what is God's even though God has given it away.

It's my recollection that the Jewish sacrificial prayer states that the lamb (or other sacrifice as appropriate) is provided by God, and those making offering are giving the sacrifice back to God (this echoes in Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac on the mountain, interrupted by the presence of a ram which, the text states, God sent in substitution).

In the Mass, we Catholics are clear that we are offering God, in the person and presence of Christ, incarnated in the host, back to God as the only perfect thing we have to offer. We also pray, in the Gloria at the beginning of Mass, "we glorify you."

All of which is to say that your first premise, that God is the source of blessings, is correct, but your second premise, that blessings only flow outward from God, is not really part of Christian (and, again, I think, Jewish) theology or religious practice, at least by analogy to other good things that we believe originate with God.
posted by gauche at 7:48 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

N.b., I should not have said that Christ is "incarnated" in the host, as that is not an accurate description of what Catholics believe.
posted by gauche at 8:04 AM on August 1, 2014

Well, it certainly appears in the Bible. For example, the opening of Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:

If you think of bless as meaning "regard with approval" it works either direction, humans toward God or God toward humans.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:14 AM on August 1, 2014

My understanding from a Jewish perspective is that humans do indeed "bless" the Almighty; we are expressing adoration of and for his/her existence.

Also, in the Jewish view, God is not entirely omnipotent, since humans have free will and thus create their own destiny (and also affect earth and nature by our actions). God is holy, but we humans can make ourselves holy; Parsha Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) begins with the line "Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy" and goes on to describe specific behaviors that we can choose, to become holy.
posted by RRgal at 8:31 AM on August 1, 2014

Best answer: Just had a look at slkinsey's link; yes, I understand "bless" to mean "praise", though in a spiritually elevated or holy way. And as I mentioned, Jewish theology puts God and humans on a somewhat equal footing of "holiness', so I guess we can bless God and other people as much as God can bless us.
posted by RRgal at 9:04 AM on August 1, 2014

The Westminster Catechism's first point is:

Q: What is man's chief end?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Perhaps bless/glorify/praise seem like very rough substitutes, but I think there is at least some overlap, if not equivalence in the ideas.

Depending on your religious beliefs, the idea that God can want or need praise seems incomprehensible or bothersome to some - C.S. Lewis explored this idea rather thoroughly. (I haven't really read the blogger's added comments, so can't say how coherent they are. Read the Lewis quotes if nothing else.

If you don't want to deep-dive into theology that much, I might make this rough analogy. There are people in my life who have been very good to me; I owe who and what I am to them. It pains me if I don't have an opportunity to bless them, and nothing gratifies me more than to be able to bless them (or praise them, etc.). If you believe that God is, and that God is good, then the comparison seems obvious. Of course if you don't, then none of it's going to make any sense.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:27 PM on August 1, 2014

Best answer: The word "bless" has the since "to bring attention to, to look favorably upon"
When when we ask God to pay attention to us, we assume that this attention will result in good things. So "God bless this child" means "God, pay attention to this child and as a result of this attention good things will happen".

When we bring our attention to good, we can't make manifest that attention by doing good things can for God but rather the attention comes out as praise or gratitude.

So same verb, similar action, but different manifestation depending on whether the actor is the omnipotent, omnipresent Ruler of the Universe or a human being.
posted by metahawk at 3:33 PM on August 1, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all! Oddly, I totally knew that "ברוך" is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for "knee", and that it's more about worship than the bestowal of blessings, but that knowledge was somehow not anywhere near the front of my mind.

To clarify, I definitely was not trying to ask the age-old chestnut, "Why does God desire our praise/worship/fealty/etc.?" but was focused specifically on blessing as being something which it seemed impossible for humans to offer to God at all. It appears that the word in English is more nuanced than I thought and the translations are in some ways less-than-faithful.
posted by jackbishop at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2014

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