A young Jewish boy goes to synagogue one day. It must have been a special Sabbath, or some high holy day, because something very different and unusual happens. The boy saw five or six men get on the platform to face the congregation. Each one put his tallit, his prayer shawl, over his head. And they started shouting out, very discordantly and, to the boy, unnervingly. It was very strange. Just “Ay Ay Ay” not in unison but all over the place. It was a frightening and highly unusual experience in synagogue. The boy’s father, told him, “Don’t look.” The boy covered his eyes. Everyone in the congregation covered their eyes or turned around in their seats. A main leader of the men then shouted to the congregation “Yəvārekhəkhā ADONAI” and the other men echoed, “Yəvārekhəkhā ADONAI vəyishmərekhā.” “The Lord bless you and keep you.” And they repeated all these words from Numbers 6, the priestly blessing.
The young boy decided to take a peek. He saw that the men on the platform, from underneath their prayer shawls, had their hands extended like this:
Their hands were shaped like the Hebrew letter shin (ש). This letter is significant. It’s the first letter in the name “Shaddai,” which we tend to translate “Almighty” which we’re a lot more comfortable with than a more literal translation, which is some kind of chest related word, so it could be broad chested in manly strength or ample breasted in womanly nourishment. They both can work. But both are comforting, protecting, parental imagery. Shin is the first letter in the word “Shem” which means name, and this goes along with the prayer that Moses says places the name of God on the people. It’s the first letter in the word “Shekhinah” which we often pronounce “Shek-EYE-nah” glory of God. This is the feminine aspect of God that dwells among humans. And as a Trinitarian Christian, I can’t help but associate these important words – Shaddai with the Father/Parent, Shem with the Son who became a human being with the name Jesus, and the Shekhinah with the Holy Spirit who manifests the presence of God everywhere. But that’s going a little further than these Jewish men were meaning. Shin is also the first letter of the word “shalom,” which means “peace, well-being, wholeness” and is a part of the priestly blessing.
Back to that young boy in the synagogue. He learned later from a rabbi that you weren’t supposed to look because the Shekinah glory of God would manifest and bless the people, and looking could be dangerous, even fatal. But he says, “I survived.”
This boy would grow up and become an actor. He landed a lead role on a show where he played an alien character. He wanted to give this alien culture of which his character was a part some kind of symbolic greeting, and he decided to use this symbol, and these aliens, called Vulcans, would greet each other with this hand sign and bless each other by saying, “Live long and prosper.” You may have figured out by now that the actor was Leonard Nimoy on the show Star Trek. He was delightfully surprised at how quickly this hand sign took off in the culture. Within days, Nimoy was getting this signal out on the street. He says, “People don’t realize they are blessing each other.” Fascinating.
On the eighth day of life, it was and is Jewish custom for baby boys to be circumcised and to receive their name. And so on the eighth day of Christmas we celebrate by giving our true love eight maids a-milking. No, we commemorate the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the name the angel Gabriel gave to both Mary and Joseph. The circumcision is technically the first blood that Jesus bled for us, and this was in keeping with the law. Joseph and Mary were faithful to the law, and also faithful to the direct leading of God in their lives, so they named the boy Jesus, which means salvation, because he was to save his people from their sins.
It is good and right to have a special day just to celebrate this name, because it is this name that we take upon ourselves. Like a bride traditionally takes the name of her husband, we now belong to a new family. We are baptized and marked with the sign of the cross and now belong to the household of Jesus Christ. We belong to him. John Chrysostom said “wherever the name of the Lord is set up, all things prosper. If the name of Jesus has power to drive away demons, if it can banish illness, much more will it aid your own actions.” We belong to the name that is above every name, before which every knee shall bow, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. It is by calling on the name of Jesus that we are saved. How sweet and lovely that name must be on our lips, for everything good, everything beautiful, everything true is found in that name.
And we are incorporated into the people of Israel, the people of God for all time, by faith, and we are heirs of the blessings the priests bestowed on them by putting the name of God on them. When the priests did that, extending their hands, they pronounced a blessing, and I want us all to receive that blessing today.
In Numbers, the name that was pronounced over them was the unpronounceable name. This name was revealed to Moses, but it was so holy that the Jews stopped pronouncing it, and when they wrote it out, they stopped using vowel markers, so it’s basically just written YHWH. And in Hebrew, they would just say the word Adonai in its place, which means “Lord,” which all the early translations of the Old Testament into Greek or Latin or whatever also went along with that and just said “the Lord,” and our English translation has kept with that. Lord is also a title that Jesus went by in the New Testament. Sometimes its hard to tell in the New Testament if Lord refers to God or to Jesus, and maybe that’s part of the point.
Scholars today have determined that the unpronounceable name is probably Yahweh, though some say Yehowah or Yehuwah. Here’s what I think. I think there were never any vowels at all, and it always has been YHWH. How do you say that without vowels. Like this: (Breathe in – whispered “eeh.” Breathe out – whispered “ooh.”) The divine is as close to us as our own breath. By pausing, being still, and breathing, we intentionally reconnect with the source of our life. Take a moment and utter that divine name. EEH-OOH. That’s God. That’s my theory anyway, and that helps me in my spiritual walk.
But that holy name would be placed on the people by a priest’s blessing. YHWH bless you and keep you; YHWH make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; YHWH lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Threefold use of the name, twofold blessing with each use of the name. And from now on, because it is more comfortable and easier, I will go back to the word “Lord.”
The Lord bless you. Bless literally means to kneel, but in every context it describes someone basically imparting prosperity or wishes for prosperity to someone else. When God blesses, it’s not just a wish, it’s real, and that’s what we have. We are blessed. Why it means to kneel is because it seems to imply the one party is stooping down and imparting their power to another party. The first instance is God blessing creation. God blesses the creatures and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. The ability to fulfill God’s command does not come from themselves, it comes from God’s blessing that makes them function properly. In January, we are zeroing in on God’s command to us to bear fruit, to be a blessing in the world, but we need to know that the source is not our own power, but God’s grace and blessing to us that we did not earn. Our word bless is related to the word ‘blood’ because our Germanic ancestors used blood in sacrifice when bestowing blessings. What greater stooping down than God coming to die for us?
And keep you. We are blessed, but we wonder, “Can we lose this blessing?” The blessing must be kept, protected, guarded. God has us there as well. Not based on what we do, but God decides that God is going to keep us in blessing. God won’t stop loving us. God will not withdraw commitment from us. This doesn’t mean we receive no negative consequences for doing something foolish, but we do not lose God’s blessing, the ability to fulfill God’s commands to love God and our neighbor.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you. God’s face was a big deal. No one could look directly at it and live, but people interpreted a favorable life as the face of God shining on us, while sometimes it seems as though God is turned away. When someone’s face is turned towards you and is shining, you can see their warm feelings toward you. You might call this a smile. God smiles upon you.
And be gracious to you. Meaning, may God take special notice of you and give you a helping hand. There are things you cannot earn, things you don’t deserve, but which you need. May God have pity on you, look on you with kindness, and supply you with what you need because God looks upon you favorably.
What’s in a name? St. John’s. John means “Yahweh is gracious,” directly from this blessing. Let’s embody that one.
And then the Lord lift up his countenance upon you. “Countenance” and “face” are the same word in Hebrew. One line has it shining on us. Another line God is lifting it up on us. It’s someone with power to help someone who is asking for help, looking towards them to help them.
And give you peace. Shalom, well-being, body, mind, soul. Wholeness.
Do you want those things? Do you want those things for those you love? Do you want those things for your community? Your nation? Your world? You’ve got it. In a minute we will receive it to start off this year – in the black – simply because of the love of God. We are blessed.
Now, in the Old Testament, only a descendant of Aaron, a priest, can bestow a blessing. With Jesus, things changed. Jesus is our great High Priest and has done away with the sacrificial system. But this does not mean, as Americans are prone to interpret it, that we don’t need anybody except Jesus. But that’s not what the Bible says. No, the grace of God is still mediated through human beings, whom we need. It’s just not a special class of people who are descended from Aaron. Now Jesus has set apart a community who functions as a kingdom of priests, for each other and for the world. We need blessing from other human beings who represent Christ, but it can be anybody who has faith. They can bless us. We bless each other. We are blessed to be a blessing.
So I want you to stretch out your hands to people around you. If you can make the Shin with both hands, great. Close your eyes. Now with love in your heart, and with the knowledge that someone’s hands are stretched out to you in love and faith, repeat after me. The Lord bless you. (Repeat) and keep you. (Repeat) The Lord make his face to shine upon you (Repeat) and be gracious to you (Repeat). The Lord lift up his countenance upon you (Repeat) and give you peace. (Repeat)
You have been blessed. You have blessed others. You are starting off the New Year in the black, a true superhero on a mission from God. Now go forth into this world and call forth this blessing everywhere you go, in your words and in your actions, until you see it transform this world in the love and grace of God.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb