For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christmas 2 / Naming and Circumcision of Jesus – Numbers 6:22-27
As a liturgist I love this prayer of blessing, and as a priest one of my favourite parts of taking a service is the end, not because it’s all over and I can go home, but because I get to bless the people. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) gave rise to what is called ‘Speech Act’ theory, in other words the idea that words can have real power not just to describe things, but also to affect things. If I say ‘Sugar is a white crystalline chemical’ that’s a statement of fact (although a philosopher might want to reply ‘What about demerara?’ but you get the idea). But if I say ‘Please could you pass the sugar?’ something happens as a result of my words. We might have a conversation about forgiveness, but if I say ‘I forgive you’ something between us changes. ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ is another piece of speech-act. On a purely psychological level we know only too well the power that our words can have over other people, to tear them down and cause them distress, or to build them up and encourage them. But when you add in the spiritual dimension, that words spoken in God’s name have real spiritual power to bless or curse, then you begin to realise how vitally important words are. When I pronounce the Blessing at the end of a service, or the Absolution at the beginning, something happens. These words which form our passage for today are really powerful and significant words.
Moses is told to give these liturgical words to Aaron and his priestly descendants, so that the words become the channel through which God’s blessing comes to them. Interestingly the Hebrew ‘you’ here is singular: each ‘blessee’ is targeted individually. But it is interesting not just to see these words as a liturgical prayer, although it was, and was used in Jewish and Christian communities to conclude worship as blessings are today. But the words also give us an insight into what blessing actually looks like, what exactly it is that God wants for us. 1 John 4 tells us that ‘God is love’, but this prayer fleshes that out, as it describes what God, out of his love for each of his children, wishes to bestow on us.
The prayer has six petitions, and the Hebrew words used can fill out their meanings. Bless you is a summary word for all the many ways in which God wants to give us that which will make for our well-being. Keep you is really about protection from all the harmful things which might assail us as we journey through our lives. We might say ‘keep you safe’. Make his face shone upon you is what is known as an anthropomorphism, an attribution to God of human characteristics, in this case a human face. The shining or smiling face is a sign of benevolence, but it also reminds us that darkness is dispelled when the light comes. Be gracious to you gives the idea that none of this blessing is deserved, but rather comes because of the relationship which exists between God and the people who are his. This isn’t unconditional love, a completely non-biblical idea, because the words are for the blessing of God’s own people, those who have had God’s name put on them. But it is undeserved love, which God chooses to give just as any good father will love his kids, even when at times that is most certainly not what they deserve! Turn his face towards you is about God’s remembering of us, his attention towards us, with the intention of acting. In Exodus 3, when God calls Moses, he tells him that he has heard the groaning of his captive people and has ‘remembered’ them. The Hebrew word zacar doesn’t mean to remember something you had forgotten, like that diary appointment which had slipped from your memory but which you remembered just in time to get there. It means to bring to mind a job which needs to be done: ‘I remembered to put the bins out this morning’. This is the same: God looks in our direction with the intention of acting for our good. Give you peace uses the well-known word shalom which means more than just freedom from conflict or trouble. It refers to a whole range of things, such as success and prosperity, wellbeing, physical and emotional health, safety, protection, security, harmony within the family and friendships, and so much more. It’s pretty much anything good we might wish for. The passage ends with a repeat of its opening. God will set his name on us, and will do all the above, in other words bless them.
It is interesting that this text, which comes in a larger portion of Numbers where the people are gearing up for setting out after a year camped at Mt Sinai, is therefore a blessing for the journey. We might say ‘Have a good trip’ or ‘Drive safely!’ When we used to drive down to the South of France each year for our holidays we used to have a blessing which said ‘May all the tractors be behind you’. These words are about what God wants for them as they step out and venture their way through their lives, and so are great words as we step out into a rather scary and uncertain New Year. But linked with the circumcision of Jesus they remind us that his is the name above all names, and to bow the knee before him is the best possible way to find that shalom which is God’s desire for us. Happy New Year!