Let me start with a warning—I am at the stage in life when men can become a little grumpy. This little meditation might come across that way, so I begin with a request for patience because, truly, as a word guy, I have been provoked. Let me explain.
Today I got another one, another email that ended with the ubiquitous “blessings.” When I was in school this part of the letter was called the complimentary close and was an abridged phrase we used to close the letter, just before the signature.
The technical term for this part of a letter is valediction, from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell,” or “last word.” The name describes its function, but the form used has always been related to the sort of letter that preceded. If it was a formal business letter, the valediction might be a simple, “Respectfully,” or “Sincerely.” If it was a more informal letter, “Yours truly,” or “Your friend” was appropriate.
Christians had their own selection of valedictions. For a while I saw, “In His Service,” at the end of a lot of missionary letters. Pastors would close with the theologically enhanced, “In Him,” or “In Christ.” Even ordinary believers would often close their letters with an implied prayer, “May His blessing rest on you.”
Maybe that is where this problem started. Maybe that implied prayer got shortened to “Blessings on you,” and then was truncated even more to “Blessings,” but this impulse has become reductionistic.
The implied prayer was proper; there was a subject, God, and an object, you. Indeed, there is good biblical precedent for this sort of prayer. Aaron and his sons were instructed to bless their people by saying, “The LORD bless you and keep you . . .” (Numbers 6:23-25). The Apostle Paul reminded all of us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not” (Romans 12:14). So blessing one another is certainly a good thing, but it is really a prayer—we are asking a good God to bless this person.
The shortened phrase, “Blessings on you” is more problematic. Without a subject, we are left wondering who is blessing whom. Is the writer asking God to bless me or is she presuming to bless me in her own power? Really? Is she capable of that?
The truncated version, “blessings,” is truly baffling. Now it is simply a noun singing solo in the dark. This version provokes a cluster of legitimate hermeneutical questions. Who is doing what? Is the writer evoking God’s action? Are they presuming to bless me in their own strength? Is it a general observation? Is it simply the recitation of a favorite noun? What is the significance of the plural?
Each of those questions provoke more questions. If “blessings” is an implied wish, what is being wished? If it happens, exactly what should I expect? In the Beatitudes Jesus began his series of insights with the phrase “Blessed are . . . ” He used the Greek term markarios, which means fortunate or happy. But what if someone used happy as a valediction? What if we made it plural. If someone closed with, happies, what would we expect?
If a solo noun is sufficient, why this one? Why not love, joy, peace, or long-suffering? Why not grace or propitiation?
What worries me is that people who close their letters with blessings are not sure what they mean. I am afraid they are using this noun to sound a little spiritual, but it is a vague spirituality—meaningless words. Surely we can do better.
I guess what I am trying to say is that however we close our letters, it ought to mean something. A prayer is good. We all need prayer. A sincere wish is good. We all hope for more good things. Lets mean something with our valedictions.
On the other hand, if we want to be simply vague, let’s be more creative. Let’s use unexpected nouns—Pharaoh, fudge, milk, whatever happy noun occurs to you. Maybe we could pick a noun that rhymes with the last word in the email. Call me soon, would evoke the valediction, moon. It is on sale, could end with whale.
Wouldn’t that be more fun?