When the Rymans first moved to North Carolina back in 1990, a woman my wife was speaking with said to her, “I call you blessed, darlin’.” We found it a curious statement but loved the way it sounded. To this day, the word “blessed” has remained a curiosity.
In devotions at the police department this morning, we were discussing Revelation 1:1-8 and what it means to be “blessed.” When I asked for definitions of “blessed,” the results were nondescript—at least in light of how the word was used by Jesus in the Beatitudes and by John in Revelation. In the New Testament, to be blessed suggests tough times: poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, lack of justice, trudging another mile, making peace (where there evidently is none), persecution…exile. These things don’t sound too happy or fortunate, which are typically the definitions of “blessed” offered by folks.
A tertiary (after its former definitions of saintly and venerable and happy…miserable suggestions all) definition in Merriam-Webster hints at a more satisfying suggestion. To be blessed is to be content. One might go so far as to say that to be blessed is to somehow be content in spite of being discouraged, mournful, meek, surrounded by unrighteousness, having to walk another mile when you’re already tired of the journey, trying to reason with angry people, being persecuted…or even being content with God when he is the only company one has (as was John’s situation when he penned The Revelation).
I dug deeper than Webster and briefly thought I was on to something when the Oxford English Dictionary quoted Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in their exhaustive, multi-page definition of “bless” and “blessed.”
The villaine leauing him vnto his mate
To be captiu’d, and handled as he list,
Himselfe addrest vnto this new debate,
And with his club him all about so blist,
That he which way to turne him scarcely wist:
Sometimes aloft he layd, sometimes alow;
Now here, now there, and oft him neare he mist;
So doubtfully, that hardly one could know
Whether more wary were to giue or ward the blow.< 6.8.13>
As far as Spenser goes, this was a dead end. “Blist” in line four simply means “to wave about” as in furiously raining blows on an enemy. But it had made me think that “bless” may be connected at some point earlier in our language to “bliss.” The OED indeed, bears out this idea a bit. But how would being “blessed” in the aforementioned gospel manner be something that causes bliss or contentment?
The etymology found in the OED takes us toward the truth—”bledsod, bledsed, bletsed, blecced, blesced, blisced, blessed, blest.” (OED. Oxford: 1971, p916) The earliest Old English forms we have are “bloedsian, bledsian, bletsian.” So the earliest English idea of being blessed is based on “bloed” or “blod,” the Old English for “blood.”
Now the spiritual idea of mercy that is inherent (but somehow unexplainable by moderns—even lexicographers) in the word “blessed” becomes clearer. Perhaps one is only made truly content as a result of the awful stuff that happens, as it always does in this life. Real contentment or bliss happens when we are forced by life to wonder if it’s all worth it and then discover or rediscover that there is One who came into this awful world proclaiming that we are important to God, and gave his lifeblood to prove it, becoming a “bloedsian” for a damnable world.
Only through his bloody blessing does one become blest—content with Christ alone when life gives reason to feel not very fortunate at all. When life pounds (blists) me, I may know the bliss and blessing of knowing One who underwent more suffering than I can imagine—and on my account. He calls me blessed, darlin’.