It is the 16th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 600.
The words and phrases we use share long histories across different languages and cultures. The combination of letters and sounds to indicate something is not the domain of any one people. These combinations of letters and sounds are inextricably linked to the culture in which they are being used and their own particular history. And people say things and use words as they see fit, you may disagree with how they use the words, but you cannot disagree with them for inherited custom.
For instance, if I take a bicycle, set it upside down, wheels up, and start cranking the pedal by hand. What's that called? It's called playing Ice Cream machine. Sometimes phrases, words, etc., have murky pasts and no way of knowing where they come from. When we do know the history of a particular word or phrase, especially in English, there is a good chance it comes from either Shakespeare or the Bible.
Let's consider some of the peculiar English phrases that come to us from Scripture. "Don't cast your pearls before swine" and "Can the leopard change its spots?" are well-known examples derived from Matthew 7 and Jeremiah 13. You might be able to take the ominous warning that "the writing is on the wall" from Nebuchadnezzar's downfall in the book of Daniel. And although my mind goes to British Rockers "Queen" when I hear about somebody "biting the dust," it comes from Psalm 72. To be at your "wit's end" also comes from a Psalmist, and to escape by "the skin of your teeth" is a reference to Job 19.
And we also have phrases that have come from the church with bygone explanations. Consider the once familiar benediction of "Godspeed." This term has nothing to do with time. "Speed" derives from "speid" meaning "success." You wish them success, not speed. And think of the still ordinary "goodbye," it is most likely a contraction of "God be with ye" shortened to "Godbwye" to get to our "goodbye." But of all the ubiquitous phrases with biblical or church historical backgrounds, there is perhaps no more discussed than the one decreed by Pope Gregory I, Gregory "the Great."
According to legend, Gregory made a ruling regarding the recent spread of disease and the pagan verbal totems used to bless the sick. He thought that Christians should have their own blessing. And thus, it was on this, the 16th of February in 600, that Gregory the Great decreed that the blessing "Jupiter preserve you" spoken to one after a sneeze be replaced with "God bless you."
Verbal totems, or what we might call blessings in our own tradition, pertaining to the sneeze are as old as recorded history. Because we all sneeze, and if you think about the sneeze, break it down, but with no knowledge about human anatomy or physiology, you will freak out as well. Is the soul escaping? Do evil spirits use the moment to enter the body? Is it a dangerous way to possibly spread airborne particulates that can lead to the disease's virulent spread? I'm sure science could try and answer those questions.
But taken with what we do know of Gregory, perhaps it isn't surprising that he is credited with doing this (and very specifically to this date!) on account of his "greatness" is tied to his ability to unite the disparate church with liturgy, song, and manner of speech. Did Christmas develop as a response to pagan winter festivals? Did Easter replace fertility and resurrection festivals? In a sense, yes, but it's complicated. Did Gregory the Great unify the western world by decreeing that "God Bless you" was the only form of post-sneeze benediction? Yes, and it's complicated as well, but the story takes us back over 1400 years to the date of the so-called decree on this, the 16th of February in 600.
The last word for today comes from Stanley Hauerwas, from his commentary on the book of Matthew.
"The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God's patience, to challenge the world's impatient violence by cross and resurrection."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of February 2021, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who has just become a father again! Christopher Gillespie produces the shows, Anne Gillespie produces the children. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.