When researching the origin of "God bless you," theories abound. It is believed that Pope Gregory was known to use the phrase in AD 590 to ward off the bubonic plague because sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the disease.
Some believed that the soul could be expelled from the body when one sneezed, allowing the devil access. Or, that your heart stops when you sneeze and saying "God bless you" would ensure that it would resume. On a lighter note, some believed that sneezing was a sign of good luck and "God bless you" was an acknowledgment of your good fortune.
Whatever the origin of the phrase, it begs some sort of response. This week's clergy offer suggestions of what responses are appropriate.
Father Peter Garry, St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, Southold:
We're all God's children, but some of us choose to be ordained. The fact of the matter is, when I say "God bless you," I'm praying for everyone and particularly to the person I'm speaking to. It is appropriate to say thank you, but not inappropriate to say "God bless you" in return.
The phrase is a short cut for "May God bless you." You're asking God to bless the person.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who had a popular radio show and then a TV show in prime time, would say a combination of "God love you" or "God bless you."
When someone -- clergy or layperson -- says "God bless you" to me, I know I'm with a believing individual who wants God to continue to bless me. It is a gift, a gift in faith. So, don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Of course, we always want to be in control of what we say and motivated to know that what we're about to say is affirming. So often we react spontaneously. Remember that you're making a request of God when you say "God bless you." It shouldn't be a flip comment.
The Rev. Karyn O'Beirne, guest minister, First Universalist Church of Southold; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Great South Bay, Sayville; and Unitarian Universalist Society of South Suffolk, Bay Shore:
The appropriate response is thank you. You can assume that if someone is saying that, he or she has your well-being at heart. From their point of view, they're hoping that God, the highest power, will bless you. If we assume goodwill on the part of the other person, it is a beautiful way to behave with one another.
Most of us encounter someone saying "bless you" after we sneeze, and the best I know is during the 1500s, you could die from catching a cold. So, if someone sneezed, you wanted God to bless them to help them survive the cold. I do think that "bless you" when you sneeze has become a knee-jerk response and has lost some of its potency.
When you say "God bless you" when the person isn't sneezing, it is like a little mini gift the person is bestowing upon you. You don't have to say "God bless you" back, just like you don't automatically give someone a gift when they give you one. Also, if you don't personally feel comfortable replying "God bless you" back to the person, a thank you is always appropriate. While there is the blessing from God, I also believe we can bless each other through our empathy, compassion and when we care for each other. It is not the same as God blessing you, but still is a wonderful thing.
Rabbi Louis Diament, chaplain, Nassau County Correctional Center, East Meadow:
There's no commandment telling us to say "God bless you," but if you do say it, you should mean it. And, if someone says it to you, say "thank you." I accept any blessing at any time. It is the curses that I have a problem with.
We don't have the power to bless someone. The Almighty has that power. What you're doing is asking God to bless that person.
When priests of old blessed the nation and blessed the congregation, the first three words were "May God bless you." That wasn't the rabbi doing it. It was the rabbi asking God to do it. We still use this ancient priestly benediction on the holidays and they use it daily in Israel: May God bless you and keep you. May God shine his countenance upon you, and be gracious unto you. May he lift his countenance unto you and grant you peace."
People use words because they sound nice. If it is good, there's nothing wrong with it. Thank you is always sufficient. Saying "God bless you" is not a barter situation. You don't have to give anything back. The person saying "God bless you" doesn't expect anything back.