These blessings stretch our hearts and behavior to their fullest potential
"We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated.”
It is easy to agree with St. Augustine here, for there is nothing more instinctively human than to long for happiness. To recognize that longing, however, is to recognize something even more fundamental: It is God who places the longing for happiness into our hearts, in order to draw us to himself — for only he can fulfill our longing.
The beatitudes, the heart of Jesus’ preaching, respond to this natural-supernatural desire for happiness. "Beatitude” means happiness or blessedness, and it implies living in such a way that we allow the grace of God to overtake us, so that we will know the complete beatitude of heaven. We sometimes speak of heaven’s "beatific vision,” or seeing God face-to-face and resting peacefully in him. Jesus teaches that although beatitude will then be complete, it begins now for those who follow him.
Awaken to the kingdom
The beatitudes take up and fulfill the promises God has made to his chosen people since Abraham, directing them no longer toward the possession of a land, but toward "the kingdom of heaven." They give us insight into Jesus’ mission and orientation toward the Father and help us glimpse how and why we turn to God in all life’s circumstances.
The beatitudes at first seem paradoxical. After all, why would one think of those who mourn, or those who are persecuted, as "blessed"? The lens through which that paradox is resolved is the death and resurrection of Jesus, for it is through his unfailing longing and love for the Father that we see the path of total dependence on God. What seems like a paradox is not one at all, because the beatitudes show us the path through life’s tribulations.
Preaching about the beatitudes, St. Leo the Great once said that "human ignorance is slow to believe what it does not see, and equally slow to hope for what it does not know." Thus, Jesus performed miracles to awaken us to the kingdom and to dispose us to its deepest truths. The beatitudes are his invitation to see, know, accept and live God’s promises in hope. They stretch our natural longing for happiness and help us persevere. They clarify our vision of where we are headed and keep us on track.
We are most familiar with the beatitudes from Matthew 5, part of the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 through 7), but they also appear in a modified form in Luke 6. Matthew presents Jesus as the "new lawgiver." Just as Moses once received the Ten Commandments from God on the heights of Mount Sinai, now Jesus — the Son of God himself — gives the new law on the heights of a mountain.
Blessings stretch us
St. Leo said, "From the height of this mystical site he then instructed them in the most lofty doctrines, suggesting both by the very nature of the place and by what he was doing that it was he who long ago had honored Moses by speaking to him … And so it was that he who had spoken to Moses spoke also to the apostles … This was not done in the midst of dense clouds, amid terrifying sounds and lightning, so that the people were frightened away from approaching the mountain. Instead, there was a tranquil discourse … so that the harshness of the law might be softened by the gentleness of grace."
Christian teachers have always seen the intimate link between the beatitudes and the Law of Moses. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17) There is not a break between the Law of Moses and the teaching of Jesus; rather, the law finds its complete expression in the teaching of Jesus. At the Transfiguration, which also takes place on a high mountain, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus to show that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. (Matthew 17)
The beatitudes are not simply attitudes which mark those who follow Jesus, or enticements to hold out for something better later on. They are part of the "new commandment" of love which stretches our hearts and behavior to their fullest potential. They give hope by challenging us to be who God has made us to be.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote, "Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long time. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end."
Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.
September 20, 2013