Friday, January 5, 2018

Living the Beatitudes

The Paradoxical Prescription for a Life of True Joy

Isn’t it remarkable that while our fallen human nature is enticed by fame, fortune and power, something deep inside us celebrates at the sight of the humble and the lowly being lifted up? 

It isn’t just in religious contexts that we see this. No, we love it in our fairy tales (Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling) and our movies (think Rocky and Rudy, to name two). It appears God has wired us to rejoice at the truth conveyed by St. Paul: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Cor:27-29). 

This paradox – that our deepest joy runs counter to our proud and greedy inclinations – is reflected most beautifully in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ perfect prescription for fullness of life as his disciple:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
     for they shall be satisfied. 
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, 
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  
         Matthew 5:1-10

Pale Replicas of the Original

Down through the ages, the saints – from John the Baptist to John Paul II, from Teresa of Avila to Teresa of Calcutta – have been for us walking models of the Beatitudes. And yet, they are not their most perfect embodiment. Neither are the graced men and women whose stories are told in Blessed Are You, though I have hand-picked them to illustrate each of the Beatitudes.

No, we find the defining portrait of the Beatitudes in the very Savior who proclaimed them, Jesus Christ. Born in a stable to a poor virgin, persecuted by the powerful, full of mercy for sinful, wounded humanity, weeping over Jerusalem, divinely righteous yet “meek and humble of heart,” bestowing a peace the world cannot give – Jesus is the ultimate Icon of the Beatitudes, compared to whom even the greatest saint can only be a pale replica. 

“O the Blessedness, O the Joy!” 

In the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, the Beatitudes contained no verb. And so Jesus did not actually use a ‘statement’ formula like “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but rather a formula of exultation, of rejoicing – “O the blessedness of the poor in spirit,” etc. Biblical translations have added the verb in an effort to make the text more intelligible to our ears. 

Language scholars also say that what we translate as “blessed” could equally be translated “happy.” And so an alternative rendering would be, “O the happiness, O the blessed joy, of the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart…!”

Knowing all this, we can imagine the scene more vividly. From the Mount of the Beatitudes, Jesus looks lovingly at the crowd below, speaking to them from the fullness of his burning heart. He holds out to them a blessedness, a joy, that he yearns for them to share – and not just later in the glory of heaven, but even now in this world of light and shadow.

In the words of the Scottish Scripture commentator William Barclay,  

The beatitudes in effect say, “O the bliss of being a Christian! O the joy of following Christ! O the sheer happiness of knowing Jesus Christ as Master, Saviour and Lord!” The very form of the beatitudes is the statement of the joyous thrill and the radiant gladness of the Christian life.

The Purpose of Blessed Are You

The goal of this new book is to help those using it to let their hearts be opened and touched, so that they may drink deeply from the wells of this joy – from the Living Water that is Jesus Christ – and live out the Beatitudes in their daily lives.

To help foster this goal, Blessed Are You, like the other books in the Discipleship Series, incorporates Scripture passages, snippets of wisdom from the Catechism and recent Popes, stories of men and women touched by grace, and prayers and discussion questions.

It also includes a modest component of service. This last element, with its focus on love of neighbor, comes from the conviction that true discipleship must take seriously Jesus’ words, “Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

I pray that we may all be made worthy vessels of the Beatitudes that leapt from the heart of the Son of God that day on the mountainside in Galilee. 

Christopher Ruff

Endnote: William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2: New Daily Study Bible, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) 102.