Friday, January 5, 2018

Living the Beatitudes

The following is from the Introduction to Blessed Are You, the newest title in the Discipleship Series.  It is focused on the Beatitudes.

The Little Man and the Beautiful Lady

I was in the fourth grade when Sister Mary Michael told our class the story of St. Juan Diego and the beautiful Lady.  Juan Diego was a simple, indigenous laborer, she said. He was passing through the countryside on his way to Mass when Our Lady appeared to him in a shining cloud on Tepeyac Hill, in what is now Mexico City, and entrusted to him a message. He was to go ask the bishop on her behalf to build a church at the place of the apparition.

The good Bishop Zumárraga gave Juan Diego an audience and listened kindly to his story. Not surprisingly, though, he was skeptical. As Juan set out for home, the beautiful Lady appeared to him again and he told her what had happened. “I beg you to entrust your message to someone more known and respected so that he will believe it,” he said. “I am only a simple Indian whom you have sent as a messenger to an important person.”

She replied, “My dearest son, you must understand that there are many more noble men to whom I could have entrusted my message and yet, it is because of you that my plan will succeed.” 

I was spellbound as Sister Mary Michael told us the rest of the story, culminating in the moment when Juan Diego opened before the bishop the folds of his tilma, his cloak, which concealed a bouquet of the finest Castilian roses. They had been placed there by the Lady as a wondrous sign of her wishes, since it was impossible to find such roses in the dead of winter.

At once Bishop Zumárraga fell to his knees – but not at the sight of the roses tumbling out of the tilma. He was transfixed by the tilma itself, which now bore the miraculous image of the Mother of God.

What God Has Written in Our Hearts

Little boy that I was when I heard that story, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is like a fairy tale – only it’s true!” It made me think of tales like Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling, in which lowly characters end up being the chosen ones. In this case little Juan Diego was chosen by ‘the Queen,’ Our Blessed Mother.

This is the wonderful ‘kingdom’ of the Beatitudes, and even our fairy tales hint at it!

Pale Replicas of the Original

St. Juan Diego exemplified the Beatitudes. He was poor in spirit, meek, a man of peace and righteousness, merciful in caring for a sick uncle, Juan Bernardino, and full of holy mourning at the prospect of his uncle’s impending death (until Bernardino was miraculously cured through Mary’s intercession!).

And yet, even as we acknowledge St. Juan Diego as a man of the Beatitudes, we must admit he is not their most perfect embodiment. Neither are the graced men and women whose stories are told in this book, 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.[i]

Living the Beatitudes

The goal of Blessed Are You 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).

May we 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. And as we strive to cooperate with God’s grace, my thoughts turn again to the beautiful Lady of Guadalupe, to whom Blessed Are You is dedicated. May her maternal gaze be upon us, and may she speak to us the words she directed that day in 1531 to one of the little ones of the Beatitudes, Juan Diego:

“Listen and let it penetrate your heart…. Do not be troubled or weighed down…. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Christopher Ruff

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