Sunday, January 29, 2017

RESPONDING TO GOD: THE BEATITUDES, A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A, (A4 Matthew 5:1–12a)

You can listen to this homliy here.
Our Lord went up a mountain.  Unless you know the stories of the Old Testament that may not seem all that significant but it God frequently chose mountainsides to talk to His people.  Moses went up Mount Sinai and came down with the Ten Commandments.   Our Lord goes up this mountain to reveal that He is the true Lawgiver who is God made man.  This new Law that He gives does not replace the old one but surpasses and completes it and it is to His disciples, those who would follow Him, that He reveals it.
On this mountain then our Lord sits down just as the Rabbis and teachers sat to teach.  He teaches them, and us, the beatitudes.  He is promising Divine blessing on those who follow this teaching and put it into practice.  These are not exemplars of individual forms of virtue but different steps on the one path to eternal life: the path of pursuing the Father’s will.
First He tells us that  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.   The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God and seek Him.  As He promises elsewhere they will find Him and His Kingdom.  We seek Him by prayer, uniting our heart and mind in focusing on God’s presence within us and around us.  In addition we seek Him by trying to live a virtuous life, a life without evil that seeks to do good.  Next we are told that “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted”.   He does not mean just any mourning but those who mourn over their sins and the sins of others for the Mercy and Love of God made present in Christ and His Church will comfort and heal them.  The monks of the desert, the fathers of the religious life, cherished the beatitudes and therefore they cherished gift of tears.  Genuine weeping over one’s sins, they understood, brought greater and greater openness to God’s loving mercy and healing. 
Then we are told that “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land”.  The cynical like to say ‘yes after the rich and powerful are finished with it”.  But our Lord is not talking about this world or the land we stand on.  Rather He is talking about the new Earth and the new Heaven that will be revealed at the end of time.  The meek are those who follow God’s example and refrain from violence, force and aggression.  They are those who, like Christ, will not crush the bruised reed, but stand their ground, endure evil without doing evil, and put their trust in God’s faithfulness. 
We are then told that   “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”  True righteousness is being right with God.  If it is part of the path to mourn over one’s sins, another part is longing to be really, truly holy, that is right with God and one’s neighbour.  Real holiness should not be confused with piety (respect and reverence for the holy), which is good but differs from person to person.  Real holiness is unaware of itself and totally given over to the love of God and one’s neighbour.  That is why the saints flee those who admire them and seek out those in need of help.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” means what it says that when we extend to others the mercy we have received from God we make room in ourselves for even greater outpourings of His mercy.  We cannot get to Heaven by prayer alone.   It is not enough to make and act of faith in Jesus.  We must reach out to those around us, especially those who are in need.  Then there is this great promise that “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God”.   The Beatific vision, the sight of God as God in Heaven, is promised to those who have, through the previous steps, purified their hearts, so that the inner eye of their faith, and their own purified eyes can behold the infinite brilliance of God.   This too was cherished by the desert monks for they found that if one is faithful and allows God’s grace to purify one’s heart, one can see God even in this life.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” He tells us “for they will be called children of God.”  Those who are at peace with God want others to be at peace with Him, that is, reconciled to His will and His plan for us.  If we truly believe we cannot keep it to ourselves.  We cannot have a private faith, a faith that we practice only at home, like knitting.  Our faith must shape every aspect of our lives and we should care for the salvation of every person we meet.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” means that we should not expect this path, this new Law to be easy.  Rather we should expect that it will be a struggle, that from within ourselves and from outside ourselves there will come opposition.  We are not creatures who like change.  We find our habits, good and bad, comforting.  Change is hard and demands persistence and patience.  Not everyone will like us to change.  If we change we will no longer be predictable or perhaps manageable.   Perseverance takes time.
The last beatitude, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” is really a summation of the others.  This way is difficult, our Lord is telling us, but His grace is greater still.  What we cannot do by our own power He can do through us if we cooperate with Him.  However small our contribution His grace can work miracles.  The reward that lies ahead of us completely outstrips the effort.  No pleasure, no compensation, no reward in this world can compare with the glory and joy that awaits those who hear His teaching and put it in to practice, persevering and not giving up however often they may fall.

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