The 9 Beatitudes are at the very core of the Gospel. They give us the attitudes – the right perspectives – that we are to acquire. Attitudes are much more subtle and penetrating than laws or prohibitions.
Note that they all deal with true happiness. They begin with “Blessed are they who …,” or “Happy are they who …” But there is a great difference between the happiness that Jesus is talking about and what the world thinks is happiness.
We all want happiness. That is what we were created for. But we don’t always know where true happiness is to be found. God is our destiny. Only He can satisfy all the deepest longings of our hearts.
That is why today’s Gospel is so important for us. Sometimes we are prone to think that happiness is the same thing as being counted among the "who’s who" in society, or being a great athlete in the hall of fame, or being very wealthy, or having prominence among our peers. That is how the world thinks. But Jesus doesn’t think that way. And he is God.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, or the humble …” It is the humble person who is happy, the person mentioned in the first two readings. St. Paul says: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” In his Rule, St. Benedict has a chapter on humility listing 12 steps leading to greater humility. When Jesus came among us, he came as one of us, an ordinary guy with no pretensions or special privileges. And look at the end of his life. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who suffer …” To suffer means that you are deprived of important things, like good health, the loss of friends, or things you have grown dependent upon. We place our full trust in God alone. The cross and suffering are an inescapable part of life. “For they will inherit the Earth.”
“Blessed are those who weep ...” If you are weeping, then you are sad and upset. You are hurting because some great difficulties or tragedies have come into your life. Everything is not going according to plan. In this life there will be trials and conflicts. “For they will be consoled.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice …” We all have a strong sense of what is right and just in human dealings. When we, or others, are wronged, taken advantage of, or our rights are abused, then we yearn for the time when justice will be restored and our rights protected. Think of the slaves before the Civil War. Think of the unborn babies today who are deprived of the protection of the law – victims of legal abortion. “For they shall be satisfied.”
“Blessed are the merciful …” To be merciful means that others have taken advantage of us, brought hurt and harm to us. Mercy tempers justice. Mercy goes beyond justice, in that it encourages the wrongdoers to acknowledge their misdeeds, and then to take steps to correct them. We hope that those we have harmed will be merciful to us. “For they shall obtain mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure of heart …” Purity refers to how we give direction to our sex drive. God made us bodied persons – male and female – fertile, with a strong sex drive. We are called to give direction to our passions, to come into the possession of them. We are to give direction to them, and not allow them to direct us. This rules out adultery, fornication, and contraception. Chastity is a difficult virtue. No one is automatically chaste. We have to consistently, and methodically, choose to be chaste and grow in this virtue. We demonstrate that we want God’s plan for us, not our plan. “For they shall see God.”
“Blessed are the peace-makers …” In any group of people there will always be tension, differences of opinion, conflicts, a tendency to shun and avoid talking with those opposed to us. But we were designed for community, for sharing the same values, for being a people under the guidance of the one Good Shepherd. We are all called to be peacemakers, to be bridge builders between different factions, perhaps bringing estranged family members together, helping people discover the common ground they share in common. “For they shall be called Sons of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake …” Have you noticed that when you work for justice, and try to correct abuses in society, to protect marriages and families from all the forces working against them, or to protect the unborn baby who has no voice and is defenseless, or come to the defense of those discriminated against, or resist a bloated government that usurps greater and greater power over individual citizens, families and local communities … that you are persecuted? We use to say that virtue is its own reward. Today we might say that virtue becomes its own punishment. “For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Blessed are you when they insult you, or persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Did you think that your well-intentioned efforts to proclaim the truth and confront falsehoods would be cheered and applauded? Do we think that when we enter the public square and try to bring the values of the Gospel into our society that there will be no resistance, ridicule, and even real hatred? Jesus is God. But even he could not convince all of his peers about the truth and goodness of his teachings. His enemies put him to a very cruel death. And consider the price people paid when Christians resisted such things in Nazi Germany, or in Communist Russia, or the persecutions that Christians are experiencing today in many parts of the world. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The saints were those men and women who incorporated the beatitudes into their lives. They allowed the Holy Spirit to transform their lives according to the teachings of Jesus, who came among us to reveal God’s plan for what it means to be human. And the saints were the happiest people on earth. They knew where true happiness was to be found, and they understood how the trials and hardships of this world were to be treated. “Do not lay up treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:19).
May we also be so blessed.