Well, here we are, with Lent staring us in the face already. We just finished the season of Christmas and Epiphany, and the year Easter comes early, so we are gearing up for our next intense spiritual season. Today’s liturgy of the word, I think, is a nice transition into that season of Lent for us. We have all heard the Beatitudes so often that we almost tune them out. For most of us, if someone were to stop us on the street and ask us to recite the beatitudes, it would be almost a miracle to be able to give two or three. I don’t think that’s because we don’t know them, but maybe because they are so familiar we don’t keep them on the tip of our tongue.
And for many of us, it could be that misguided teaching in the past has encouraged us to think of these as the Christian answer to the Ten Commandments, a kind of Christian Law. But Scripture scholars caution us that that was never the intent, and we should hear that with a great deal of relief. I mean, who can live up to all these things anyway? And who would want to? Do you know anyone who would actively seek to be poor, meek or mourning? And who wants to be a peacemaker? Those people have more than their share of grief.
I think when we hear the beatitudes today, we need to hear them a little differently. We need to hear them as consolation and encouragement on the journey. Because at some point or another, we will all be called upon to be poor, meek and mourning. And the disciple has to be a peacemaker and seek righteousness. We will have grief in this lifetime – Jesus tells us that in another place. What Jesus is saying here, is that those of us undergoing these sorts of trials and still seeking to be righteous people through our sufferings are blessed. And the Greek word that we translate as “blessed” here is makarios, a word that could also be translated as “happy.” Happy are those who suffer for the Kingdom.
Yeah, right. Who really believes that? I mean, it’s quite a leap of faith to engage our sufferings and still be sane, let alone happy. The ability to see these Beatitudes as true blessings seems like too much to ask for. And yet, that’s what we disciples are being asked to do.
I think a good part of the reason why this kind of thinking is hard for us, is that it’s completely countercultural. Our society wants us to be happy, pain-free and without a concern in the world. That’s the message we get from commercials that sell us the latest in drugs to combat everything from restless legs to arthritis pain – complete with a horrifying list of side-effects. That’s the message we get from the self-help books out there and the late-night infomercials promising that we can get rich quick, rid our homes of every kind of stain or vermin, or hear all of the best music that’s ever been recorded, all on compact disks delivered conveniently to your door three times a month until long after you’ve gone to be with Jesus. That’s the message we get from Oprah and Dr. Phil and their ilk who encourage us never to be second to anyone and to do everything possible to take care of ourselves. If this is the kind of message we get every time we turn on a television, or pick up a book or newspaper, who on earth would want to be poor in spirit? Who on earth would want to be meek? Who on earth would even think to hunger and thirst for righteousness?
But the sad fact is that calamity inevitably comes our way. Loved ones take ill, and even die; children turn away from their parents’ teaching and example; people get laid off from jobs to which they’ve given their whole lives. And Jesus is telling us that we need to accept these things with peace – even with happiness – because through them God is working to build up the kingdom.
Father Bob Barron, one of the theologians who taught me in seminary talked about the Beatitudes as a kind of a theological freedom from addiction. Because we can easily become addicted to all the comforts of our society, addicted to the happiness and euphoria that the secular media promise us. But if we are to be blessed – if we are to be truly happy – we have to combat our addiction to all that. Maybe we can read these Beatitudes a little like this:
Blessed are they who are not addicted to good feelings, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who are not addicted to happiness, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those who are not addicted to power, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who are not addicted to having things their own way, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are those who are not addicted to vengeance and retribution, for will be shown mercy. Blessed are they who are not addicted to being first and right, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are not addicted to being non-confrontational, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when you are not addicted to being popular. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
The reason we shouldn’t be addicted to all these seemingly good things is that seeking satisfaction on our own closes us off to the real blessings God wants to give us. Blessings like peace, fullness, even inheriting the Kingdom of heaven. These are blessings of great worth, but we absolutely will not receive them if we settle for the shoddy joy of being addicted to good feelings.
What would happen if we all started to think that way? What would happen if we suddenly decided it wasn’t all about us? What would happen if we decided that the utmost priority in life was not merely taking care of ourselves, but instead taking care of others, trusting that in that way, everyone – including ourselves – would be taken care of? What would happen if we were not so addicted to ourselves and so did not miss the opportunity to come to know others and grow closer to our Lord? That would indeed be a day of great rejoicing and gladness, I can assure you that.
And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself. We all need to do that to some extent, and maybe sometimes we don’t do that as well as we should – I’ll even speak for myself on that one. But when we consume ourselves with ourselves, nothing good can come from it. Maybe this is a kind of balance that we could spend our Lent striving to achieve.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word calls us to a kind of humility that remembers that God is God and we are not. This isn’t some kind of false humility that says we are good for nothing, because God never made anything that was good for nothing. Instead, it is a humility that reminds us that what is best in us is what God has given us. As St. Paul says today, “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.” If we would remember that everything that we have and everything we are is a gift to us, if we would remember that it is up to us to care for one another, if we would remember that being addicted to good feelings only makes us feel worse than ever, if we would but humble ourselves and let God give us everything that we really need, we would never be in want. Rejoice and be glad, rejoice and be glad!