Discipleship 101: The Beatitudes

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time is the famous passage of the Beatitudes from Matthew (the gospel we read in the Lectionary’s cycle A.) It is the first section of the Sermon on the Mount. Excerpts of the Sermon will be read at Mass from this weekend up until Lent. It is Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.

Jesus goes up the mountain, the way Moses went up the mountain of Sinai and received the tablets of the Law (Exodus 24:15.) Matthew has thrown a clue for us to realize that Jesus is doing what Moses did and is giving us a new law, the Beatitudes.

The Commandments are mainly passive rules, prohibitions, “do nots” whereas the Beatitudes are active laws, “do’s.” The Commandments were given to a primitive people, wandering shepherds, and its main purpose was to keep the peace in the collective. Jesus is not telling us to break the Commandments, but fulfilling them is not enough for those who want to be his disciples. I can sit on a chair the whole day, I would not break a single Commandment, but I would really not be a good disciple of Jesus. Fulfilling the Commandments produces decent citizens; living according to the Beatitudes produces saints.

However, the teaching of the Beatitudes has not permeated enough. We are still often Christians of the Commandments. People often come to confession and go through the Ten Commandments—with a great sight of relief from the confessor when we are told the person has not killed anybody. Can you imagine what a confession based on the Beatitudes would look like?

We have the four more Sundays to continue reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, with specific examples Jesus will give on what a disciple of his needs to do. For now, we review the list of the Beatitudes—in an attempt to write them in “commandment” language and offering a bit of an explanation when need it:

  • Be poor in Spirit: poor in self-centeredness and in our tendency to accumulate.
  • Mourn with those who mourn: be compassionate, make the suffering of others yours.
  • Be meek: as open and disposed to accepting the will of God.
  • Be hungry and thirsty for Justice.
  • Be merciful.
  • Be clean of heart: be clear, transparent, solid.
  • Be a peacemaker.
  • Accept persecution: accept the unpopularity of those who stand up for Justice.

The Beatitudes are also a promise. Jesus tells us in this gospel what will happen if we live according to the Beatitudes: we will see God; we will experience the Kingdom; we will be called Children of God; we will inherit the land, we will be comforted, and the measure of our mercy will be measured on our own sins. Scholars would point that the “Blessed are” used in this translation could also be translated as “Happy are.” On top of everything else, Jesus is telling us that living the Beatitudes is not a painful sacrifice, but something that will makes us happy–just in case seeing God was not enough (wink added.)

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Christmas Review

One single post will cover the whole of Christmas. We have said before that Christmas is not a day, but a season. Each celebration during the season is a different take at the core idea of Christmas: the reality that God becomes human. The journey of Christmas includes important feasts that this year we have not celebrated on the weekend because Christmas fell on a Sunday—the feasts of the Holy Family and the Baptism of the Lord.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we preached a similar message, even if the set of readings was different. It was not out of convenience, but because either using the bucolic, tale-like story of the nativity scene in Luke, or the more theological beginning of John’s gospel used on Christmas Day, the point is the same: what is our reaction/answer to God becoming human?

The story in Luke is so popular that we may fail to capture its whole depth. I propose to you that we look at it in terms of reaction: the reaction of the Shepherds—first fearful, then joyful; the reaction of the angels; the reaction of the inn keeper saying that there is no room for God’s plan in the world. The theologically dense gospel reading for Christmas Day has Jesus being called “the Word,” the most basic unit of human communication. God communicates through Jesus and expects an answer from us.

Think about it: not only Christmas, but also the whole of the gospel is about people’s reaction to Jesus: indifference, fear, anger, violence that turns the wood of the manger into the wood of the Cross… but also great reactions—like the one of the shepherds who first are afraid but then become fully convinced messengers of the good news.

The second stop in the journey of Christmas was the celebration of Mary, Mother of God, with the obvious background of one year ending and a new one starting. The gospel of the feast has Mary “keeping all these things in her heart.” This beautiful idiom is used in other parts of Luke’s gospel about Mary, who the first thing we know she does at the Annunciation is to “ponder.” Mary kept the extraordinary events happening to her and around her and pondered, meditated, discerned, considered… It would be a great way to begin the New Year if we would make a commitment to think, discern, ponder, a bit more. Does it sound like a good New Year’s resolution?

As much as we know the limited power of New Year’s resolutions, and how short lived they normally are, it is also true that we keep trying. There is something about starting a new year that makes us believe change and improvement is possible. Despite everything that would seem to prove the contrary, humans are hopeful about the future. No one is really planning for 2017 to be worse than 2016.

Following Mary’s inspiration, we should ponder New Year’s resolutions. But I propose to you that instead of the typical resolutions that seem to be about improving the self (exercise more, lose weight, etc.) we could come up with resolutions that improve others. In the end, moving the focus from self to others will end up improving ourselves.

Finally, last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. We have preached before (you can check this past post) that the Magi bring to the Child three gifts that represent three main areas of human concern: gold—our concern for finances and material needs; frankincense—our spiritual dimension, prayer, spirituality; myrrh—an ointment used in antiquity to alleviate pain and to embalm the bodies of the dead, referring to our concern with the reality of suffering and eventual death.

As an adult, Jesus will give an answer to the three questions. About money, Jesus will preach about the foolishness to over-store and accumulate; he will tell us that there is more joy in giving than receiving. He will constantly remind us of the practice to consider the poor when we have been blessed with more than what we need. About prayer, in what was a revolution in his time, Jesus will preach about a God that is close to us, to the point that he will teach us to call him Father, and he will teach us to pray addressing Him just like that. About suffering and ultimate death, perhaps the most difficult of the three areas, what Jesus will do is go to the Cross, and thus preach to us not about a suffering for the sake of suffering, but suffering that saves others. He will invite us to be “moved with compassion” which means to feel the pain of others as if it were our own.

As we begin a New Year, we are invited to reflect whether my life is at least in the right direction, in the direction of the gospel, in these three areas. One last point: these concerns are called gifts and treasures. A provocative invitation to consider our areas of difficulty, our anxieties, as “target” points for growth.

This is the image we used for all of our Christmas materials this year at Sacred Heart.

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