Posted January 29, 2017
In today’s Gospel Reading (Matthew 5: 1-12) certain kinds of people are pronounced ‘blessed’. ‘Blessed’ (makarios in Greek) is a religious word. It means near to God, favoured by God. What’s very surprising, however, is that even though ‘blessed’ is a religious word, the people whom Jesus here declares ‘blessed’ are not in any obvious sense religious. You don’t hear ‘Blessed are the church-goers’, or ‘Blessed are those who believe in certain doctrines’, or ‘Blessed are those who fast, or who have mystical experiences, or perform miracles, or convert the world by their preaching.’ Conspicuously absent are: ‘Blessed are the Catholics’, and ‘Blessed are the Anglicans’.
Instead, the qualities that qualify for blessedness are qualities that would be recognized by many non-religious people as admirable on purely human criteria. The ‘poor in spirit’, that is, the unpretentious and the unassuming, are generally liked and admired, as are also the gentle, the compassionate; people who act with unselfish motives (‘the pure in heart’); people for whom truth and integrity are a consuming passion (who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’); people who promote peace; even people who are persecuted for no other reason that they are good and innocent, who witness to the truth and suffer for it (‘persecuted for the sake of righteousness’). These are all human virtues, which people of good will instinctively regard as lovable and admirable.
It has been remarked that these sayings of Jesus reflect Judaism at its best. That is true. But you could also say that they reflect humanity at its best. And if this is true, then what Jesus is saying, in effect, is: ‘Blessed are the truly human.’ Those people are ‘blessed’, that is, near to God, who are authentically human. God takes delight in people who act with complete integrity; whose motives are transparently good and free from all self-seeking; who are gentle and kindly; who are moved to compassion by the needs and sufferings of other people. Blessed are they.
In a word: Blessed are those whose humanity reflects that pristine goodness and loveliness that God intended when he said, ‘Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness.’ – And God created Adam in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God saw what he had made. And behold it was very good.
Is there nothing, then, that is specifically Christian in this description of a perfect, authentic humanity? Yes, there certainly is. For the description itself is a description of Jesus. It is he who is unassuming, unpretentious, and humble par excellence. It is he who is gentle beyond words. (‘Learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart!’); it is he who hungers and thirsts for righteousness (‘My food is to do the will of my Father’); it is he who is endlessly compassionate, pure in heart, an ocean of peace and giver of peace; whose whole being is intent on truth and righteousness. He is the one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness, who is reviled and persecuted: the innocent victim of all the forces of evil. He is that pure humanity, saturated by God, which God created in the beginning and saw that it was very good. That is why Jesus in his perfect humanity is the kingdom of God in person.
St Matthew’s purpose in placing Jesus on the mountain in this episode of his Gospel is to evoke another mountain – Mount Sinai, where God gave his people his holy law to be the foundation of their lives. St Matthew’s message is that on the mountain Jesus now proclaims God’s law. But Jesus’ law is not like the law of Sinai. It is not the kind of law that you study, or that can be adopted as a plan of action or that can be consulted for deciding complex moral questions. The law that God now reveals is none other than the character of Jesus; or, rather, it is the person of Jesus, living and breathing. Our law is a living person. Our religion consists in taking on his character, in being assimilated to his instincts; in being absorbed into his most tender emotions: in allowing him to imprint his character on the fabric of our soul; in allowing his spirit to become the well-spring of our attitudes and actions.
In saying that the person of Jesus is our law, therefore, we do not mean simply that he is someone external to us, whom we can imitate, whom we take as a role model; nor simply someone whose wise sayings we study and memorize. We mean that too, of course: but Jesus is essentially more than that. He is an interior law, a law written on the heart, to use the prophet Jeremiah’s phrase: a law which, as the prophet Ezekiel explains, is none other than God’s spirit released into our hearts, changing hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, recreating us in the depths of our personality and motivating us from within to behave in a way that pleases God.
If we want to know how we can be blessed, we must ask ourselves: how can I allow Jesus’ character to form my character, his instincts to become my instincts, his personality to suffuse my own? And the answer to that is twofold: first you must want it; and second, you must pray for it. Religious practices and simply praying for things are not enough. I must learn to love to be with Jesus in prayer, to feel and experience his love for me. I must keep asking him all the time to colour my mind and turn my will and my emotions towards what is great and pure and spiritual. It is that prayer, and the effects of that prayer, that make you blessed.
And if that is true of prayer, how much more is it true of this Eucharist, this exchange of blood and charity, wherein Jesus imparts his Spirit to us and we become one with him; so that we become blessed with him in God’s eyes? Be mighty serious about all this. Re-focus your life on your union with Christ. Make prayer and the Eucharist your centre of gravity. In that way, you will become like Christ. More than that, you will become Christ, so that the blessedness that is his will be yours as well. You will be blessed with a share in his perfect humanity. That is what our religion is all about. Blessed are they who truly understand this and make it their life project.
Fr Tom Deidun