Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Regarding the Beatitudes G.K. Chesterton once said, “On first reading it doesn’t make sense, on second reading nothing else makes sense!” We heard them proclaimed again last Sunday at Mass, St. Luke’s account, transposed to level ground from the lofty mount on which St. Matthew positions Jesus as the new Moses.

Each Gospel has a particular set of hearers in mind. St. Matthew’s was largely written for Jewish-Christians. Hence the many references to the Hebrew scriptures with which his audience would have been familiar. St. Luke is traditionally thought to have been a physician. His Gospel shows special empathy with the lowly, sick and vulnerable, those with whom a doctor would likely be most engaged. What in St. Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount becomes in Luke the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus meets the poor and lowly where they are, moving down to their level. He is a teacher, as in Matthew, but he is also very much the healer and restorer of health. And what does he promise?

Some modern translations of the sermon begin with “Happy are …” That may be the translator’s best way of rendering Μακ?ριος (Makários) into English. The Latin Vulgate uses “beatus,” which means blessed. Makários can mean “happy,” “blessed,” “fortunate,” even “lucky” in different contexts. Here I think we see Jesus making a rather revolutionary statement, turning reality upside down, as Chesterton suggests above. It does not at first make sense, for example, that being poor would make one happy or be considered a blessing or a good fortune.

After all, did not the Prodigal Son have the best of good fortune? He got half of his father’s estate while his dad was still alive and went off to eat, drink and debauch his way crazy. Wasn’t he happy? Well, his luck soon ran out when he squandered all his wealth. Addictions tend to do that. The more you spend on them, the more they enslave you and the more they demand from you so that there is little of “you” left eventually. Instead of getting richer, you get poorer, worn out, wasted.

St. Matthew speaks of the “poor in spirit.” Poverty of spirit implies a certain detachment, not clinging to material things and substances for fleeting satisfactions and creature comforts. It is more than just the lack of avarice and material detachment — it means a lowliness, an absence of pride in one’s own self-righteousness, an attitude of being gifted and being granted good fortune by kindness or goodness of the other. That Other, in the sense that Jesus invites us to “taste and see” is God.

The one who is spiritually poor is indeed “happy” but not just for a time and season, but eternally. A sense of wellness and serenity becomes so much part of the identity of the poor in spirit that it is as if one is already in heaven. There is no need for grasping, envy, lust or, what is worse, a sense of entitlement that drives this kind of greed. Why? Because God can be trusted and God will be the food and drink and wealth of the one who puts trust completely in God, as the center of one’s life.

St. Luke, however, only speaks of “the poor,” with no qualifications. Their happiness comes solely from being “blessed” or given the grace to become holy. Holiness cannot be attained by effort alone. It requires an act of love, a trust in the one who bestows this grace. So if the Beatitudes — the “holy-makers” if you will — seem difficult at first, it is because they are not just moral rules to follow and to try to struggle toward on our own. They require God’s help and this is what Jesus promises. “Blessed” then is a way of saying a happiness that comes from being sanctified — or made holy.

As Matthew Kelly has reminded us, everyone is called to be holy, to be blessedly happy. Each of us has a role to play in helping one another to become holy. In a recent column, I wrote, “Yes, we believe every person has a place in this Body (of Christ, that is, the Church). Our job is to listen to the Holy Spirit, the master of relationships, the Love between the Father and the Son, who helps us bring out the best in one another, the person each is called to be by God, not ourselves alone. We are always more than we can see on our own, looking in a mirror, dressing up, or counting our awards and deeds. We are connected to one another and to Someone much greater than ourselves.”

The Beatitudes — some have called them the “commandments” as Jesus taught them — are not so much moral rules that we are bound to live by but affirmations of our vocation as Christians, what we are called to be. It is possible to live on earth “as if” we were already in heaven. This is not possible on our own. United in faith, built into the Body of Christ, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, we are like so many “living stones” that make up this edifice, another image that St. Paul is fond of.

Everyone has a place in this mystical body of Christ. Our faith in Jesus becomes something that engages us in holding one another together, side by side. We have all had experiences of profound absence, distancing, isolation and even loneliness over the last two years. At times we were not able to do the basic things we do in daily life, work, play, worship and travel, all activities that we do in real time, present personally to one another. As useful as electronic media may have been, with Zooms and social networks taxed to their limits, we can now recognize that there is no substitute for personal presence.

It may seem a no-brainer, but that is precisely why the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became incarnate, and “pitched his tent among us,” as the Gospel of John says, quite literally (Jn 1:14). Personal presence. I would suggest that this is the Beatitude — the blessing — that sums up all the others. It is the promise and assurance that Jesus is with us, and in us through the presence of his Holy Spirit in and among in the Church, that gives us the courage and the hope and the confidence that what seems impossible and senseless at first, is the way things are and are meant to be, when touched by grace. That is truly a blessing, a Beatitude, and each of us, knowing and living this, has a joy and a peace, a happiness the world cannot give.