In the 6th century B.C., God promised, through the prophet Ezekiel, that He would gather his people, cleanse them and impart to them a new spirit: "I am going to take you from among the nations and gather you together from all the foreign countries, and bring you home to your own land.
I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed... I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws and sincerely respect my observances. You will live in the land which I gave your ancestors. You shall be my people and I will be your God" (Ez 36, 26).
Christians believe that God fulfilled his promise in the Person of Christ who gathers from all nations (kata holos) all who belong to God, and he forms them into the new Israel through a new covenant. The beatitudes are the basic outline, the interior contours, of this new spirit. Jesus, the new Moses, writes these not on tablets of stone, but on the human heart changed and elevated by grace. Thus, the new law is an interior law.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out that genuine happiness (eudaemonia) is complete and sufficient unto itself, that is, not precarious and dependent upon outside factors like the weather or the stock market. Thus, true happiness endures. But happiness was not possible for everyone, according to Aristotle, and the happiness of which he speaks is natural happiness, the result of emotional stability brought about by the virtues and the joy of natural contemplation of the highest things. But Jesus is God in the flesh, and God became man so that man could "become" God, so to speak, that is, so that he might be elevated by divine grace, which is a sharing in the supernatural life of God; it is by entering into the Person of Christ that we enter into his joy.
Each beatitude begins with Makarios ("Blessed are..."), which is the blessedness that is sufficient unto itself, complete, and the first taste of life eternal. As a whole, they describe the spirit of the one who lives in the Person of Christ. Let's examine each contour of this new life.
- "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs."
That is the first and most fundamental condition for belonging to Christ, and thus the first condition for entering into the joy of the kingdom of God. Those who are poor in terms of material wealth are deeply aware of their lack. Similarly, those who are poor in spirit are aware of their spiritual lack, that is, they are aware of their utter need for God; thus, they open themselves up to Him. The result of that simple act of openness is the gift of the kingdom of heaven.
Mental illness is a very painful condition to have to deal with, but what I have found over the years is that many of those who suffer from mental illness have an acute awareness of their radical need for God, their poverty of spirit, and this has led them to call out to God in the midst of their darkness, which in turn has led to very intense moments of prayer. These are people selected by Christ to keep him company in Gethsemane where he experienced a heavy weight of mental anguish. Mental illness is a difficult cross, a painful gift, but if we consider those who live in prosperity, who are rarely sick and are so well off that their days are spent fulfilling their every whim, we notice that many of them have no awareness of their need for God and so they do not pray, and because of that they do not know makarios.
- "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
It seems rather counterintuitive that the mournful can be called 'happy', but this beatitude refers to a special kind of mourning. If we love God, we will love all those who belong to God, and every human being without exception comes from God and is loved by God with an incomprehensible love. And so the more we enter into the heart of God, the more we discover our neighbor there, and so we are moved to return to earth, so to speak, and we go looking for him or her, because we know that there we will find the God we have begun to love: we discover our neighbor in God, and we rediscover God in our neighbor.
Now when we truly love others, their happiness becomes our own, because we have begun to love them as "another self", and yet for the most part, we find them in pain, suffering, and struggling to be happy. Because we love them as "another self", their suffering too becomes our own. We mourn for them, for it is so hard to remain indifferent to the sufferings of others after we have discovered and entered into the heart of God. It is the sins of human beings, the cold indifference of others towards God and neighbor that fills us with sorrow. This, however, is a blessed sorrow, a sorrow that is not incompatible with joy, but exists with it, for it is the joy of having been invited into Christ's sorrow, which is a joy filled sorrow.
- "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
A meek spirit is a gentle spirit. The poor in spirit who mourn the misery of others because they really know that misery and are moved to share in it are gentle towards those who are suffering. The meek are not quick to take offense at others; they are very patient with others because they know that God has always been patient with them. When we take a good hard look at how often we have been wrong over the years, how often our impressions, inferences, conclusions, convictions, etc., have turned out to be mistaken, we tend to be less self-righteous, less confident in the way we see and interpret the actions of others. We hesitate to conclude definitively, and so it is easier to be more patient with others, gentler, and more open to listening to them, whomever they might be. Anger is a response to an injustice, but often what we interpret as an injustice is, on closer inspection, no such thing. Those who are quick to react with anger are those disposed to make quick inferences; they trust too readily in the way they see things, believing that their grasp of the real is far more comprehensive than it is.
But when a person finally realizes how tiny is the framework in which he sees and interprets the world at any one time, he tends to be more open to learning and is reluctant to jump to conclusions, and thus much less prone to react in anger. The meek are self-possessed, in control of their emotions, in particular the passion of anger. Meekness, however, does not mean the suppression of anger. Recall that Jesus became angry at the money changers in the temple and drove them out. Anger that is governed by reason and is a response to real injustice is not sinful, but virtuous; the deliberate decision to keep anger alive in a spirit of unforgiveness, however, is sinful.
- "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right; they shall be satisfied."
Scripture must be read in its historical context, and thus so too this particular passage. Hunger and thirst, as these words are used here, are something that few of us in the western world have experienced. What Jesus is referring to is the hunger pangs of a first century Palestinian laborer who knew what it was like to go without food for an extended period of time, and the thirst is that of a Palestinian who has experienced the heat of the desert and the thirst it induces. There is a tremendous amount of indifference in this world, and the reason is that indifference is rather painless. The indifferent do not suffer over the wounds of others; many in fact secretly delight in the misfortunes of others, which is why bad news spreads quickly. Many are simply not incensed at the injustices around them, and although they are very passionate about their goals, those ambitions often have little to do with making this a more just world and more to do with their own individual fulfillment.
But an indication that the Lord is drawing you into himself, into his own life, is that you are the kind of person who loves justice more than you love yourself, as opposed to the kind of person who looks out for himself first, and only later, after all his needs are met, concerns himself with others. Those who have entered into Christ will suffer a great deal of hunger and thirst, because there is so much injustice around us. The more intense your love, the more intense your hunger and thirst; blessed are you if you live with this kind of hunger and thirst, because that means you have entered into the hunger and thirst of Christ.
- "Blessed are the merciful; they will be shown mercy."
Christ revealed God as absolute mercy. He came to die for us and cancel the debt of sin, which we were unable to pay. The Latin word for mercy is misericordia (miser, cor, dia). The word means "the heart (cor) of God (deus) touching our misery (miser). God enters into our misery by becoming man in the Person of Christ. He does so to inject the comfort of his presence into the depths of our darkness so that when life becomes dark for us, we do not have to suffer alone. When we have been touched by his mercy, we too become merciful; to follow him is to become a channel of his mercy.
- "Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God."
What is pure is unmixed. For example, we speak of pure maple syrup that is unmixed with anything else. To be pure in heart is to have an undivided love for God, a heart unmixed with any other competing love. Some people love creation more than the Creator; they love things; they worship things, wealth, the pleasures of the earth, the glorification of the self, etc. They may love God, but their love is mixed with a disordered love of self.
Aristotle said: "As a person is, so does he see". What we see and don't see is in large part determined by our character, the kind of person we've made ourselves to be by our moral choices. We are what we love. The 'heart' is the most important factor is determining what it is we are able to see. It is always delightful to have a discussion with a group of young grade nine students who are both highly intelligent and who still have the purity and innocence of childhood. They are able to achieve a level of understanding of the loftiest theological concepts, something no longer possible for many senior students who have lost that purity. That is why the pure of heart shall see God, who calls us to love Him more than His gifts. If we eventually get to that point, we shall see Him as He is in Himself (the Beatific Vision).
- "Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the children of God."
The Latin word for peace is 'pax', which means unity. As Ezekiel prophesied, the Lord will gather his people together from all nations; for love unites, hate divides. A peacemaker is one who strives to bring together, to maintain a genuine harmony among people. A peacemaker is not a "peacenik"; rather, he is one who is willing to 'make' peace, to work for it, even to fight for it. An unjust aggressor, which might include an entire nation, is intent on destroying the peace; so a true peacemaker is even willing to take up arms and fight, perhaps die for the pax of the nation, as our war veterans have done. So there is no requirement that one become a pacifist if one is a Christian.
Gossipers are not peacemakers, but love scandal and division. Controllers too are not peacemakers; for the controller desires to gather into a unity, but one that is under his control and that he can manage. He attempts to order everything for the sake of securing a safe environment for himself. If the controller is a priest or bishop, he may betray the duties of his office by refusing to speak out when necessary, by remaining silent on difficult moral matters because he loves his own "peace of mind" more than he loves the good of the flock. He may be tempted to rationalize his silence under the pretext of being a "peacemaker", that is, one who does not wish to "divide", an attitude contrary to Christ: "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword" (Mt 10, 34).
The true peacemaker, however, is not an "organizer", but an instrument in the hands of Christ who orders and "brings together" in ways that are beyond our comprehension at the moment. It is only much later, when looking back, that we see that what appeared to be a life characterized by unintelligible randomness was really an ordered movement towards the realization of the larger plan of divine providence.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of what is right, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
This final beatitude clearly implies that there is a real difference between joy and pleasure; for there is no pleasure in being persecuted, but you do find a secret joy in the very recesses of the soul, for you have become aware that you've received the gift of being drawn into the very heart of his silence. Christ is joy, and it is in being persecuted on account of him that you and I really come to know him. The silence of Christ is more joyful than the greatest joys the earth has to offer, and this is what persecution on account of Christ does for us, it takes us out of the noise of the world and into the profound rest of his other worldly silence.
This beatitude clearly implies that Jesus is no mere human being. How absurd it would be for me to call anyone blessed for suffering persecution on my account. What power do I have to offer them any kind of blessedness for what they choose to undergo for me? But Jesus can impart blessedness to those who suffer on account of belonging to him, because he is no mere man; he is fully God and fully man, and as God he chose to join a human nature to inject human suffering with the very joy of his supernatural life, which is so different from any other joy that indeed it strikes one silent. We rest in him; for we have found everything that the human heart is looking for but cannot find outside of him.
Deacon Douglas McManaman. "The Beatitudes: A Concise Summary." CERC (June, 2014).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of Anger, Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2014 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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