The Depth of the Beatitudes
Christ spells out the path to holiness, happiness in Matthew 5
Early in my priestly ministry, an older priest told me, “The goal of every homily is to convince people why life is worth living.” Honestly, at the time, it seemed strange counsel to me. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. But years later, with more experience under my belt, I’ve been able to discern the broader wisdom of this senior priest.
In our secular world, people are uncertain about the meaning, purpose and value of life. This type of existential uncertainty causes some devastating confusion in a person’s heart. Life quickly loses its richness and depth. Love and virtue appear unattainable. Life’s sufferings become overwhelming. Boredom absorbs the soul. And happiness, for which we were made, seems to be only a child’s dream that fades with the duties and sorrows of life. In such a state, people become zombies, and they walk a fine line between hope and despair.
In contrast to this backdrop, the liturgical homily (and all efforts in evangelization and catechetics) is a proclamation of the Person of Jesus Christ. In opposition to the desolation and darkness of our age, Jesus comes as the light of the world. He offers the human family the definitive and holistic answers to all its questions.
Pope St. John Paul II taught it best when he wrote in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis:
“The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ” (No. 10).
In drawing near to Jesus Christ, we see him as the Beatitude of God — that is, the very happiness and pleasure of God. In the Lord Jesus, therefore, we find the fulfillment of our life and of the human narrative.
The Gospel Message
In his ministry to us, the Lord Jesus announces the Good News. This Gospel is the reason for our hope. It teaches us why we were created and directs us to our final destiny. In light of this beginning and end, it affirms our dignity and vocation as the children of God. The Good News guides us along the journey from one to the other. It instructs us on how to love and how to seek happiness.
Our natural human desire for happiness, therefore, finds an answer in the Gospel. Our inclination for peace discovers its fruition in the structure of the Gospel. It dispels the darkness of life and gives birth to virtue and creativity. It helps us to become more of who we are, more of the person we were created to be.
In this regard, the Gospel specifically offers us the Beatitudes.
The Lord Jesus gave the greatest summation of the Christian way of life in his Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5-7). He began this pre-eminent sermon with a list of eight counsels. The early Christian tradition called these counsels “the Beatitudes,” since biblically the word “beatitude” is a synonym for “happiness” and “blessing,” and the early disciples saw these eight instructions as a path to happiness, love and blessedness.
The early Christians saw the Beatitudes as the path to happiness since they understood them as the spiritual autobiography of the Lord Jesus himself. Before seeing the Beatitudes as a program of life for his disciples, we should see them as a proclamation of the deepest sentiments of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and as the very description of his own way of life. It is precisely in the spirit of the Beatitudes that we are called to interpret and apply the deeds and words of the Lord Jesus. In the eight counsels of the Sermon on the Mount, we have the best explanation of the Lord’s life.
Only after we view the Beatitudes in this context can we comprehend them as a summons to us on how to love God and neighbor.
The Inner Logic of the Beatitudes
In accepting the beatitudinal call, we quickly recognize that such a call is an invitation to a way of life. It’s a way that has been blazed and set by the Lord Jesus. As we desire to be like him and imitate his heart, which is meek and humble, we must follow his way, which is the way of the Beatitudes. And so, it is no coincidence that before we were called “Christians,” we were simply described as members of “the Way.”
In addressing the Beatitudes in this manner, their fluid nature is apparent. In truth, each beatitude leads to another one. Rather than a mere collection of eight counsels thrown together, or the mere structure of poetry, the Beatitudes are presented in a dynamic and progressive way. This realization helps us to appreciate why only the First and Eighth Beatitude speak of “the Kingdom.” The two beatitudes serve as bookends — a type of alpha and omega, with poverty of spirit initiating the way and the willingness to suffer for righteousness as the commission to go and share the path of God’s kingdom.
In between this initiation and commission, we see the other Beatitudes describing the vigorous and energetic life of those who seek and follow the way of the Lord Jesus.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10)
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
2. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
3. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”
4. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
6. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.”
7. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
8. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Initiating a Life in the Kingdom
Diving into the First Beatitude, we are called to a poverty of spirit. This spiritual poverty strips us of the false treasury of pride, vanity and self-sovereignty. It’s a profound acknowledgment of our own weakness and sinfulness. It’s a radical declaration that we can’t live a life of goodness or purpose with God. It’s an intimate acceptance that we truly need God. It is not a curtsy or a kind of statement that says, “Hey, God, it’s good to have you around.” No, the First Beatitude is a raw, existential, heart-rending, total humbling of ourselves before God: “Lord, I need you. My life makes no sense without you. Please help me!”
Only with such a poverty of spirit can anyone enter the kingdom of God.
Father Jeffrey Kirby’s book,
the Beatitudes in Everyday Life”
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When we have incorporated such a spirit into our lives, it begins to invigorate our souls, enliven our minds and show us the mercy of God. This leads us to a sorrow over our personal sinfulness and of the evil in our world. This is the sorrow of the Second Beatitude. It compels us to confess our sins, deplore the vice and darkness of our race, and cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me and on the whole world!”
Such a grievance in our souls ushers us to meekness, which is not necessarily passivity or timidity. The meekness of the Third Beatitude is simply knowing our place in various states of affairs and not overstepping or understepping. Meekness helps us to discern God’s will and to find our vocation. It spurs us on as we pray: “Lord, show me my place! Where do I fit in your kingdom?”
As meekness comes to fruition, we see God’s will and our role in his kingdom. This clarity gives us focus. It provides a specific path for each one of us, and this ignites a hunger and thirst within our hearts for righteousness. This hunger and thirst of the Fourth Beatitude is only possible because of our poverty of spirit, sorrow over sin, and because of our meekness. In summary, the conversion and drive for holiness found within the Fourth Beatitude depends on the integration of the previous three beatitudes. From these, and with the spirit of the Fourth Beatitude, we sing to God: “Lord, make me holy! Help me always to do your will!”
Humorously called “the intermission” because of its indirect reference to food, the Fourth Beatitude of hungering and thirsting for righteousness indicates a shift in the Beatitudes. After reaching a personal desire for holiness, we’re led to a deeper love of neighbor. This love of neighbor counter-mirrors our own journey through the Beatitudes. The fifth is paralleled by the third, the sixth by the second, and the seventh by the first. Here’s the breakdown:
The Fifth Beatitude is a call to give mercy to our neighbors. Such a bestowal of mercy is simply a giving to others the fruits of our own meekness, the Third Beatitude. With mercy, we grow into a purity of heart, the Sixth Beatitude. We pray: “Lord, help me to know my place. Give me the strength to forgive!”
A clean heart allows us to see the presence and providence of God in all things, even darkness and evil. This openness of heart, therefore, is a sharing with others the fruits of our own living out of the sorrow over sin contained in the Second Beatitude. And so, we intercede: “Lord, I see your goodness in me, in spite of my sins. Clear my heart of distractions. Help me to see your presence!”
And keeping the pace, a clean heart calls us to seek peace, which is a tranquillity of order, in the world around us. And so, as we can now see, the gift of peace is a paying forward of the fruits of our own incorporation of a poverty of spirit, the First Beatitude. We pray: “Lord, who am I? You are my everything. You bring order from chaos. Make me an instrument of your peace!”
Rather than causing needless confusion, the essential point in spelling out this movement of the Beatitudes is to show us that we cannot give what we do not have. By working on our own spiritual growth in the first few beatitudes, we are then able to turn around and share the spiritual fruits of our discipleship with others.
The movements of the Beatitudes culminate in an awareness of the reality of the battle between good and evil and of our willingness to accept suffering for the sake of righteousness. The Beatitudes form and shape us for this commission, and our own preparedness and openness to accept or decline it will determine whether the kingdom of God is made manifest in our world.
In their progression and totality, the Beatitudes are the answer to all those who seek the meaning, purpose and value of life. They are the eight-fold path to a life of hope, happiness and love.
The Beatitudes Today
Surprisingly, the Beatitudes are neglected in many areas of evangelization and catechetics today, and yet the Spirit, who leads us to God, aches and desires for them to be retrieved and taught in the homiletics and multifaceted teaching ministry of the Church today. The Beatitudes are a fire that seek to be fanned into flame, and they stand out as a divinely inspired, inerrant and ready resource to any priest, religion teacher or catechist who wants to edify and motivate the People of God along the path of happiness and goodness.
The above article only provided a few reflections on the depth and richness of the eight counsels of Jesus Christ. There is more, because the Beatitudes, which have been given to us by Our Lord, are an ocean of wisdom and encouragement, direction and guidance. The Spirit begs for their retrieval, because they can help us and show us the way.
FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina.