Beatitudes: Our Roadmap for the Jouney to Freedom

The Great Sermon on the Mount

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  January 29, 2017

While reflecting on the Scriptures for this weekend's homily, I realized that we are coming to the end of the week of prayer for Christian unity, and the beginning of the week of prayer for vocations.  And something came back to me from a retreat I attended many years ago.

The topic of vocation had come up, and each of us was invited to go back to the moment in our own lives when we first experienced the Lord's invitation: "Come, follow me."  Having worked with priests and religious for over 25 years, the retreat master said that as different as their stories might be, two elements were always present in a healthy vocation:

First, the desire to be a holy person - that is, to respond to the call to a deep and unique relationship of intimacy with God.  Second, the desire to live your life in such a way that you make a positive difference in the world.  In the beautiful phrase of Frederich Buechner, “you find your vocation at that place where your own deepest desires encounter the deep hungers of the world around you.”

It sounds very simple, but I immediately connected with what he was saying.  And all these years later, I still see my life primarily in terms of those two desires.  First, to be holy: my desire for deeper intimacy with God, to live as a follower and friend of Jesus.  Then my ministry, the work I do in the Church and in the world as a priest, becomes where I experience that presence of God, and also where I try to live out the concrete implications of that relationship with God.

This is obviously not unique to me, or Fr. Peter, or Fr. Tijo, as priests.  For deep down, don't we all long - in one way or another - for that feeling of oneness with the Creator, with the source of our being?  Don't we all hope that our presence makes a difference, that somehow the world - or at least my little corner of the world - will be a better place for my having passed through?

One of the great insights of the Church at Vatican II was its insistence on an aspect of the Church's deepest tradition which has sadly often been overlooked: that every Christian is called to holiness, and that the concrete reality of our world is where we are called to live out the message of the Gospel.  That call is expressed in the Gospel which has just been proclaimed in our midst: Jesus invites us to take the Beatitudes as our model of life.

To understand the importance of this text, the first section of the great Sermon on the Mount, we have to see it in the context in which it was written.  Matthew addresses his Gospel to a Jewish community, for whom a mountain is not just any place: it is the place of God's revelation.  As the Law had once been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Jesus now reveals the law of the New Covenant, the teachings meant to guide those who call themselves his disciples. 

The beatitudes are absolutely central to our faith, for in them, we discover the heart of what it means to be a Christian: to be holy: in Jesus' words, to be poor in spirit, gentle, pure of heart.  It is very significant that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the section on the moral life, on “Life in Christ”, begins not with the Ten Commandments, but with a reflection on the Beatitudes, on the desire God has planted within each of us for happiness, for holiness, for loving union with God and neighbour.  Only once this foundation is solidly laid, can we begin to make sense of the various virtues, values, and norms that give concrete expression to this desire in our daily life. 

Our Scripture translations alternately translate this call as “Blessed are” or “Happy are”.  In 2017, we might use other words to express this call, to describe these ways of being Jesus proposes to us: authenticity, integrity, coherence, wholeness, inner peace.   But the point is that these interior attitudes, these “BE-attitudes” are not an escape from the business of everyday living into an idealized world.  They must make a difference, overflowing into action, into the nitty-gritty of our lives, into our relationships, our work and commitment to human society. 

For as Christians, our holiness is not just for ourselves; we can and must make a difference in the world.  So we are called to be peacemakers, to be merciful and forgiving: not in the sense of passively condoning the oppression of others, or of being doormats ourselves, for that matter.  But it means actively seeking the transformation of the world around us, recognizing that this transformation must first take place inside of us.  In the words of the 60s folk Mass classic, “Let there be peace on earth … and let it begin with me.”  

The true peacemaker is one who hungers and thirsts and works for justice, at the risk of rejection or ridicule, or even hostility, and even when the chances of "success" don't seem so great.  For the issue isn't success; it is faithfulness. 

When you think about it, Jesus was not exactly the perfect example of worldly success.  The values to which he witnessed were a challenge to those of his own time, just as they are to ours.  Jesus himself was intensely aware that not everyone was ready for a God whose special love outreached to the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed.  Not everyone was immediately converted to Jesus' point of view; but it was in encountering him, that what he stood for suddenly began to make a lot of sense. 

For although the lifestyle Christ lived and taught is not an easy one, its rewards are not only for a future afterlife, but in the here and now.  For it's blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn; happy are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers.  Think about it. (pause)   Maybe you are lucky enough to know someone who embodies these attitudes in their everyday life.  Maybe you've even begun to glimpse these qualities in yourself.  And even though we may resist these attitudes at time, we know that they offer us more genuine happiness than the money, power, strength, or worldly success ever can. 

It's very easy to be cynical.  To listen to this message of Jesus, and think, "Give me a break!  Join the real world!"   And history seems often to support such cynicism: is it even possible to build a community, a human society which rests on these simple – yet so difficult! – values Jesus proposes.   We may never understand fully those words of Paul from the second reading: that God often chooses what the world considers to be foolish, weak, insignificant – in order to point to a power and wisdom that are far greater, that confound the standards based on our limited horizons, our biases, our cramped world-views. 

Does this mean that God is illogical, a dotty old fool?  I hope not!  And I think not.  Perhaps it means that God sees more clearly, more penetratingly than we ever can, with our own limited perspectives, subconscious prejudices, and feelings of either inferiority or superiority.  That God believes in us, even when we fail to believe in ourselves.  That God accepts us, even when we are unable to accept ourselves.  That God loves us, even when we are not yet ready to love ourselves.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Zephaniah invites us  to "seek righteousness, seek humility."   But humility, in its deepest sense, is simply "standing in the truth, with a knowledge and appreciation for yourself as you really are."  And who are we?   We are God's beloved ones, called to grow in awareness of the incredible potential for love, mercy, peace, and integrity which God has planted within us, and which is called to bear fruit.  We do so painfully aware at the same time of our limitations, our brokenness, our need for healing.  This is true for each of us as individuals. It is true for our families, our neighbourhoods, our parish communities.  It is true for our one-but-divided, holy-but-sinful Church; it is true for our beautiful-yet-broken world. 

The way of the Beatitudes is our road-map for that journey to freedom each one of us has been invited to take.  But if we see the Beatitudes as a list of things we have to achieve by ourselves, to make ourselves acceptable to God, we might as well give up.  For we don't have to make this journey alone.  Our presence here together reminds us of our call to support one another on this path.  We are not alone!! 

For the Beatitudes are ultimately not a how-to book, but a reflection of the very person of Jesus.  And this Jesus is not only a model for us to follow from a distance, but the One who has promised to be with us every step of the road, to show us the way. It is with his help, his strength, and his guidance that we can and will live as authentically holy men and women; that our Church will become a living sign of unity and peace; that we will make a real difference in our world.

May this modern-day formulation of the Beatitudes inspire us as we embrace the call to live ever more fully our identity: to live as Jesus lived, to put on the heart and mind of Christ, as members of his Body. Amen.


The Modern Day Sermon on the Mount

You’re blessed when you hit rock bottom. Because then you can rely on God to go to work for you.

You’re blessed when you mourn. That means you feel compassion and empathy for others. You begin to understand that we are all one.

You’re blessed when you are humble and authentic. That is worth way more than fleeting power and material possessions.

You’re blessed when you hunger and thirst after spiritual things instead of worldly things. You will feel full instead of empty.

You’re blessed when you express kindness. You will receive kindness in return.

You’re blessed when you allow God’s presence and goodness to fill your mind, heart and soul. Then you will see God in the outside world.

You are blessed if you live in peace and create peace. Then you will understand what it means to be a child of God. You are fulfilling God’s dream for world peace.

You’re blessed when people make fun of you or ridicule you for my sake. That means you struck a nerve. Well done! Many of my followers have experienced this. You are in good company.

You’re blessed if you are persecuted because of your relationship with God. God knows and sees everything. God will reward you for your faithfulness.

You are the light of the world! Like a city on top of a hill, you can’t be hidden.

By shining your light, you are shining the light of God into the lives of others. Shine brightly!

When you hear and do what I’ve just told you, you will be wise and your life’s foundation will be solid and unmovable like a rock. You will weather the storms in life and stand tall.

Now, go! Be blessed and be a blessing! Let your light shine!