“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him. And opening his mouth, he taught them…” (Matt 5:1-2) This is the way we are introduced to the Sermon on the Mount, which has often been called a summary of the Gospel. And the beatitudes, first in the Sermon, have been called a summary of the Sermon on the Mount. We could easily devote our entire study to them, and in fact, several of the major religious orders see them as the primary subject of meditation and contemplation, both at the beginning of the religious life and throughout.
Of course, upon first reading the beatitudes, we may find it difficult to make sense of them, seeing them as perhaps nothing more than pious platitudes. “Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who mourn?”
The first thing we must see is that these are not a random list of “blesseds.” When we read the commentary of such saints as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, we see a remarkable unity and order to the beatitudes. As Fr. Pinkaers says in reflecting on Augustine’s commentary, “St. Augustine establishes an ascending order of beatitudes…The journey begins with humility, taught in the first beatitude, and gradually mounts, passing through a loving and docile openness to the Word of God, …to wisdom or the contemplation of truth which gives peace to man and makes him like God” (p.189-190).
In other words, the entire spiritual life can be seen to be contained in the beatitudes. Likewise, all of Christian morality can be found in the beatitudes. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, in fact, is an exposition of particulars and application of that which is contained in the beatitudes. Thus, before Jesus goes on to give us examples of living out this spirituality, He says, “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17)
What follows the beatitudes, although we will hear the words “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” are not intended to abolish, but to fulfill, what is said in the Old Law, in the Torah, in the Ten Commandments. The heart, reflecting upon the beatitudes, and conforming itself with them, will understand the entire Sermon on the Mount as showing forth what the Old Law always intended; a heart formed by love, and not a list of rules to be followed merely out of fear.”
As the first Psalm says, we are blessed when we meditate on the law of the Lord. The beatitudes likewise tell us we are blessed, because, conforming our hearts to Christ, we begin to live with, through, and in Him, and this is the goal of our striving. “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.”