Life in Christ: The Beatitudes

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). Certainly, our entire goal and purpose in life is to hear these words at our judgment. This blessed state, the beatific vision, is only given by the pure grace of God, and we are told throughout the Scriptures in what kind of life this blessedness is prefigured and what kind of life, likewise, leads to the fulfillment of our end.

“Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence. But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night” (Psalm 1).

It is well that we meditate on the law of Christ, and there is no place we find this more profoundly written than in the Sermon on the Mount, especially as given in Matthew’s Gospel in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters.  “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)

In Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth Volume I, he says, reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, that “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is Love.” (p.99) “The law of the Lord” is therefore none other than the law of Christ, which is why the pope can say just before this that “…the Sermon on the Mount is a hidden Christology.” (p.99)

While it is true that there are certainly objective “dos and don’ts in the way we should live, these are a means, and not the end.  The end is love, for the end is God, and “God is love” (1John4:8). In fact, the verse stated in full says that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  “…in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

Let us focus here on that first part of the Sermon, the beatitudes.

“Each beatitude contains two parts; the first part refers to a meritorious act, and the second part refers to a reward. The reward applies primarily to the life to come, and yet there is likewise the promise of happiness even in this life.” (Spiritual Theology, Jordan Aumann)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3-10).

Many deep and profound works have been composed on the beatitudes, and it probably compares with John’s prologue in the depth of not only what it can say to us but, and for this reason, the available material written on it.

St. Augustine showed brilliantly that, being no mere list of platitudes, each beatitude leads to the next. St. Thomas Aquinas links them with the three types of life in which we hope to find happiness: the life of pleasure, the active life, and the contemplative life, moving from one to the next as we grow. Servias Pinckaers, in his little book, The Pursuit of Happiness God’s Way, tells us that “We can literally say that the Gospel teaches us a morality of beatitude or blessedness.”

To truly understand any of this, we must make it our primary task in life to know Christ. As Thomas a Kempis says in The Imitation of Christ, “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.” (The Imitation of Christ, Bk I, Ch 1)

This in fact could be seen as a commentary on the first Psalm; “Blessed is the man who, on his law, shall meditate day and night” This is the way of those that love God and neighbor, and live in Christ, seeing Christ in others and loving them.

We are told, in the Sermon, something that should sound alarming, even shocking, to us, if we take it seriously.  “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:20) He goes on to command us to “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:28)

“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.”

The first Psalm has often been my prayer when I do not have time to read and pray the entire Sermon on the Mount.  I have found it to contain what the Didache, a very early Christian writing from the first century (or at the latest, the early second century,) calls “the two ways.”

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.” (The Didache, opening sentences)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

This is the “first way, the one of life.” We said earlier that “The law of the Lord” is therefore none other than the law of Christ, and that “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is Love.” Therefore the Didache tells us that “The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself.”

No one is more blessed than Christ, for He, as man, was graced in a way no other, could be. Grace reaches its full limit in the incarnate Christ both intensively and extensively.The grace of Christ can be looked at in two ways. As the son of God and the person of a divine nature His grace is infinite because the word himself is infinite and is the source of that grace. But as existing in a created subject which is Christ soul, and humanity in total, it is finite, although it is given the most perfect way possible to any human being. As perfect it can in some way be called infinite even here.

To live a life of the beatitudes means to live a life in Christ. Like the apparent contradiction of the beatitudes (blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourning), our life is only truly fulfilled when we die to self. “Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4).

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