The Beatitudes complement and complete the ethical and educational project of The Book of Exodus. At issue is our awareness of an ethical principle, the idea of the Good which shapes and informs all our thinking and doing. The Beatitudes mark the beginning of Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount. They present us with a challenging set of ethical principles that are profoundly counter-culture and yet belong to a long and rich tradition of ethical and philosophical thinking. To read them in the lead up to the Remembrance Day observances along with Christ’s words about sacrificial love, “greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends,” words which adorn a thousand cenotaphs throughout the world, is particularly poignant.
The Beatitudes are the great Christian ethic of grace and belong to the challenge about what truly defines us, a question which belongs to the traditions of ethical and philosophical thinking. Socrates argues that it is far better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. He lived and died what he taught, accepting the suffering imposed upon him by Athens, his death for teaching (accused of corrupting the youth). Confucius in the Analects calls attention to the inner qualities of ren, of virtue and goodness. Sri Krishna advises Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita to follow his dharma as a warrior but without attachment to results or outcomes. Buddhism will extend the theme of detachment from desires to the extent of the complete extinguishment of the self. There is no you. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach the theme of renunciation and sacrifice, the idea of being defined by something greater than yourself that shapes thought and action.
“Blessedness includes every concept of goodness,” the great mystic Cappadocian theologian of the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa, observes, “from which nothing answering to good desire is missing.” He goes on to note that “to tell the truth, blessedness is the divine itself.” The Beatitudes are about nothing less than our participation in the illuminating, purifying, and perfecting grace of God which dignifies and defines our humanity. Nothing could be more counter-culture and nothing could better help our remembering about the sombre realities of the devastating and destructive wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They speak to what God seeks for us even in spite of ourselves.
The Beatitudes counter the cultures of domination, division, death, and destruction and the hypocrisies that attend them in every age. They recall us to the inner qualities of the soul, to the virtues as transformed by divine love. They provide us with a way to live in whatever circumstance we encounter, if, for no other reason, than they emphatically remind us that we are not defined by circumstance and happenstance. We are more than the things which happen to us, perhaps even more than the disorders in ourselves. Such is the radical power of God’s grace.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first and the eighth beatitude have the same reward, “the kingdom of heaven” and thus bracket the whole series. Something of what belongs to God and heaven is found in “the poor in spirit” and in “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The poor in spirit? Who are they? The humble. Those who are not puffed up with pride which divides and separates us from one another. This first Beatitude is followed by the second, “blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.” There are sorrows and losses in all our lives but they are not everything. They, too, shall pass. You don’t have to be defined by sorrow and loss. As we heard in the great All Saints’ Day lesson from Revelation which complements the Beatitudes, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” We can know our loved ones in the mercy of God.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”. This stands in complete contrast to the bullies of our world and day who would dominate and destroy others. The meek are the gentle ones, those who understand that the world is God’s world, not theirs.
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled”. The quest for justice is the request that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. The desire for justice is for what is true and equitable for all. It is universal and unitive, not divisive and not destructive. This Beatitude is followed wonderfully by the Beatitude about mercy. “Mercy seasons justice,” as Portia puts it in her famous speech in The Merchant of Venice. The merciful shall receive mercy; mercy for mercy, the highest and most perfect form of justice. Mercy does not override justice but perfects it. Such is the love of Christ.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Powerful ideas and powerful words which open us out to the qualities of divine grace that sustain and perfect our humanity even in the midst of persecution and hostility. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All these forms of divine goodness are then directly applied to us by Jesus. “Blessed are ye when you are reviled and persecuted, when others say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” These inner qualities of character strengthen us and define us. They help us to look at ourselves and one another in another light, the light of grace. They give us the strength to remember the terrible realities of war, of sorrow and loss that arise out of sin and evil and which diminish and destroy nature and human nature. The Beatitudes remind us that grace perfects nature.
In the barrenness of nature’s year when the leaves lie scattered on the wind, in the barrenness of a world of scattered souls, there is a gathering to truth, to goodness. It happens, too, when we gather to remember the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us, by those who sat where you now sit in Chapel. We endeavour to remember them by name, for unknown to us they are known to God. In remembering them by name, we place them with God. We remember precisely in the awareness of our forgetfulness of what is known by God.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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