Chapel constantly focuses on the primacy of the ethical; in short, on the principles that inform and shape character and institutions about the concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong. It has been quite wonderful to go from the story of Cain and Abel to the Ten Commandments which make explicit the ethical principles violated by Cain, for instance. This week’s wonder is the Beatitudes, a most remarkable set of ethical teachings that continue to capture the imaginations of many, whether Christian or not. They speak to the truth and dignity of our humanity as a community of spirit.
Nothing could be more counter-culture. Like the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes speak to ethical ideas that are universal and which have their counterpart in other religions and philosophies. I have been trying to point out that these ethical teachings, such as the Ten Commandments and the idea of Dharma in the Hindu tradition, for example, all point to the ways in which we transcend the animosities and divisions, the blood and the hatred, that is so much a part of the sad tale of our inhumanity towards one another. These stories are all powerful reminders of what belongs to the truth and dignity of our humanity even in the face of the realities of sin and evil, of suffering and death, of massacres and atrocities upon atrocities. They offer hope and life.
The Beatitudes are set before us in the context of the Communion of Saints. That is the true meaning of Halloween. All Hallows’ Eve is the Eve of All Hallows or All Saints. We are part of a larger spiritual community, more than anyone can number, based not on self-assertion, self-obsession or self-righteousness but on service and sacrifice. It is about our life together in an ordered community of love in which we seek the good of one another.
The Beatitudes are the charter of divine love. They counter the culture of dominion and power by highlighting the qualities of grace which are given to live in us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These are the first and the eight Beatitudes. They embrace the other Beatitudes and articulate a powerful teaching about the ultimate good and joy for our humanity. We are called to something more than what belongs to the disorders in our hearts and world.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us the teaching of love and mercy which perfects the Law and our humanity. At the heart of the Beatitudes is the blessedness of the merciful, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy begets mercy. It is a higher kind of justice. It reminds me of Portia’s great speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where “mercy seasons justice,” perfects justice. Thus, the Beatitudes follow wonderfully upon our reflections in Chapel about the Law as liberation. Here is the greater joy and wonder that belongs to our life with God and with one another. “We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
“The poor in spirit” are not the losers of the world; they are the humble ones who are not full of themselves, entitled and privileged. As such they are open to what is transcendent and everlastingly good expressed as “the kingdom of heaven,” an explicit contrast to the kingdoms of this world. At the other end, “blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Theirs, too, is “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not the same as the victim culture of our times. What matters is their commitment to what is right and true for all even if they suffer for that commitment through its betrayal. This is part and parcel of the ‘axial revolution’ and the postaxial world which belong to the turn to the ethical in different cultures – China, India, Greece, Judaea – independent of one another (roughly 800-300 BC and afterwards with the emergence of rabbinical Judaism, Christianity and Islam). We forget this turn to the ethical at our peril.
The second Beatitude points to this sensibility of something good that is greater than what we suffer. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” It is not that there is no suffering, no sense of loss and grief, or in the case of the persecuted, the horrors of persecution, but that there is something more, a greater comfort that comes out of suffering and even persecution. Jesus tells the widow of Nain who has just lost her only son, “weep not,” meaning not to keep on weeping, not to be always weeping. Grief and loss is not all of what belongs to our lives. What we mourn as loss we know as loved in God. In the western Christian tradition, All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day. The liturgy for that day is an attempt to remember by name those who have died before us, a remembering to God who knows and remembers even those whom we have forgotten. With God there is no forgetting; only love and forgiveness.
“Blessed are the meek.” They are the gentle ones who do not seek to dominate and bully. “They shall inherit the earth;” the earth as God’s good creation in which we too are to find our good and our delight. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” The quest for true righteousness, for justice, is a proper and true quest which can only lead us to the source of all truth and righteousness, God. It is only fitting that after this Beatitude comes the blessedness of the merciful. And it is only fitting that after the merciful comes the blessedness of “the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Again and again, the Beatitudes point us to what is transcendent, on the one hand, and to what belongs to the givenness of creation and the good of our humanity, on the other hand. Just before the last Beatitude is the blessedness of “the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God,” a call to reconciliation and mercy and to the intimate nature of our relation to God (something which baptism makes explicit where we are made “the child of God”). The Beatitudes present a comprehensive picture or vision of what belongs to the ultimate good of our humanity not as isolated individuals but as a community united in God.
The Beatitudes are laid out before us in a powerful and objective sense, but they are equally brought home to each of us in the concluding coda. “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” Evil always betrays the good which it presupposes and upon which it depends. These ethical teachings speak to our hearts and remind us of who we are in truth. We are called to blessedness in and through the sufferings of the world. In this sense we are more, though not less, than what belongs to human experience in all of its confusion and deadly disarray, A vision that gives us hope and life. A vision that unites us in God’s own life and love.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English and ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy