First reading Zephaniah 2:3,3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 145(146):6-10
Second reading 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Gospel Matthew 5:1-12a
Happiness. That elusive thing that everybody seeks throughout their lives in one form or another. Countless books, courses, motivational speakers and online blogs claim to hold the keys to happiness, or at least in part. YouTube is full of “influencers” and experts promoting particular lifestyles, fitness trends, diets, niche hobbies, financial tips, psychological strategies, spiritual advice and much more– in order to improve one’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. To be sure, some of it is useful. For leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle, being physically fit, enjoying wholesome hobbies, financial security, psychological health, spirituality and having life-giving relationships all contribute to a certain level of natural well-being and happiness. And yet, we know these are never enough. We always find ourselves wanting more. More money, better health and fitness, deeper intimacy, more success, a higher position in life, more happiness. And if we aren’t actively striving for more, there always seems to be room for more, just as there’s always room for dessert, no matter how full we are.
Brothers and sisters, the insatiability of the human heart has always suggested to me that we are made for more. This is where natural happiness come to its limit and creatures can do no more for us. Into this gap the Lord speaks today on the mountain: ‘Happy are the poor in spirit; happy the gentle (meek); happy those who mourn; happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; happy the merciful; happy the pure in heart; happy the peacemakers; happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right.’ At first glance, these “beatitudes” can seem odd and even counterintuitive:
The poor in spirit? Our culture doesn’t usually associate poverty with happiness. The term “poor” here specifically denotes a beggar (πτωχός), or one who is crouched over in the position of one who begs. Normally, we look on such people with sadness. Yet the Lord says those who are “poor in spirit”, who have the spiritual attitude of one crouched over begging, possesses the kingdom of heaven.
The gentle? While gentleness or meekness is often considered an endearing trait, in a competitive society driven by the pursuit of success, gentleness is often considered a kind of weakness. You can’t be too soft if you want to win. The Greek term here, however, (πραΰς) actually refers to something strong that has been subdued or brought under control, such as in the case of a good horse. Trained horses, for example, are gentle, despite the fact they can easily kill a human being. In the same way a person who exhibits such raw power that is perfectly controlled and subdued to right reason and virtue, is truly impressive. Such people, Jesus says, will inherit the earth. That is, the “new earth” that will be brought about when this world passes away.
Those who mourn? It suffices to say that mourning and sadness are avoided at all costs. Big money is spent on psychology and drugs to do just that. And yet the Lord assures us that those who weep and mourn shall be comforted. And not in a trivial manner. The verb used here for “comfort” (παρακαλέω), is where the name “Paraclete” comes from, which is the title for the Holy Spirit. The “comfort” promised to those who mourn is not just a pat on the back from Jesus, but the very life and love of God himself, whom we call the Holy Spirit.
Those who hunger and thirst for what is right? If you have to hunger and thirst for what is right, this implies that things are not right – that such a one lives among injustice and unrighteousness. How can one be happy while living among unrighteousness? Yet the Lord assures us that such a hunger will result in fulfillment and that such a person shall finally have the experience of being satiated.
The merciful? Though mercy is valued by a lot of people, when someone wrongs us in serious ways, it’s often the path of vengeance and unforgiveness that seem to promise us some satisfaction and temporary relief from the damage inflicted by the wrong. Often we follow this inclination. And yet it’s those who go against their natural inclination and show mercy that shall receive mercy from God.
The pure of heart? Those whose hearts are clean are often ridiculed and labelled naïve or simple by our culture. Society encourages us to know and even participate in the wicked ways of the world. And yet only those with pure hearts will see God. Now that is an alarming thing when you consider that heaven is the vision of God. If we want the unending happiness of going to heaven, purity of heart ought to be our greatest ambition.
The peacemakers? To be a peacemaker implies that there is a lack of peace. How can a peacemaker be happy, living in the horrible tension of the absence of peace? These shall be called “sons” of God. What this means is that peacemakers shall be heirs to God’s estate. The Lord is very intentional in saying that a peacemaker, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman, shall be called “sons.” For in ancient Judaism only sons received an inheritance, daughters did not. So regardless of one’s station in life, whether man, woman, slave, free, Jew or Greek, those who make peace shall inherit what is God’s.
Those who are persecuted? This is perhaps the worst of all and seemingly the greatest threat to our happiness. And yet, those persecuted on account of their righteousness possess already the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus.
Dear brothers and sisters, all these beatitudes seem, in some way, to be contrary to the natural happiness we seek, or at least to what the world teaches us will bring happiness. But Jesus here is not talking about natural happiness. When he says “happy”, he’s not referring to the short-lived happiness afforded by our circumstances and lifestyle. He is speaking here of the highest form of happiness, which we call beatitude. Beatitude is derived from the beatific vision, that is, the vision of God, total union with God. How do the beatitudes allow us to experience that union with God? Well, because the Lord promises so, but particularly because each of them requires some participation in the cross of Christ. Each beatitude, as seen in its seeming counterintuitiveness, involves some level of sacrifice and some level of looking beyond an immediate gratification towards a more complete one with the Lord. And we know that without the cross, we cannot know the resurrection, we cannot know union with Christ who is himself the eternal life we seek. Dear friends, if we want to experience happiness in its ultimate sense, beyond the short-lived natural happiness we strive for, we need to seek union with Jesus at all costs. The beatitudes we’ve heard today are his own official teaching on the path to that union. Are we willing to live them, even if it involves temporary suffering and sacrifice?