The fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel is the founding document of the great comedy, the Good News of Jesus Christ, to be matched in importance by perhaps nothing other than John 14, the giving of the new commandment. It contains the Beatitudes, followed by Jesus’ transformation of the Law of Moses from the holy commandments of Exodus into the very form of the Christian heart. In this text, taken with the fact of Pentecost, the words of Jeremiah 31:31, in which God proposes to forgive our sins and put the law in our hearts, are fulfilled.
The Beatitudes, or we might say Blessednesses, are unusual in at least two ways. They are descriptive as well as prescriptive, not only pointing out a path but defining the shape of human happiness, reminding the disciples of Jesus of what the conditions for happiness are, in what blessedness consists; and not threatening punishments but promising rewards, or at least consequences. They describe a path, a path that begins in sweet sorrow and ends with the sharp sword of witness.
Given our characteristic expectations regarding the rewards of righteousness, the Beatitudes are partly conventional, mercy and peacemaking, but partly discomfiting as well. Taken in sum Jesus’ words evoke a sense of disappointment, for the heart of natural man does not reach out to embrace poverty of spirit, whatever that may be, or mourning. And why embrace a path that yields the rewards of persecution and calumny? Yet the Beatitudes have an order; they are signposts along the royal road that leads citizens of the fallen world, sinners all, to the presence of God, to sonship, defining a path that begins in humility and ends in inconvenient witness.
When Our Lord sat down to teach, he began by telling his followers that everyman who would know God must begin by laying aside the lie of self-sufficiency, another name for pride, and recognizing just who he is in the context of the great drama in which each of us has been given a bit part, an apparently inconsequential walk-on, but one unique and essential to God’s plan if we will take it. This is the great lesson of Job, a just man, whom God never accuses of sin, but a just man clinging in the most unrealistic way to the illusion of his righteousness, a man redeemed only when, having had his folly and littleness demonstrated by the Almighty most graphically, he falls silent before the gift of the vision of God: “Now my eye hath seen….” A broken and contrite heart God does not despise, but God resists the proud unto the end. Humility is the door to God’s presence: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
An invitation to sadness has no appeal until humility begins to teach us who we are and brings us to blessed mourning. Sorrow, genuine and deep, which reaches out to meet the forgiveness of the Lord, is the only thing that can renew the human heart, change the past, and make us new creatures. “Godly sorrow, repentance to salvation is not to be repented of, but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (1 Co 7:11). Given the implication of everyman in original sin, the burden of our actual sins, forgiven but still weighted with the debt of our undischarged penance; given our weakness and instability in the face of temptation, sorrow is the only medicine for the soul. Jesus, we are told, in what must be one of the most remarkable of promises, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4), but tears there must be. “Blessed are they that mourn, they shall be comforted.”
Charles Dickens may have done the English-speaking world a great disservice by bringing us Uriah Heep, the meekest of men and least likable of his characters. In fact the word that has traditionally been translated “meek” might better be translated ‘gentle,’ and the connotations that come to mind are those given by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22, “peace, gentleness, goodness, patience,” which things are the fruits of the presence of the Spirit of God. This gentleness is the soft answer that blunts wrath, it is walking the second mile, agreeing before the matter comes to contest. Blessed are the gentle-hearted; they shall inherit the earth. An odd promise but surely true, for only these gentle folk, bereft of the chaos of anger and emulation, can ever enjoy the earth on which God has planted us.
Every life is built around an organizing desire. On the natural level this is the desire to be thought good that makes us sensitive to criticism, but this flawed desire conceals the most basic of human longings, the desire to be right, and not only to be right but to be right with God. Blessedness means that this desire for our rightness is purified and transformed into a longing, first and finally, for God and His righteousness. A fundamental axiom of our moral lives is the certainty that we will indeed get what we desire. There must be a place for those who consciously desire something other than God and his will. Its name is hell. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; they will be granted their desire.
The pure in heart will see God, whose eyes cannot behold iniquity. Who can achieve that purity of heart without which we cannot see God? This cannot be the purity that belongs to unfallen angels, but must be the purity achieved by grace in the murk and mire of the world. God has a case against the very saints. Our hearts are not perfectly clean although we confess weekly, or daily. The guilt of our lives can be undone but not the fact. Mercy can only exist where there is justice, where a claim to justice exists. Mercy makes life possible because it means we do not hold our neighbor to the letter, and that we will always be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, but argument is great fun. We love a contest and the contest easily becomes a controversy. There is something that makes us love war games. In natural man, peace is a cultivated taste, cultivated by the Holy Spirit, for we are envious Cains and disappointed Judases, to whom war comes easily. But God is a God of peace and order.
At the end of the road, if we have sought these blessednesses, the final reward is, we are assured, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding. There is a passage in Newman’s Development of Doctrine, a grammatical tour de force in which Newman illustrates with about fifty parallel clauses, in a sentence that runs to two pages, the persistent calumny and false witness with which the world has and always will harass the Church and Christians.
So the end of blessedness is often being spoken against falsely. The block, the rope and rack are not for us now, not yet. Satan is not just, and his treatment of souls on the path of blessedness is marked by craft and virulence and the zeal born of desperation bringing to imagination past failures and the availability of the middle way. He is the father not of humility but of self-doubt. God may allow him to take from an Albanian nun who has given her life to the dying poor all comfort. He may make abandonment by friends a note of Newman’s life. But the bearing of such things is the final gift of blessedness. And along the way we will from time to time enjoy the sweetness of sorrow and humility, the mercy of God, and the present foretaste of the vision of the face of Jesus.
At the end of the familiar Beatitudes Jesus goes on to describe the fruition of blessedness, which cannot lie in the approval of the world but is to be found in witness. And the metaphors Jesus uses to describe witness are not those that appeal so transparently to the triumphalist heart. Salt is not the stuff of life but its spice. The light shines, but it is the darkness men prefer. Christ does not ask us to remake the natural order in its glorious combination of fallenness and glory—he will do that at the end—but to be salt and light.