Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Blessed Life

On the 4th Sunday of Lent we commemorate the life and teachings of the monastic father St John Climacus, and in his honor the Gospel reading is the beatitudes from St Matthew. They open the Sermon on the Mount, which is an expression of the radical uniqueness of the Christian life, and a summary of its requirements.

In St Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the beatitudes, he begins by noticing that Jesus went up on a mountain to proclaim them, so that we can ascend with Him “from superficial and ignoble thoughts to the spiritual mountain of sublime contemplation… lit up on all sides by the rays of the true light, that from its summit all things…may be seen in the air of pure truth.” He then says that the words of blessing Jesus pronounces bring happiness even in the mere hearing of them.

I won’t comment on them one by one; that will be your work in your private meditation, for we have to ask the Holy Spirit how they apply to us individually, not just to the Church or humanity as such. I’d rather look at what they mean as a whole, as the overture of all of Jesus’ teaching, for this is his first sermon (not bad for a beginner!). He starts by showing what kind of people are blessed in the sight of God. Some translate “happy” instead of “blessed”. This is not quite accurate, but happiness is an element of blessedness, or perhaps a fruit of it. Maybe to modern people it is better to say “happy,” since the term “blessed” is incomprehensible to many today and connotes something “religious” that may not be high on their list of priorities. But everyone wants to be happy, so—you will be happy if you follow the beatitudes! If you are living in the Holy Spirit, you will be happy even in this life, but if the beatitudes don’t make you particularly happy at the moment, know that they are the keys to eternal happiness.

The goal of living the beatitudes is entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes Jesus mentions this explicitly, sometimes implicitly, in terms of “seeing God” or becoming “sons of God.” This is why the beatitudes cannot be set aside as if they applied only to those seeking perfection, only the saints. They apply to everyone who is interested in seeing God and entering the Kingdom of Heaven, so they apply to you and me. The Kingdom of Heaven is the ultimate good, and it is marvelous beyond all human imagination or comprehension. Such immeasurable happiness cannot be obtained cheaply or automatically, hence the beatitudes are demanding—they cut right to the heart, to show what we are made of; they put us to the test, to see if we shall be found worthy of the Kingdom.

It is not easy to be poor in spirit, that is, setting all your hopes on God alone and on nothing in this world. It is not easy to be pure of heart and merciful, not easy to be so focused on doing the will of God that you can be said to hunger and thirst for righteousness, not easy to endure persecution and reviling for the sake of Christ and his Gospel. For some, these may seem unattainable, or at the very least impractical. For others, the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven may seem too far off—and the heat of the struggle too immediate—to live these demanding words on a daily basis, over the long haul. Something more is needed, something that will reveal the burden and yoke of Christ to be easy and light.

That something, according to Pope Paul VI, is the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved by God. That is the power behind living the beatitudes with grace, fruitfulness, and perseverance. Here is a rather lengthy excerpt from his Apostolic Exhortation “On Christian Joy.”

“But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him... If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father. When He is baptized on the banks of the Jordan, this love, which is present from the first moment of His Incarnation, is manifested: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’(Lk 3:22). This certitude is inseparable from the consciousness of Jesus. It is a presence which never leaves Him all alone (Jn 16:32). It is an intimate knowledge which fills Him: ‘The Father knows me and I know the Father’ (Jn 10:15). It is an unceasing and total exchange: ‘All I have is yours and all you have is mine’ (Jn 17:10)…

“And the disciples and all those who believe in Christ are called to share this joy. Jesus wishes them to have in themselves His joy in its fullness (Jn 17:13). ‘I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them’ (Jn 17:26). This joy of living in God's love begins here below. It is the joy of the kingdom of God. But it is granted on a steep road which requires a total confidence in the Father and in the Son, and a preference given to the kingdom. The message of Jesus promises above all joy—this demanding joy; and does it not begin with the beatitudes? ‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh.’”

This is more evidence that the Christian life does not consist in learning and abiding by a long sheet of rules. CS Lewis says that God is not primarily interested in securing obedience to a set of rules; He is interested in forming a certain kind of people. Christianity, then, is about entering into a relationship with Someone and thus learning what makes for true peace and happiness, and then living accordingly, in constant communion with Him who grants the grace and hence the joy to do so. Pope Paul referred to the text from John’s Gospel in which Jesus prayed that his disciples would not merely be happy, but would have his own joy in them. That is what beatitude is—not the superficial “happiness” that comes from an abundance of comforts or a lack of trials, not mere fun and stimulation of the senses or simply having everything go your own way. The happiness that is true blessedness comes from Christ abiding in us, learning from Him what true joy is, for He said, “Learn from Me.” He will teach us that genuine joy is first recognized and experienced through the knowledge of God’s love for us, and then it is expressed by our loving others, communicating to them both our love and the truth that God loves them too. This is how joy is meant to spread through this world.

So we have to situate ourselves interiorly in the proper way. We can’t just take a look at the beatitudes and say: “Oh no, it’s too hard to be poor and pure and merciful and persecuted. That doesn’t make me happy at all!” If we look at them that way, we must admit that we are still of the mindset of the world, of those who do not know Christ, those who do not have his joy in them from knowledge of the love of the Father. We need to begin by seeking the awareness, the certainty, that we are loved by God. Then the joy of Christ will be in us, for we will be partakers of his joy in the Father’s love. Once we have that love and joy in us, God can ask of us what He will, and with confidence we will put the best of our efforts into the task. We’re not trying to measure up to a standard, we are trying to respond joyfully and wholeheartedly to a calling from Him who loves us and who prepares for us the unbroken joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us choose the blessed life, the authentic life that tests our true worth, tests the genuineness of our profession of faith and our hope for eternal life. We can do this if Christ’s joy is in us, the joy that comes from security and confidence in the Father’s love. And ours will be the Kingdom of Heaven.