Sunday, January 30, 2011

Year A Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Zeph. 2:3; 3:12-13 Ps. 146:6-10; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Matt. 5:1-12a

Preaching on the Beatitudes is a daunting task because they constitute the very heart of the Gospel. Therefore, it is wise to begin by looking at today’s second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which the apostle urges the Christians of Corinth to consider their calling, that is, their selection by God, the call to which baptism and participation in this Eucharist are responses. I think what Paul writes about the Christians in ancient Corinth applies just as well to our congregation: not many of us are wise by human standards, not many of us are powerful, which means able to influence people and events on a large scale, my guess is that not many of us belong to wealthy, influential families (1 Cor. 1:26). This brings up some questions- "Why did God choose me?" "Why did God choose us to accomplish His purpose in the world?" Surely, there must be people better equipped to help usher in the victory that Christ won for us.

Paul gives us the answer in a very straightforward way: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God" (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth was born a marginal person among a marginal people, which is why Fr. John Meyer entitled his magisterial three volume work on the historical Jesus A Marginal Jew.

"The Beatitudes," we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham” and "fulfill the[se] promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to [the realization of] the Kingdom of heaven," which also means extending the covenant to all people (par. 1716). In addition to conveying to us "the countenance of Jesus Christ," the Beatitudes express our baptismal vocation, which begins our initiation, our immersion, into the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection (par. 1717). These teachings constitute the very core of Christian praxis, shedding "light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life" (par. 1717). On Christian terms, the best way of determining the authenticity of these teachings is to see that "they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints" (par. 1717).

What is meant by calling them paradoxical? Well, let’s look at just one-"Blessed are those who mourn" (Matt. 5:4). It is important to note that the word "blessed," with which Jesus begins each of the nine beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, is the Greek word makarioi, which simply means "happy." Well, for anyone who is now mourning, or who has ever mourned, probably one word you would not use to describe this experience is "blessed," let alone "happy." As the text indicates, happiness is not the result of mourning, but the result of being comforted. The paradox, then, arises from the fact that in order to be comforted you must first mourn. Another way to translate the Greek word we usually translate as "shall be comforted" is, hearkening back to the Latin Vulgate, "consoled," which comes from the word consolatio, which suggests being with another in her/his solitude precisely so that s/he ceases to be alone. But even when we think of being comforted in our mourning our thoughts likely turn to someone putting their arm around us, or giving us a hug, and telling us it will be alright. While this is nice and, for most of us, even necessary, it does not make us happy because it cannot change what has happened that caused us to mourn in the first place. It is possible to analyze each of the beatitudes in this way. For instance, how can persecution of the kind our Christian sisters and brothers are now experiencing throughout the Middle East be a source of happiness? It is not the persecution that makes them happy, but Christ’s promise of the kingdom of heaven.

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (deacon), by Valentin de Buologne 1621-1622

Death and suffering are for many great obstacles to faith. In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict addresses the issue of suffering, which, he notes, "stems partly from our finitude and partly from the mass of sin which has accumulated over the course of history" (par. 36). While following Christ requires us to "do all we can to overcome suffering," our finitude prevents us from simply banishing "it from the world altogether" (par. 36). "[O]nly a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history," the Holy Father continues, is powerful enough to do this (par. 36). Hence, only through faith in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death has "hope for the world's healing… emerged in history," making it a well-founded hope (par. 36). Christ does not just give us hope, he is our hope. It is our hope, which is not yet fulfillment, the Holy Father teaches, "that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations" (par. 36). When we speak of the theological virtue of hope, which, like faith and love, is a gift from God, too often we think of it as synonymous with wishing, but what it really indicates is trusting in a promise. As we all know from experience, a promise is only as good as the one who makes it.

Our desire for happiness, that is, for beatitude "is of divine origin," which "God has placed" in every human heart in order to draw each one of us to Himself (par. 1718). As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, "God alone satisfies" (par. 1718, quoting Exposition on the Apostles Creed, I). Everyone wants to be happy. "In the whole human race," wrote St. Augustine, "there is no one who does not assent to this proposition" (par. 1718 quoting Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, 1.3.4). So, the Beatitudes show us the goal of our existence, which is happiness, total and complete satisfaction, not just eventually, but right now! Indeed, in every circumstance we face "God calls us to [experience] his own beatitude" (Catechism, par. 1719). This call is addressed to each one of us personally and to the whole church, which is comprised of "the new people," about whom Zephaniah prophesied, the people who believe the promise "and live from it in faith" (Catechism, par. 1719).

Let’s end as we began, by turning to First Corinthians, where read that "Christ Jesus…became for us wisdom from God" and that he is our "righteousness, sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). Just as it is not enough to say that Christ gives us hope, neither is it enough to say that Christ redeemed us. We must acknowledge that He redeemed us for Himself. He is our beginning and our end. He is our beatitude. We seek beatitude because we are made for it. So, with St. Augustine, we pray- "let me seek you, [O Lord], so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you" (Confessions 10, 20). Fully recognizing this, my friends, is beatitude.

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