THEOLOGY FOR THE LAITY
The BEATITUDES, PART VII
By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
Jesusí Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthewís gospel. The beatitudes may be the most famous part of the sermon (which also includes the Lordís Prayer), but they are by far the shortest. Jesus concludes this part of the sermon with the disquieting words
Here we must notice that Jesus turns from speaking of the impersonal "they," to talking to us directly. Jesusí listeners must have shuddered when they heard these threatening words. Without question, the early Church that Matthew was writing for would have read these words as a warning that anyone interested in entering the community should prepare to suffer for the privilege of being part of a group that was living "as if" the apocalyptic judgement of Christ had already taken place.
These words should be the same sort of warning to us. To live in the image of Christ is to live in the shadow of all the evils that threatened Jesus. St. Leo the Great reminds us that we must "...so contemplate Jesus on the cross... that Jesusí flesh is [our] own." And although this is the sort of thing we may not like to think about, Our Saviorís words on the mountainside are also a reminder that if the world is speaking well of us, then perhaps we are not giving the proper prophetic witness.
Many of our elected officials conduct "focus groups" which discern what a given populace expects - or hopes - from its leaders. Candidates for office adjust their political platforms to appeal to those whose votes they hope to get. This behavior is the perfectly acceptable "way of the world." It is not, however, the way of Our Lord, nor can it be the way of those who claim to be His ministers.
In the Old Testament, Godís prophets frequently suffered disgrace - or worse - for speaking in Godís name and calling leaders and citizens to task for failing to do Godís will. Jesus suffered the same fate, and His cross is a sign that we, too, may suffer if we dare to speak as prophets in our world. At the very least, Jesus warns us, we will be reviled, persecuted and slandered.
We have frequently quoted St. John Chrysostom in these reflections on the Beatitudes. Here again St. John brings his own particular light to bear on our vocation as a prophetic people. He says
This is much the same counsel St. Peter gives us in his first letter to the Church: "...it is better to suffer for doing right if that should be Godís will, than for doing wrong" (1 Pet. 3:17). It is one thing to be a fool for God; it is quite another simply to be a fool. Jesus doesnít command us to rejoice because we suffer, but because if we suffer for his sake, we claim a place among the prophets.
The beatitudes are a perfect description of Jesus who "for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). If we hope to enjoy the reward of the saints, we must find a way to make the beatitudes describe us, too. Wealth can be calculated in different ways, but we must never forget that the social, intellectual, economic and political spheres of our lives have claims on them. From earliest times the Church has taught us that if we are not sharing these gifts, we are taking them from those who need them.
The last word on the Beatitudes - and this is nothing more than one should expect from these pages - is that we find our model and exemplar for all that Christ teaches in His mother. Mary is the first to hear the Good News of the Incarnation, and she is the first person to preach the gospel. Her Magnificat describes just about all we need to know about our relation to God and his care for us.
Psychologists have constructed detailed profiles for many of the individuals in the Scripture and, if we are fortunate, we may be able to see ourselves in our favorite biblical hero. More often, we may find ourselves concluding, sadly, that we have little in common with these great figures in our faith. This is not the case with Mary. The evangelists record so little of Mary that when we encounter her, we may feel she has just turned away her face. And this is precisely what the evangelists want us to feel, because whenever we encounter Mary in the gospel story we find nothing so personal about her that we cannot put ourselves in her place.
Mary is the one individual present at every moment in the life of Jesus and the early Church, so when we encounter her in the gospel we are supposed to see ourselves - frightened at the enormity of what God asks of us, perhaps, but nonetheless confident that we have been blessed.
At Cana she turns to the servants and says, "do whatever He tells you." She is also speaking to us, commanding us to do whatever Jesus tells us - and teaching us by her example. In his Apostolic Letter, On the Most Holy Rosary, Pope John Paul II wrote that Mary invites us
The story of the wedding at Cana is one of the most magnificent in the gospel, worthy to be included among the Luminous Mysteries of Our Ladyís Rosary. The miracle at Cana is not only the first of Christís signs, it is a perfect illustration of the Incarnation, when Jesus took on the watery stuff of our humanity and transformed it into something far more interesting. But the wealth that he came to share is only manifest if we are willing to do His will and share it with the world.
In this task we have no better example than the Blessed Virgin. She is the model for our detachment and poverty of spirit, so she can sing of God who fills the hungry with good things, and lifts up the lowly. Her going in haste to proclaim the good news of the Incarnation makes her the model of our active life, with its goal of bringing Christ to the world and inviting others to help us establish Godís kingdom on earth.
And Mary is the model of our contemplative life, teaching us by her example, the pontiff reminds us, "to contemplate the face of Christ" (10). At the birth of Christ, he says, "her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son."
After the Annunciation, the gospel tells us that Mary "arose and went with haste" to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. The dictionary defines "haste" as "celerity of motion," or "swiftness," so there is no question that Mary made this journey speedily. But the dictionary also defines haste as "dispatch" or "urgency," which takes haste out of the realm of mere speed and gives it a certain intention. Mary undoubtedly made the journey as quickly as she could - but she also made it with a certain determination and purpose.
In the "Purgatory" of Danteís Divine Comedy, every soul is spurred toward heaven with an appropriate passage from Scripture. Those atoning for sins of laziness cry out the words from the gospel: "Mary ran with haste unto the mountain." "Swift, swift," they cry, "that time be not lost by little love."
We commonly think of laziness as putting off things we ought to do, but this procrastination is only a symptom of laziness. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that sloth is a vice opposed to the virtue of charity. (ST II-II, iii) It is a growing cold where we ought to be warm, and going slowly where we ought to make haste.
Mary is the model for our behavior at all times, but she is especially so when she teaches us to make haste to do good. To act with speed, to be sure, but also with urgency and passion "that time be not lost by little love."
Mary clothes Godís word with all the hopes and longings of Godís people in the Old Testament - and tells us almost all we need to know about our vocation. That we must listen to Godís word. That we must give Godís word flesh and blood and a human face. That the Good News is too good to be kept to ourselves. And that there is an urgency in proclaiming it. "Swift, swift," she cries, "that time be not lost by little love."
We began these reflections on the Beatitudes with St. Thomas Aquinasí remark that there are three kinds of happiness (I-II, 69.3): the happiness of sensuality, the happiness of activity, and the happiness of contemplation. Sensual happiness is an obstacle to future happiness, so in the first of the Beatitudes, Jesus promises a reward to those who are willing to turn away from the goods of the world and moderate our use of the power by which we can achieve them.
The happiness of the active life - and here we must remember that this is a life of good work, not simply exercise or mindless running around - disposes us to future happiness. Jesus promises a reward to those who seek justice and actively work to relieve the distress of others because the world created by these individuals is a sign of Godís kingdom.
The happiness of the contemplative life is an introduction to what we have to look forward to in the future, when we will share Godís eternal life in heaven. "Contemplative Life" is one of those terms that can seem quite daunting, because it carries with it the image of Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and other members of the Churchís small band of exalted mystics. In fact, every Christian is called to the contemplative life, although God may reward with ecstatic vision only a few of those who embrace it.
In its simplest terms, contemplation is knowledge coupled with delight. It is not the study of truth, but a sense of wonder, awe and joy that accompanies our reflection on a truth we already grasp. Contemplation is not something we achieve on our own; it is Godís gift to those who have developed a deep life of prayer. However, one motto of the Dominican Order is "contemplata allis tradere," a command to share with others the fruits of our contemplation. This suggests that God is generous with the gift of contemplation (because we cannot be commanded to do the impossible) - and it reminds us that no gift is ever given just to enrich the person who receives it. Rather, the gift is given to an individual to be shared with the whole Church.
Jesus commends the pure of heart and those who are peacemakers because these individuals live now as we look forward to living in heaven. There, nothing will tempt us away from God, and we will enjoy forever the perfect tranquility of resting in His Pr1esence. Those who suffer persecution for their profession of faith share the reward of contemplation because the sign of the cross they endure now will be the sign by which they are honored forever. "To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is the paradise of God" (Rev. 2.7).
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