11 June 2007

So, you wanna be a Christian...

Feast of St. Barnabas: 2 Cor 1.1-7 and Matthew 5.1-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

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Every time the Beatitudes roll around in the lectionary cycle, I am tempted to preach a homily called the “Uglititudes.” You can imagine, I think, what this homily might look like. There would a litany of ugly vices opposed to all those beautiful virtues; some wordplay that makes it sound like we should be ugly rather than beautiful; for a little humor there would be one or two unfair swipes at self-serving interpretations of Jesus’ litany—pacifism, moral perfectionism; and the whole thing would conclude with a surprising, twisty reading of the word “beatitude” and a bouncy admonition to be a prophet or to rejoice more or maybe to volunteer at a shelter or something like that. No one wants to be predictable but ruts will groove the hardest clay when traveled on long enough. What do you imagine the disciples thought of the whole Beatitude homily? Predictable? Standard stuff? Safe, middle-class prattle? I’m willing to bet that they were thinking: “You have got to be kidding with this!”

Let’s get a definition. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his homilies on the Beatitudes, teaches us that, “Beatitude…is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.” He goes on to write that “beatitude” is opposed to ‘misery,” which he defines as “being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings.” Then he says, “Now the one thing truly blessed is Divinity Itself. Whatever else we may suppose [the Divine Self] to be, this pure life, the ineffable and incomprehensible good, is beatitude.” So, for me to say that I am in a state of beatitude is to say that I possesses all the good things that I want; that I am not afflicted with any painful sufferings; and that I participate fully in the Divine Life. Who here is blessed in precisely this way?

And now this is why the disciples might be thinking to themselves, “You have got to be kidding!” As a standard of blessedness, the Beatitudes are tough. To be poor in spirit, meek, hungry for righteousness, clean of heart, merciful, to be peacemakers and ready to die as martyrs—these are our standards of holiness, our measures for blessedness. You have go to be kidding me! Nope. No kidding. There’s nothing predictable here. Nothing worn or rutted. Jesus is plainly, simply drawing out the spiritual implications of choosing to walk his Way; he is unpacking for us all the baggage that comes with sincerely calling him “Lord,” all of the consequences of accepting his death on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb as our own death and resurrection. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ answer to this question: “Lord, what will happen to me if I choose to follow you?” Blessed are you…

For they will be comforted. For they will be satisfied. For they will be shown mercy. Future tense. How about now? I asked earlier who here is blessed in precisely the way Gregory of Nyssa defines beatitude. A better question: who here expects to be blessed in beatitude? An even better question: who here, looking to a future in Perfect Beatitude, is experiencing imperfect Beatitude now, small day to day blessings right now?

The Sermon on the Mount is best read like a map. It shows us our starting point, our destination, and all the ways to get to where we are going. But reading a map ain’t the same as taking a trip. Blessed are they (then) who travel the Way. For they will be brought to Beauty Himself. This is not a prediction but a promise. And there is nothing safe about it.

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