Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Beatitudes, pt.3

Matthew 5:1-12

Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and when He sat down His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you."

When we began examining Jesus' beatitudes from the Sermon on the mount, I pointed out that Jesus often uses contradictory language to teach us a spiritual lesson. The first three beatitudes bore that out: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek. Two weeks ago (the week before Father's Day, we looked at the next three beatitudes, and saw that they didn't seem so much contradictory, as just plain difficult--hungering and thirsting for righteousness, showing mercy, and being pure. This week, we'll look at the last two, which are also hard to live up to, and again, like the first week, seem somehow contradictory. So let's examine them:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
What does it mean to be a peacemaker? This beatitude is one that I misunderstood for quite some time. I always thought that it meant that I had to try and solve everyone's problems: from reconciling disagreeing friends to striving for the Nobel Peace Prize! Of course, my feeble attempts at reconciliation (Hey, "person A", here's all the things "person B" has against you. "Person B", here's why "person A" isn't too thrilled with you. You two should talk and work it all out!) never went too well! That's because peacemaking has to begin with us, in our own hearts and lives. This is why St. Paul writes, "If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all." We have to do our part to reconcile with others (and in the first place, to not tick them off!).

The promise that Jesus gives to this beatitude is a large one: "They shall be called sons of God." Living at peace with others, just like showing them mercy as we discussed last week, is crucial to our relationship with God! Jesus says later on in the Sermon on the Mount, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." At Mass, just before the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered, we "Share a sign of peace" with each other. That practice is more than just a friendly hug or handshake, but has its roots in this Scripture. Don't just greet the people you like, but go out of your way to honestly and truly offer your peace to those whom you might have some grudge against! If you remember someone who isn't there, that you have an issue with, make a promise to God to set that right as soon as possible--and then do it!

When we live at peace with others, only then can we bring peace to others, and truly be peacemakers!

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Here's where we get back into the "What the heck are you talking about, Jesus?" beatitudes. How can one who is being persecuted--mocked, disowned, beaten, imprisoned, or even killed--blessed?! You're not making any sense here, Lord! But notice the promise: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven." That sounds familiar! Hey, that was the same promise that Jesus gave to the poor in spirit! Coincidence? I think not!

Neither does Jesus. When He appeared to St. John in a vision (the Book of Revelation), He gave seven letters to seven churches. One of those churches, Smyrna, was a poor and persecuted church. Here's what Jesus says to them:
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 'The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
"'I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.'"

Jesus first says that although the church at Smyrna was poor and persecuted, they were actually rich! And moreover He promises that if they stay faithful no matter what, they'll get a crown of life! That echoes the beatitudes, where they inherit the Kingdom (because, really, what's a crown without a Kingdom?)! Notably, the population of the city of Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey, a predominately Muslim nation) is still very much Christian! Today, in countries where Christianity is illegal, like China, the Church is thriving. This is because, as Tertullian, a member of the ancient Church remarked, "Martyrs are the seedbed of the Church."

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This beatitude is on the surface the same as the last one, as it is directed towards those who are being persecuted. This is why technically, there are said to be 8 beatitudes. It really is an expansion on the above beatitude.

But there are some very important things that Jesus teaches us here. Number one, He's stopped dealing in an absract "they". "Blessed are you," He tells us. "Are you talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? I'm the only one here, so you must be talkin' to me!" (Sorry, couldn't resist!) That's right. Jesus is talking to you! You are blessed. When? Under what circumstances? When you get mocked, insulted, beaten, or even killed for your faith! Note that Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are you if men revile you and persecute you." He knows that when you follow Jesus faithfully, with your whole heart, it's a certainty.

Today, throughout the world, believers are imprisoned and killed for their faith daily! We are fortunate enough to live in a country where we don't live with the risk of death for our beliefs. But that doesn't mean we're blessed! It's been noted that when we truly live for Christ, we make waves in this world--and the last thing the world appreciates is waves, and those who made them. When we take a stand for our faith, the Devil takes notice, and he gets the guns out and takes aim. It's hard to go against the grain, against the system, against the flow. As the saying goes, though, "Any dead fish can float downstream!" Christianity is counter-cultural.

In no situation is that more prevailant than in our current nation of Canada--and recent decisions that have been made. The Church has always held that homosexuality is a sin. But our noble elected officials have decided to proclaim gay marriage as perfectly, legally legit--the same in every regard as heterosexual marriage. (As an aside, it pisses me off to no end that I have to refer to marriage with the adjective "heterosexual"! To that end, "heterosexual marriage will from now on be referred to here as "Marriage" [with a capital M]). The gay marriage thing is just one in a long line of offences, like the endorsement and funding of embryonic stem cell research, legal abortion-on-demand, prolific divorce rates, and so on and on.

According to the laws of our wonderful land, this blog post could technically fall under the hate crimes act. If anyone wants to prosecute, I'll cite "religious freedom", and we'll see if the gov't and the judges recognise their guarantee in that regard!

I think of a couple summers ago when I was a security guard. I worked in Hamilton at a retirement community called St. Elizabeth Village. They had recently aquired a bit of land across the road and were going to make a small park out of it for the residents. One feature of this park was that there would be an outdoor Way of the Cross. Two old men had laboured in the community's woodshop constructing crosses with cases for the Stations of the Cross icons--Icons which came originally from Hungary, and were donated from St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in London, Ontario (The same St. Elizabeth that the Village is named for). At the opening of the park the Bishop came to consecrate it. That night (my night off) vandals came and smashed the stations, catching the guard on duty unaware. It was written off as the work of teenage vandals, and nothing much was made of it.

A few months earlier, a mosque had been burned down, and the city was up in arms searching for the perpetrators of such a violent "hate crime"--and rightly so! But no one even suggested the possibility that it might be merely "teenage arsonists". When a very similar crime was done to Christians, as described above, albeit on a lesser scale, it's merely vandalism!

Persecution happens, even here. Maybe we'll never be killed from it (though as the case of Columbine--where 2 students shot up a school, killing 13--at least two of which were targeted because of their faith--in Colorado, 1999, shows us, even that is increasingly likely!), but we will be mocked, insulted, reviled, accused, put down, and attacked for our faith.

But Jesus doesn't just tell us that we will be persecuted. He tells us that we will be blessed when we are persecuted! How? We will be receiving the same honour as His prophets and apostles and saints of old!

The challenge is, then, if you aren't being attacked in any way for your faith...what are you doing wrong? Let us die to ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow after Jesus!

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