Monday, January 30, 2006

How to be Happy

Matthew 5:1-12
Seeing the crowds, He went onto the mountain. And when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He began to speak. This is what He taught them:

'How blessed are the poor in spirit:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the gentle:
they shall have the earth as inheritance.
Blessed are those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness:
they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
They shall be recognised as children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

'Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.'
When Jesus began teaching the Sermon on the Mount, He started with the "Beatitudes", or the "blessings"--or, in other words, He began by teaching people "how to be happy." However, even a casual reading of these tips for happiness will leave a person scratching his or her head and wondering, how would following these instructions make one happy? Happy are the poor? Happy is the person who is mourning? Happy is the person who is suffering? Jesus, You're not making any sense!

But rather, Jesus is truly the only One making sense of our lives. It is our understandings, the notions of this world, that are backwards. In the reading previous to this, from Archbishop Fulton Sheen, he stated that Jesus' teachings are in the end at war with those of the world. The last post was rather heavy and hard-hitting. Sheen points out the end result (at least as far as the world is concerned) of living out the Beatitudes: self-crucifixion. This week, I want to focus on the Beatitudes again, keeping in mind the reason for the self-denial: the rewards that Jesus promises. What the world offers us is temporary and artificial happiness. What Jesus offers us is eternal and true happiness.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. The rich person too often says, "I have everything I need. I don't need God!" Too often, we can take that attitude. The poor, on the other hand, realise that they have to depend solely on God for their very next meal--indeed, their very next breath! Being poor in spirit doesn't necessarily mean we're poor in wallet--but it does mean that we live our lives knowing that we, too, rely fully on Jesus for our next breath, and that He alone brings us fulfilment, peace and happiness--or, in a word, makes us "happy."

This attitude is what brings us close to God. This attitude is why Jesus proclaims that those with this attitude have the Kingdom of Heaven!

Blessed are the Gentle. Meekness in our world is often associated with weakness. An unwillingness to make an issue out of standing up for ourselves is seen as an inability to. But Jesus is trying to drive home the point that when we were freed from slavery to sin, He made us instead slaves to righteousness. A slave doesn't have rights. In a similar way, Jesus has made us citizens of Heaven, and not of earth. Again, this really puts a limit on our rights in the here and now. Jesus challenges us to live accordingly, and "turn the other cheek" (and no, that doesn't mean moon them!). We have the power to stand up for ourselves--in fact, in Christ, we can do everything! But, like Christ, we must have an attitude of gentle humility in everything that we do.

As a reward, we, who have forsaken our rights and status in this earth to become citizens of Heaven, will gain the earth as our inheritance as well!

Blessed are those who Mourn. This one really gets me. How is the person who is sad, at the same time, happy?! Often, "religious" people have this mentality that they should be happy all the time. Everything should be going right, because they love God and God loves them, and if something is wrong, it's a sign that there's something wrong with them. Well, let me tell you, that's a bunch of crap!

Jesus isn't looking for a bunch of people with fake, plastic smiles and all the "right answers." He's looking for people who are willing to be genuine with Him. 1 Peter 5:7 encouages us to "unload all your burden on to Him, since He is concerned about you." The Psalmist, David, knew all about being real with God. My favourite Psalm, number 13, sums up Jesus' beatitude perfectly:
How long, Yahweh, will You forget me? For ever?
How long will You turn away Your face from me?
How long must I nurse rebellion in my soul,
sorrow in my heart day and night?
How long is the enemy to domineer over me?
Look down, answer me, Yahweh my God!
Give light to my eyes or I shall fall into the sleep of death.
Or my foe will boast, 'I have overpowered him,'
and my enemy have the joy of seeing me stumble.

As for me, I trust in Your faithful love, Yahweh.
Let my heart delight in Your saving help,
let me sing to Yahweh for His generosity to me,
Let me sing to the name of Yahweh the Most High!
This is the promise of those who mourn, of those who are willing to bare their souls to God: God Himself will comfort them! That's the Love that He has for us!

Blessed are those who Hunger and Thirst for Uprightness. What's "uprightness"? It's doing the right thing. It's living the way that God wants us to. Jesus is saying that it's not just those who do what God wants, but those for whom doing what God wants is like a gnawing hunger inside them. What does that mean? It means that just like I might crave a juicy steak when I'm really hungry, I need to crave doing the right thing in the same way. The reward that Jesus promises those who do is that they will be filled. What's that mean? That it is He Himself who makes us upright. It is He Himself who first gives us that hunger, and then gives us the ability to actually do what's right, in order that our hunger for Him will be satisfied. It is what St. Paul was writing about when he said, "work out your salvation in fear and trembling. It is God who, for His own generous purpose, gives you the intention and the powers to act" (Philippians 2:12-13).

Blessed are the Merciful. Jesus is teaching us here not merely of the value of forgiving others, but the actual necessity. If we want to gain forgiveness, if we want to gain God's mercy, we need to be willing to show that mercy to others. When we pray the Our Father, we say, "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." When Jesus taught His disciples that prayer, immediately afterward, He said, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). Without God's forgiveness, there is no Salvation. God's condition is clear: He expects from you nothing less than what He has given you. To be forgiven, you have to forgive.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart. We said above that "uprightness" was about doing the right things. It's talking about our actions. Purity, on the other hand, refers to our motives and our desires. It talks about what's going on inside--in our heads and in our hearts. Purity is choosing to ignore sinful things, to reject temptations and get away from them. It's being willing to stop hanging around "friends" who are bad influences on us. It's being willing to walk out of movies that depict and glorify sinful situations. It's being willing to focus only on what is True, Honourable, Upright, Pure, Lovable, Admirable, Good, and Praiseworthy (Philippians 4:7). When we choose to do that, we truly will see God--and not just in Heaven. If we are willing to purge our thoughts of sin, and focus only on what is Good, then we will truly get to know the Author of Good in a way that we never have before! The reward for Purity is an intimate friendship with God Himself!

Blessed are the Peacemakers. What's a peacemaker? How can you be one? A peacemaker is first and foremost a person who tries to live in peace with others--being good and honest and fair and gentle. But it goes beyond our own behaviour. Being a peacemaker means standing up for people who are being picked on, beat up, or otherwise abused. It means being willing to stand in the way of the bully and his prey. It means being willing to take a few knocks to protect someone who is weaker than you. It also means being a friend to those who need one, whether or not they are cool, or popular, or rich. It means valuing them simply because they are made in God's image, and that makes them infinitely valuable! It means standing up for life, everyone's life--whether they're very old, or not yet born, or anyone in between. This is being a peacemaker, and those who are, are recognised not just as being a "good guy", but of being a child of God!

Blessed are Those who are Persecuted in the Cause of Uprightness. How can one who is being persecuted--mocked, disowned, beaten, imprisoned, or even killed--be 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:
"Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna and say, 'Here is the message of the First and the Last, who was dead and has come to life again: I know your hardships and your poverty, and--though you are rich--the slander of the people who falsely claim to be Jews but are really members of the synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of the sufferings that are coming to you. Look, the devil will send some of you to prison, to put you to the test, and you must face hardship for ten days. Even if you have to die, keep faithful, and I will give you the crown of life for your prize. Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: for those who prove victorious will come to no harm from 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."

These Beatitudes are hard, challenging, even impossible on our own. But through the Grace that God has given to us through Jesus Christ, we are able to live up to His Call. The question is, are we willing?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Christopher J. Freeman said...

Gregory,

Inspiring article! Thank you for sharing.

I remember doing a project for NT Survey at EBC, for Professor Deitz (do remember him?). The assignment was to choose one of the 7 churches listen in Revelation. I chose Smyrna.

What I found out was Smyrna and Myrrh have a relationship with each other. That is, when you crush Myrrh down into a gummy resin (along with some other plants from various trees and shrubs), you get a product called Smyrna. Apparently it is a very pleasing odor.

Anyway, the connection is this: how appropriate it is that the church at Smyrna would be marked for martyrdom, set apart to be crushed down, so that the odour of the prayers of saints can be a pleasing scent to God. The blood of martyrs (ominous as it may sound) is a pleasing scent to God.

I wonder if there is a connection there with votive candles traditionally having a pleasing scent?

Thank you, Gregory, for continuing to share your insights. I am deepened by them.

God bless you,
Christopher

9:24 AM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Gregory said...

Hey Chris,
I'm glad I have been of such benefit to you. I'm humbled.

I don't remember Professor Dietz. He probably was gone before I got there. Olu Peters taught me NT Survey, but we also had to write about one of the seven churches of the Apocalypse, and I too chose to write on Smyrna. I never discovered the connection with myrrh, though. That's really something.

As for the use of votive candles, knowing the way the Catholic Church organises its customs with such a great attention to detail, there more than likely is a connections. However, the use of votive candles in prayer is a very cultural part of Catholicism, and the Catholic churches that I've attended haven't made much use of them, so I'm not sure.

Interesting note, though, that is why incence is used in Mass. Frankincence, by the way, is a major ingredient in the Mass's incence.

TJ, if you read this, your comment was emailed to me, but for whatever reason, it did not actually appear on the site. I'm kind of confused, but I did see it.
God bless!

3:53 PM, January 31, 2006  

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