Beatitudes or Platitudes?
On a superficial reading, it would be easy to think that the eight Beatitudes should really be called the eight Platitudes. Be nice to poor people, put others first, it’s alright to cry, make a fairer society, be kind, stay pure, be peaceful, just ignore the bullies: the perfect set of rules! - for a school playground.
But who’d want to be a saint if their rules are - frankly - to be so wet? And how could the Church have taken so seriously, for so long, these eight sayings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Because it really has: many of the greatest minds of the Church have devoted years to studying, meditating on and writing vast commentaries just about Matthew 5:1-12. So there must be more to the Beatitudes than platitude, surely?
Of course there is. Too much, by far, to fit into a ten-minute sermon.
So, it’s probably quicker to start by saying what the Beatitudes are not. The Beatitudes are not a set of “Christian values,” a phrase I frankly despise, because it implies that you can get rid of all the supernatural stuff like the Incarnation and miracles and Resurrection, basically get rid of Jesus, and still have a valuable “moral system” left over at the end. I cannot be more emphatic about this: Christianity is not a moral system. As soon as it becomes one, it has completely lost its way.
If the Beatitudes are just a list of values, handy playground morals, then frankly, they are no better than platitudes. And sadly, many clergy do seem to read them this way: the Beatitudes as Jesus’ call for social justice, his Party Manifesto, a kind of primitive Guardian editorial avant la lettre.
All this ritual and Church stuff is just there to reinforce Jesus’ message of class warfare. Though if that’s so, why bother with Church when you could just sit at home and read it better put in Das Kapital? Perhaps that’s what all the people who have been driven from the pews over the last three decades are doing this morning. Well, that, or the Telegraph Crossword.
If the Beatitudes are not a social justice manifesto or nebulous set of values, then what, you may reasonably ask, are they?
Actually, they are really quite extraordinary in their scope and I feel like I am only a beginner myself at meditating on their hidden wisdom. But I can say this much: they are a pattern or path for spiritual practice and growth, and they are a microcosm of the entire Bible’s salvation history.
It’s probably most straightforward just to go through them, one by one. But before we do that, let’s note the context, easily missed when we are so focussed on the content. There are lots of clues in the first verse which indicate that what we are about to hear is going to spiritually important.
First, Matthew (unlike Luke) sets the Sermon on a mountain, really a hillock near Capernaum. Mountains in the Bible typically denote an interaction with the presence of God. Think of Moses meeting God and receiving the commandments on Mount Sinai. The motif will return later in Jesus’ Transfiguration and, at the end, at his glorious Ascension, connecting Jesus to both Moses as lawgiver and Elijah as prophet. Divine law and prophecy are being invoked by the setting.
Then, Jesus sits to teach. Some ancient fathers see this as a metaphor for the Incarnation, God’s self-emptying to descend in the flesh of Jesus to be among us. It is only once he has done this, become one of us, that the disciples or saints gather round.
Next, Jesus “opened his mouth and taught.” Now, he couldn’t very well teach without opening his mouth, so there must be some meaning behind this otherwise all-too-obvious reference. And there is. In the Old Testament, it is God who “opens the mouths” of the prophets when something particularly important is going to come out; Jesus famously opens the mouths of the dumb; the Psalmist prays, and in the Divine Office of daily prayer we join in the words, “O Lord, open thou our lips.” Here, Jesus opens his own mouth, and yet sits to teach with all that divine authority that the mountain location bestows. This is not just “Jesus’ opinion” we’re about to hear. Matthew is giving cues that his mostly Jewish audience will understand to show that Jesus is speaking with the authority of God.
Let’s find out what he says.
There are eight beatitudes. Numbers were important for the ancient Jews. The first indicates creation and the seventh indicates perfection, following the days of Genesis: on the first day, God creates, and on the seventh, He rests.
This is why both the first and seventh Beatitude speak about the Kingdom of Heaven: it is where Creation began, and where God means Creation to end up again. The mystical “eighth day,” which of course does not exist in a the span of a physical week, is the figure for the renewed creation at the end of time: the world of the Resurrection. It’s why Christians worship on a Sunday, rather than on the Jewish sabbath of the seventh day of the week, Saturday. Sunday represents a new first day, an eighth day, the day of the resurrection. And this sets out the pattern for the Beatitudes: all the way from Creation right up to re-creation, Resurrection.
The first three Beatitudes open the spiritual path with contemplation. The poor in spirit are those who understand their spiritual weakness and their absolute need for God’s wealth. That is, in the old language, to “fear” God, for “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). Putting this into the context of the biblical story, it is to be unlike Adam and Eve, who take God’s power (in the form of an apple) into their own hands. The first step into the Kingdom begins with a recognition of our proper relationship to God: poverty of spirit, a need for God’s grace.
Second, those who mourn are the ones who recognise their own sinfulness and weep for it. The greatest spiritual masters are unanimous on this: there can be no spiritual progress without proper acknowledgement and confession of sins. “Repent,” Jesus said, “for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Hence, the Confession at Mass and the availability of private confession with a priest, a valuable spiritual discipline. When we really know ourselves, we weep.
Third, the meek or humble do not inherit this earth, but the Heavenly Kingdom: we know this, because Our Lord is directly quoting Psalm 37.11, referring to the meek inheriting Jerusalem. Those who sit in lower seats at dinner will be given the higher places of honour. The last shall come first. If we know our true relationship with God, then we establish our proper relationships with one another. This is how God rules, how his Kingdom comes.
Where the first three were contemplative, the next two Beatitudes are more active, leading us from purification to illumination.
The fourth means that instead of hungering for a bit of whatever takes our fancy, instead of being driven by our lusts and addictions and attachments, we need to thirst for righteousness. Not, that is, for social justice, but for our proper standing or justification before God. This is the quest for personal holiness and moral perfection, the subordination of desires to the will.
Fifth, mercy. We are indeed called to give, and to give generously, indeed if we take the Lord literally, to give “all we have and to follow him”: but not, note, simply as a means of redistribution of wealth. If the previous Beatitude is taken into account, this means giving up on those things which are holding us back from God: the other masters we serve, of whom Mammon is but one. Give up, give away anything that you covet, and by doing so, you give alms with joy and release rather than miserly clinging.
The sixth and seventh beatitudes move us from illumination to perfection.
Purity of heart is connected with seeing God face-to-face once we have died to this world. Again, Our Lord refers to the Psalmist: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall rise up in his holy place? / Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity, nor sworn to deceive his neighbour” (Ps 24.3-4). Our heart must be oriented towards the greatest treasure, which is that vision of God which lightens the entire being. It can be glimpsed only dimly here, but even that glimpse is enough to captivate and entrance you into falling in love with God. Once you have tasted of Him, nothing else will do: and the Eucharist is a training-school for this purity of heart.
Then, and only then, can we hope to aspire to wisdom: to peace, the seventh beatitude, bearing that sabbath number of perfection and divine rest. Not just peace between one another, but that deep, inner peace which resides permanently in truly holy people, in the greatest of the saints, and more or less fleetingly in the rest of us. I have seen it, and I know that it is worth persevering to reach.
For it is in the face of the truly holy, truly saintly women and men who form that great cloud of witnesses, that the truth of the eighth beatitude can be realised. And I think it is only in the faces of those saints that we can hope to understand it. The Resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, the new creation - it confounds reason, and yet there have been those among us and there still are those among us who have reached the seventh stage of perfection and can see, unwaveringly, with absolute confidence, the eighth up ahead. So much so that many of them died rather than renounce it, and thousands still do, in the Middle East, in China, in North Korea, too.
May the saints, in their perfect unity with God, reach down to us with their prayers, continuing the work of Our Incarnate Lord, that our lips and eyes and hearts may be wetted with those tears which are a gift from God, open to that sweetness and vision and love which bring that eternal peace, in which they with him reside, and invite us to play our part.