Blessed. The word means “happy.” That is important to remember as we ponder the teachings proclaimed on the mountaintop. To hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and now, “Blessed are those who sorrow,” must have perplexed those sitting in awe and trying to absorb the instructions that form the basics of the New Way. It will take time and continued exposure as well as periods of contemplation to realize that Jesus is initiating a New Creation. In the process he turns the old one upside down. The danger is to too quickly conclude that one knows what Jesus is talking about. If his words fit too easily into the scheme of things, you may be sure that you have not felt the full challenge of what Jesus is urging his hearers to do and to be. We call the process conversion.
The Beatitudes for the most part, at least the first half of the sayings, the “Blessed” part, must have stunned those first hearers, seated at his feet in rapt attention. Some of those had already decided to throw in their lot with Jesus, to be disciples and strive to walk in his ways. They had come to believe that through Jesus he Kingdom would come, and with the Kingdom, power and prosperity. The Romans would be driven out. They would be a free people once again.
Others in that vast assembly still searched and wondered. They had not yet made their decision. They may well have been in desperate situations, wondering where else they could turn to find meaning in their lives. They would hang on every word and hope to have what we would call an “aha” moment that would convince them so that they could become disciples and be part of Jesus’ realm.
It is important to note that at no time does Jesus ever make the decision to believe easy. Just the opposite is the case. It is almost as if Jesus says, “Are you sure you want to do this?” This is before they had seen the end of the beginning.
So, we hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow.” Change Blessed to Happy and link that to mourn. It jars, doesn’t it? What is Jesus breaking open for us? Through what new filter does he challenge us to view our life and times?
Mourning is a frequent state of mind in the Hebrew Bible. The Prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they forsook the Law and Yahweh and followed Baal and the other gods of the Gentiles among whom they lived. The Prophets sorrowed over the exploitation of the poor, the orphans and the widows by the rich and the powerful. The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem and then were led into captivity. “By the trees of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion.” Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” And he would grieve at the death of his friend, Lazarus.
Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition. No one who cares for others can live long before experiencing a situation that causes these emotions. They will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which they will wonder if they will ever see the dawn of hope in their lives again. A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill.
A few years ago it was forbidden for photographers to take pictures of the flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as they were returned to these shores for burial. It was as though if we did not see the reality, we would be numb to the horror and we would not have to mourn the fallen. Not recognizing the toll, it would seem all the more possible that soon we would be the victors – divinely appointed, as we were in the blood exchange. We needed to see those coffins. We needed to see the broken-hearted parents and spouses and children. To join in their mourning is salutary and can help change the perspective the way the image of that little boy in Aleppo, bloody, ash covered, and dazed, and seated in the back of an ambulance did.
There is one way to make sure that you will not mourn, and that is to choose not to love. Narcissists do not mourn. Neither do sociopaths. Husbands or wives may have to mourn and survive their spouses. Often children mourn the death of their parents, albeit, often in due time, when full lives have been lived. Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, long before a fullness of years, and grief intensifies. There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children. Deaths of friends, the end of relationships, betrayals, the failing health of those once strong, bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.
This winter we were confronted by terrible winter storms, with traffic accidents and deaths and power outages. Before that floods destroyed homes. Hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes take their toll. We grieve individually and as a people. Sometimes we respond. Sometimes we forget.
Why does Jesus say, “Happy are those who mourn?” Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings. Mourning is not an end in itself. Those who mourn can be happy only when mourning leads the mourner beyond the sorrowing state.
The Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow it brings to the survivors. Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death. The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one. Family and friends, indeed the whole Church, gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying. Why? Unless there is a belief in something more than what can be seen, a conviction that death has been conquered and is not an end to anything more than life as it was lived in this world, it makes no sense.
The casket is draped with a funeral pall. The faithful recognize the baptismal garment that the deceased was clad in when s/he came out of the waters after having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God. Identified with Christ, the baptized is destined to live in God’s love forever. An Easter Candle stands burning by the coffin. That candle was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim that Christ is alive in the Resurrection. It now attests to the fact that the deceased shares in that resurrection. Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising, and are reminded that those who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever, “and I will raise them up on the last Day.” Death, where is your sting?
Some think there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.” I don’t agree. Mourning is an intense and individual experience is unique to each mourner. It is a process, a journey, a learning to live with a new reality. The mourner experiences the darkness, the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of one’s life. No one else can fill that void. The happiness comes from the conviction that God will wipe away every tear, embrace the mourner with love, and help him/her live in hope that one day the one mourned will be seen again in the Resurrection on the Last Day.
A challenge for believers is to begin to be signs that inspire that hope. It is not enough to look on with pity and even weep for those who suffer loss. Believers must respond like the Eucharist they celebrate by allowing themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve. They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love. Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one way. Sitting and listening weeks later and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel,” is another. No two people mourn in the same way. There is no time limit on the mourning process. But the love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.
St. James said, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?”
It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters. We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes. Pope Paul VI said that we do not have a right to excess when there are those who lack the essentials. That is an adaptation of the Beatitudes and can be very hard to hear.
Faith demands that we recognize those suffering to be our sisters and brothers. (An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized the Jews to be their brothers and sisters? They had to deny the Jews’ humanity in order to carry out the atrocities. Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to burn crosses in the yards, and hang from gibbets, those they recognized to be their black sisters and brothers?) We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, sisters and brothers in the Lord.
A final consideration. Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears. They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent. Again, this is not a prayer for the grace to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgivable. (If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable. It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable.) The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven. Repentance means to turn away from sin, to believe in the Good News, and to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.
So, we hear again: Blessed too are those who sorrow. We rejoice because we believe the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to light the darkness and fill the emptiness with which mourning threatens to break us.
We believe that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
A recent Powerball Lotto jackpot exceeded $300 million. A friend and I regularly have morning coffees together. He asked me what I would do if I were to win such a prize. I laughed and said that I would have to buy a ticket before I would have a chance of winning. He persisted and said, “Okay, so you bought a ticket and it had the lucky numbers. What would you do with all that money”?
Remember Tevya’s fantasizing in “Fiddler on the Roof?” In his song, “If I were a rich man,” Tevya could come up with only frivolous ways to spend such wealth and that included the building of a staircase that went nowhere just for fun. So I fantasized, too, for a few moments, musing on what I would do with sudden and newfound wealth. I came to the conclusion that I would like to be able to do things for people who are in desperate straits. And I would probably clear the mortgage on my house. But, as I said, I would have to first buy a ticket.
This Sunday, the eighth in Ordinary Time, we are at that point in The Sermon on the Mount where in Jesus asks us where our hearts are. What do we worry about? What is important to us? Where does God fit into all of that? There are those who proclaim that God is a god of bounty who shows love by showering wealth on the chosen ones destined to be saved. Perhaps I would be tempted to accept that if I were one of the wealthy. But, since that is not so, I am inclined more to identify with those who live in the midst of a poverty that I can only imagine. I believe God loves the poor, those whose only wealth is their faith in God.
Treasured memories come from the time I was privileged to spend in Kenya and Uganda. There I encountered genuine poverty, the kind that I was powerless to do anything about. At that time in Kenya, only 12% of the men were employed with an average monthly wage of $23. Two generations of people were dying from HIV/AIDS. For the first time in the country’s recorded history there were street kids. The unemployed men tended to stand about in clusters, idling the day away, while the women toiled and cared for the children. They eked out crops from thirsty gardens and carried home piles of thatch that would serve as fuel for fires in the open cooking areas in the corners of the living rooms.
Imagine the embarrassment my touring companions and I felt when we were invited to dinner and there were served a lavish banquet that included three kinds of meat along with plantain and lush greens. We sat to table knowing that these same hosts would feel fortunate if they were able to have a bit of meat even once a month.
We were privileged to celebrate Eucharist with the Kenyans. They danced and clapped their hands in the entrance procession and sang hymns with gusto, giving evidence of their joy in the Lord and their love for one another in the Assembly. Many had walked for a day and a half to get to the church. They would have the same journey by foot back home. They didn’t mind if the homily exceeded 10 minutes, or if Mass went on for an hour-and-a-half. Sunday Mass was the center of their lives. There was no doubt that they trusted in God. They knew that God would provide the essentials for them, as Jesus promises in the Gospel this Sunday. The fact that they had survived the past week convinced them. They were willing to enter the new week with confidence, i.e., with faith. Having buried so many members of their families and friends, they remained convinced that their true treasure awaited them with God in heaven.
Recently, I read an advertisement promoting the sale of some new apartments in New York City. The price for the smallest unites on the lowest floor started at well over a million dollars. A few of the listings had a red slash mark through them that indicated they had been sold already. While many people in our country struggle in poverty, there are those that can afford that kind of luxurious living. What is even more amazing is the fact that some people have more than one mansion, so that they don’t have to spend the entire year in one location. A senator was asked how many homes he owned. He paused and then had to confess that he could not remember the count. All that is beyond my powers of imagination.
No wonder the wealthy tend to associate with the wealthy and to live in exclusive and gated communities. That way they can have a fortress around their wealth and be deluded into thinking that their wealth is nothing extraordinary. Making sure to associate with others of similar wealth keeps the poor at a distance and helps the wealthy conclude that if only the poor worked harder, wealth could be theirs, too.
Imagine a group of Kenyans sitting near a group of the elite as Jesus speaks on the Mountain. Do you think they would hear the same message? We know from other places in the Gospel that some who came to Jesus seeking to become disciples went away sad when Jesus challenged them to go and sell what they had and give to the poor before they came and followed him. That challenge would not bother a Kenyan at all. Hear the difference?
It is a delusion to think that it is easy to be Jesus’ disciple. Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said in effect that he loved Christ; it was Christians he hated. Could that have been because, knowing Christ’s basic teachings, he had so little experience of Christians who practiced Christianity, who took it seriously enough that it governed how they treated other people?
Pope Francis continually sends shock waves through the faithful, thrilling some and raising ire in others. Francis was born and raised in poverty, lived in the midst of poverty and never forgot his roots. This man washes the feet of the poor, some of them not Christian, and some women among them. He celebrated his 80th birthday with some homeless people. Francis calls for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. Poverty was not the goal of many who sought Orders in the church.
So, is Jesus saying that wealth is evil and the rich cannot enter heaven? An adage has often been misquoted. It isn’t money that is the root of all evil; it is the love of money. Paul wrote that to Timothy when he was concerned that some in Timothy’s community lusted after money and had given up the practice of faith in their pursuit of money. Paul did not want Timothy to succumb to the same temptations. Wealth is seductive and can corrupt.
Each of us must hear Jesus and then decide how to respond. Dare we ask ourselves what it is that we treasure? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” Jesus said. What do we hold in highest value? To what do we cling? If it is things, even the poor can fall victim here. They can clutch to the little they have and be oblivious to the needs of the poor around them.
I think of a friend who practiced tithing. For much of his adult life he had been of comfortable means. His tithes had amounted to lucrative amounts. His pastors felt blessed to have him as a parishioner. Then his fortunes changed. In a moment no longer could he be described as wealthy. Some would have said he was poor. In his new poverty, he continued to tithe. That was always the first calculation he made on payday as he sat with his bills. He told me that he took a deep gulp the first time in the new regimen when he wrote his tithing check from his reduced income. “You know what?” he said. “When I tithe, there always seems to be more than I had before I tithed. Strange, isn’t it?”
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” That is Jesus’ way of asking us what is most important in our lives. We will only seek the Kingdom of God, that is, desire to have God reign in our lives, if there is a holy longing. We must come to recognize that emptiness that only God can fill. If we live in constant noise, every appetite satiated, and if we are inundated with things, we just might not notice the emptiness. We are supposed to have a hunger as we approach the Eucharistic Table. There is a reason why we present ourselves empty-handed.
In the final years of his life, Frank Sinatra reconciled with the Church. His marriage to Barbara Marx was convalidated, or blessed. Some Catholics voiced considerable outrage and expressed that to the editors of Catholic publications, including the one I edited at the time. It was clear that many hadn’t heard what Paul tells us in today’s second reading: Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts. How could a man with Mr. Sinatra’s history be welcomed back by the Catholic Church? What some will never learn is that a person’s history is between that one and God. And more – we are a community of sinners – forgive – but sinners nonetheless. Again, hear Pope Francis’s most famous remark to date: “Who am I to judge?”
There is a lot about each one of us that no one else knows. We profess to be sinners each time we enter into Liturgy. When people from outside our numbers think of us Catholics, do they think we are a people who believe in the grace of repentance? Do they think of us as a people who never tire of welcoming back those who have wandered elsewhere? Do they think that among our primary messages is: “All are welcome here because God loves all people?” Have you ever wondered how King David would have fared in today’s Church? Check out his history. Could he have known forgiveness and found acceptance and continued to be king?
We do believe in forgiveness, don’t we, forgiveness others’ sins in addition to that for our own? I remember being told by someone who knew Frank Sinatra, that he was a very generous man. When he was moved by a story of desperation, he would contact the person in need and contribute substantially to ease the situation under the condition that no one was ever to know the source of the money. How many people thanked God for the blessing that Mr. Sinatra was in their lives?
So we sit on the Mountain ad listen, immersed in the words that flow over us coming from the One who is seated and teaches with authority. Dare we listen? Dare we change and become disciples?
Remember, there will be Food and Drink and an inner presence to strengthen us for the journey.
Did you ever wonder what you would have heard had you been there on the Mountain that day? That is not an easy question to answer because if involves far more that the mere processing of sound. What you heard would have depended on your needs. It would have depended on why you were there in the first place. Most important, how you received the message would be determined by the decision you had made about Jesus and the role he was to play in your life.
Matthew describes the scene very carefully. The first thing to notice is that two distinct groups or classes of people are present, the crowds and the disciples. Nothing other than curiosity defines the first group. More than likely they had heard things about Jesus, heard what some were saying about him. They could have heard reports on things he was supposed to have done, that he had driven out demons and healed the sick. But as yet they had not made a decision about him. They wander and mill about. Often they seem to be lost, unable to find their way. And all the while, Jesus is there, within reach, waiting and available.
The disciples, on the other hand, are those who have made their decision about Jesus. They want to be with him. That is what the word disciple means: one who walks with Jesus. It is true that sometimes it is easy to say one will follow Jesus only to have that decision shattered by something Jesus says that seems impossible to accept. The neo disciple may hear the rumor that Jesus is mad, or that he has a devil just like the ones he has driven out. That is when the disciples’ spirits will be crushed, when they realize that the Kingdom Jesus is bringing is not nearly as material as they had hoped.
What are they to do with the suffering that Jesus continually brings into the picture? Will they want to endure persecution? Will they embrace the cross that Jesus will say they must take up every day if they are to follow him? How will they remain faithful to the one they had hoped would be the Messiah when they see him rejected, condemned, and hanging on the cross like a common criminal?
It is easy to make the decision to be a disciple. It is something else to live as a disciple day in and day out, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death. And then what?
Did both groups, disciples and the crowds, go up the mountain with Jesus? That is not clear from the text. What is clear is why Jesus is on the Mountain and which ones he gathered around him. Remember who else went up a mountain, and what happened when he go to its top? Moses climbed the cloud-enshrouded mountain and there met God who gave him the Stone Tablets containing the Law that would mark these people out as different from every other people. Keeping the Law would result in their having a relationship with God and God with them that no other people could claim to have with their gods.
Jesus is the new Moses. He doesn’t leave the disciples at the base of the Mountain to await his return following an encounter with God. He takes them with him to watch him take the seat as the teacher. They gather around and sit at his feet to listen as he teaches, initiating the New Law built on the former Law to be sure, but infinitely more demanding.
Did the crowds go up the mountain, too? That is not clear. It is quite possible that in reality there was one large group made up of both categories of people intermingled, so to speak, journeying together, seeking and hoping for what? So when Jesus took his seat as one who teaches with authority, those looking on would sense that something major was about to happen. They needed to gather around and listen carefully. How else would they be able to decide whether they would follow the new Way or not?
That is what we must decide, too, as we find ourselves in the crowd, among the disciples, listening to the one seated in our midst. You may say that you are just curious to hear this One teach, this One about whom you have heard many things. You may say that you have made that decision to follow Jesus as well. But that decision is never once for all time. It may seem like that the first time it is made, but every day a new decision has to be made as you face something that challenges your faith, as you have to deal with events that make you wonder where God is when such calamities happen. Where is Jesus when someone you love dies so young? How do you go on believing when you are betrayed by someone you love, when love fails? We haven’t even talked about tsunamis and earthquakes, plagues and famine. And then there are wars.
Make no mistake about this. Jesus’ teachings are not easy. If they seem so, I would say that you have not heard them correctly. If you do find the message difficult and wonder how you will ever be able to follow this way of life you are hearing him. It there is a struggle you are getting the point. I say “you.” “We” would be better. The call may be issued once and accepted when we begin to believe, “begin” being the operative word. The day we come out of the font begins the journey. We begin to die in the waters and begin to live the life of identity with Christ as we emerge from the water. Clothed in Christ, God no longer distinguishes between Christ and us. But usually it is not long after that great and glorious day that the baptized begin to sense that the dying has only just begun; the dying is only the first step. There is more dying to do.
If you are reading this and realize that you have not yet made your decision about Jesus, that you have not yet begun to make the commitment of faith, that is all right, too. You are touching on the reason why, Sunday after Sunday, we return to the Mountain, as it were, there to sit under the Word that is proclaimed, there to continue to be transformed by the proclamation, transformed more completely into the Body of Christ.
So, just be open. Let the Spirit guide your musings. Let yourself be vulnerable. It is only then that healing can begin.