To this point in our meditation on the Beatitudes it has not been too difficult to remain detached.  After all, Jesus has been asking us to consider those who live by these strange values in conflict with commonly desired goals in life.  It was as obvious in Jesus’ time as it is in our own.  Wealth, power, position, were desired ends then just as they are today.  Poverty was a curse then, a punishment for sin, the poor person’s or his parents.  We may no longer think that God inflicts poverty; it remains a curse nonetheless.  As each beatitude was voiced, it probably became easier for us to think of individuals to whom it applied, someone who is poor, meek, or even someone who hungers and thirsts for justice and be happy for them because, at least as far as the beatitudes are concerned, Jesus seems to promise a reward, if not in this world, at least in the next.  With the final beatitude, that all shifts.

Now, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they insult and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me.”  Once again it would be easier to think of others, those who are maligned for their witness to their faith than it is to think of ourselves as one to whom Jesus refers.  As I write this we are observing the twentieth anniversary of the Martyrs of El Salvador.  Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in the night of November 16, 1989.  The 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1975 declared: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”  In 1983 the 33rd General Congregation reaffirmed that direction and insisted that the Jesuits “wish to make our own the church’s preferential option for the poor.”  These Jesuit martyrs were not the first to die for the cause in El Salvador.  In 1980 two Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline nun, and their lay co-worker were raped and murdered.  On March 22, 1980, Luis Espinal, SJ, was murdered in Bolivia for his proclamation of the rights and the dignity of the poor.  Two days later, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot as he celebrated Eucharist in a Salvadoran hospital.  His relentless speaking out for those same rights made him a public enemy of the state.

We look at these giants and contemplate what they suffered because of their witness to the Gospel and the dignity of the poor, and we call them “Blessed.”  Someday the church may call them saints as the poor in El Salvador do now.  But, again, what has this to do with us, here and now in this day and age?

When the beatitude was formulated, Christians lived in a time when it was criminal to follow Jesus.  Converts to the faith had to renounce everything, often their families, their employment, everything that was familiar, before they entered into the Font to die to sin there and emerge on the other side reborn in Christ.  That is the meaning behind stripping off the worldly clothes on the one side and being clothed in the white garment on the other.  Those so clothed, those living this new life in Christ had very real chances of suffering and dying for the New Way.  Remember Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles?  He was the prototype.  Thousands followed in his footsteps.  In the Roman persecution it wasn’t only in the Coliseum that they died, but all along the Apian Way they were crucified.

The church has honored martyrs from the beginning of the Christian era and first celebrated Eucharist on the tombs of martyrs.  The hope that is in the Eucharist is realized in the transforming deaths of those who lay down their lives for the Good News.  Every century has known those who have died for the faith.  The church firmly believes that blessed are they now in the beatific vision that is heaven.

See what such considerations do?  They keep the beatitude at a distance.  We don’t hear “blessed are you,” but, “blessed are they.”  In reality I believe that this beatitude is meant to put the call squarely before us and dare us to respond with lives that are conformed to Christ’s.  The Eucharist always celebrates the dying and rising of Jesus in bread and wine.  Do we realize that those who celebrate are called to the same dying and to the hope that is Jesus in resurrection?

When Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you,” the inference is that this persecution is happening because those in power are infuriated by your life steeped in Gospel values that confront the injustices the powerful unleash.  Sometimes there are movements in which those calling for justice become a part.  There is strength in numbers, after all.  Think of the marches for civil rights and against war.  It is possible that if you had marched in Alabama or Mississippi you could have died there.  Certainly those kinds of atrocities continue in Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.  Identification with the poor still brings the same consequences.  You may never be in one of those African countries.  And the Civil Rights movement, while still not fully realized, is not likely to have the same horrific results today for those who work for the implementation of those rights.  So, are we off the hook, so to speak?  I think not.

Conversion means hearing Jesus’ invitation to follow him on the Way.  It happened in his day and it can happen in our own, that people can seek becoming part of the “movement” because they think that some new status will come to them as a result.  The first would be converts thought that when Jesus talked about the coming kingdom it was a temporal one that would drive out foreign rule.  Some of them wanted positions of prominence in that new kingdom.  Peter was castigated for such hidden hopes and told to “get behind me, Satan, and learn from me.”  To follow Jesus on the way is to imitate him in a life of service and to love as he loves even those that society would demean and condemn as loathsome.

When Jesus tells us to learn from him, it is not a challenge to store up notions about Jesus, it is a challenge to do what Jesus does.  There is only one way to sainthood and that is to imitate Jesus.  Read lives of the saints and each one is a tale of someone who strove to imitate Jesus in everything s/he did.  Odd, isn’t it, that there are no two saints with the same story?  Yet each one imitated Christ.

For ourselves, I believe the challenge is to pray with the Scriptures and dare to ask what it is that Jesus is calling us to do and to be.  There is no doubt that that call will entail service of the poor and witnessing to the dignity and worth of every human being.  In other words, the call to conversion of life is always a call to love – even the unlovable.  It is a call to be of service to all.  It is a call to have a willingness to enter into worship with all who wish to come to the Table.  The proclamation that “all are welcome here” imitates Jesus’ table fellowship that merited for him the vilification that “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  They had to crucify him.  What would have happened to their society if everybody started doing what he did?  What would happen to our society if we all started doing what Jesus did?  And if we did there might be no shortage of those who would insult and persecute and utter every kind of slander against us because of Jesus.  But we would be blessed.  That’s what Jesus said.

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