Archive for the ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ Category

HOW BLESSED ARE THOSE PERSECUTED FOR HOLINESS’ SAKE; THE REIGN OF GOD IS THEIRS

 BLESSED ARE YOU WHEN THEY INSULT YOU AND PERSECUTE YOU AND UTTER EVERY KIND OF SLANDER AGAINST YOU BECAUSE OF ME.  BE GLAD AND REJOICE, FOR YOUR REWARD IN HEAVEN IS GREAT.

 

Dear Reader,

To this point in our meditation on the Beatitudes it is possible to remain detached.  After all, Jesus has been asking us to consider those who live by these strange values that are in marked contrast with commonly desired goals in life.  This was true in Jesus’ time.  It is true in our own.  Wealth, power, and position were desired ends then, just as they are today.  Poverty was a curse then, seen as a punishment for sin, that of the poor person, or of his parents.  Today some still see poverty as something God inflicts.  Others blame the poor person for not working harder to overcome the poverty.

As each Beatitude was voiced, did it become easier to think of an individual to whom it applied, someone who is poor, meek, or even someone who hungers and thirsts for justice?  You can 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.”  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 ones to whom Jesus refers.  As I write this, I am fresh from reading a reflection on the Martyrs of El Salvador.  Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in the night of November 16, 1989.  In 1975 the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus 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 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.

Do you recognize these themes in Pope Francis’s preaching, his repeated concern for the poor, challenging the Church to give primacy of place to the poor?  Pope Francis is a Jesuit and was formed in the community in South America.

We look at these giants and contemplate what they suffered as a result of their witness to the Gospel and to the dignity of the poor.  We call them “Blessed.”  Someday the Church may call them saints.  The poor in El Salvador already do.  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 this included 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 significance of 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.  Eucharist was first celebrated 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 reflections do?  They keep the Beatitude at a distance.  We don’t hear “blessed are you,” but “blessed are they.”  In truth, 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 renews the dying and rising of Jesus in bread and wine.  Do we accept 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, 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.  It is possible that if you had marched in Alabama or Mississippi, you could have died there.

The Civil Rights movement is still not fully realized.  Marches continue.  A group of Black Lives Matter and others confronted the recent demonstration by the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. A woman was killed and others were injured.

Conversion means hearing Jesus’ invitation to follow him on The Way.  It happened in the Lord’s day and it can happen in our own, that people seek becoming part of the “movement” because they think new status will come to them as a result.  The first would be converts thought that when Jesus talked about the coming kingdom it would be a temporal one that would drive out foreign rule.  Some wanted positions of prominence in that new kingdom.  Jesus castigated Peter for such hidden hopes and told him 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, as he told Peter, 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.  Each one is a tale of someone who strove to imitate Jesus in everything s/he did.  Odd, isn’t it?  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 witness 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.  That is the transformation that Pope Francis is urging on the Church.  He began his papacy by shedding the trappings of splendor.  He began by asking the faithful to pray for him.  He pleads with the bishops and clergy to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even to smell like them.  Some of the hierarch and some of the clergy prefer the fine garments and mansions that come with their office. Some were poor once, but want never to see poverty again.  If truth be told, the impression is that they want to be served rather than be servants themselves.  “Get behind me, you Satan, and learn from me.

Accepting Jesus’ call means 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 then we would be blessed.  That is what Jesus said.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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HOW BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS; THEY SHALL BE CALLED CHILDREN OF GOD

Dear Reader,

There is a hymn that needs reviving today.  “Make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred let me bring your love.”  The hymn is a transcription of the Prayer of St. Francis.  The saint personified the Beatitude about peacemakers.  The genius of his hymn is in that opening verse: make me a channel of your peace.  The Beatitude challenges us to be transmitters of grace.  Make no mistake about it.  Peace is not of our making; it is a result of God’s healing and transforming grace empowering us to love even as God loves us.  That is no small task.  It wasn’t for St. Francis; and it won’t be for any of us who seek to die to selfishness and sin and so let Christ love through us.

To be a peacemaker after Jesus’ heart, we must be about convincing each person we meet that’s/he is beautiful in God’s sight and beloved.  That must be true even for those by whom we might naturally be repulsed.  There are no exceptions and no acceptable excuses.

The 1960s and ‘70s, when “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” was being sung in Guitar Masses across the country, were difficult, albeit, exciting years to be alive.  Monumental changes happened in those days following Vatican Council II.  The Holy Spirit, in a new Pentecost had been poured out on the faithful, clerical and lay, causing to well up within them awareness that the Church is the People of God.  This People struggled with what that reality meant in practice and struggled as they assembled around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist to be transformed by what they heard and celebrated.  As a transformed people, they were sent to be the continuing presence of the One they celebrated, whose blood they had drunk and whose flesh they had eaten, the One who lived in them.

If you remember the first Pentecost as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles, you recall that there was violence in that moment of birthing.  You may see holy pictures that depict the events in that upper room.  Seldom do they correspond with Luke’s imagery.  The pictures are tranquil.  The faces of the assembled are serene – even as little tongues of fire hover over them.  “Suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated.  Tongues as of fire parted and came to rest on each of them.”  Sounds terrifying to me.  Violent winds blowing?  Fire dancing over my head?  Fire?  Think of hurricanes and forest fires and ask yourself how serene the scene would be.  Remember that these are images that Luke chose to describe the indescribably.  He is telling us that the first creation was born out of chaos.  So, too, was born the new creation that is the Church.

Following the first Pentecost, the transformed disciples, moments ago cowering in the locked Upper Room, rushed out of the room and into the streets.  They began proclaiming Christ, crucified and risen.  The power of the message brought thousands to Christ.  The Good News began to spread throughout the whole region and world.

Think of those days following the Council.  Nostalgia can make us think that they were the best of times; and they might have been if you were in the privileged class and race.  For women they were the best of times if they did not mind their subservient role.  If you were black and thought you shouldn’t have to ride in the back of the bus and ought to be able to drink from any public water fountain, if you thought your children should be able to go to the same public school as the white children, then you knew that big changes had to come.  Over 50 years ago, the Spirit rushed out over the people and inspired them to sit in the front of the bus, to sit at the lunch counters labeled “for whites only” and to drink from similarly marked fountains.  There were attempts to quash them, but they massed together with some of their white brothers and sisters.  They marched.  They spoke out.  Fire hoses and biting dogs couldn’t disperse them.  Some of their leaders were shot; others were beaten and hanged from cottonwood trees.  Crosses burned in front yards.  A sound like a violent wind blew where they were.  Fire raged about them.  Looking back now, it seems clear that the new Pentecost transformed attitudes and the reality of Equal Rights began to emerge from the chaos as the law of the land.  Of course that meant that some were forced to admit that blacks were human beings, created in the image and likeness of the same God as whites were.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who marched and demonstrated and entered into the cauldron from which they would not emerge alive.  Blessed are those who ventured from the safety of the north into the tension of the south and were killed in the process of registering black sisters and brothers so they could vote.

We could speak as well of those who marched and chanted, “War no more.”  Remember the picture of the college student on her knees beside the body of her fellow student demonstrator killed by the National Guard soldier.  Why?  Why do these types of horrors happen?  Because ideas die hard.  Often change is borne out of the clash of wills and identities.  God once again scoops up the mud and breathes in new life.

Leap forward in time to the present.  There is no shortage of similar images to those immortalized in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  The women march in the streets demanded an end to sexual harassment.  Victims of harassment speak out demanding justice.  Teenagers march demanding safety in their schools.  Others proclaim that Black Lives Matter and demand an end to the violence in their neighborhoods.  And the wars continue.  And the bombings.  And the gassings.

Where is peace?  Does one have to be at peace before s/he can be a peacemaker?  In some ways, yes.  On the other hand, maybe not; but at least there must be an openness to it.  Someone once defined peace as “the confident assurance that nothing can separate you from the love of God.”  Think about that for a moment and try to imagine the plight of some of those freedom fighters we sited above.  There is a difference between serenity and peace.

In the Gospels it is clear that Jesus was a man of prayer.  Often he would go off by himself to spend the night in prayer.  Whenever a major decision was to be made, a new direction in his ministry was about to unfold, he preceded the moment in prayer.  Were there words voiced in that prayer time?  Perhaps.  But I wonder if most often the prayer was one of silent contemplation, openness to the Father, a longing for the reassurance that he was the beloved Son.  The scene of Agony in the Garden on the night before he died was one of anguish that sought primarily to know that in the horrors that the next day would bring, that love would abide.  In the final moment, hanging on the terrible gibbet of torment, in peace he could cry out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Prayer is essential if we are to find peace.  We must dare to do what Jesus did and be open to the Mystery that transforms.  Sometimes that can be done in common in the prayer of the Assembly as we become keenly aware that we are sojourners and have companions on the way.  Eucharist is always a communal experience.  We give thanks to God as the People of God.

Sometimes we must do it alone.  Jesus said that when we pray, we should go to our rooms and close our doors and pray in secret.  The Father who sees in secret will reward.  That profound silence that is contemplation opens one to God’s presence, reminds one of that presence that is constant, bespeaking of the love that is unconditional and perpetual.  We believe in a God who loves us much more than we could ever love in return, a God who creates and holds in existence those made in God’s image.  This is the God who, in the Song of Songs, looks through the lattice at the beloved and says, “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come.”  Resting in that love is where peace is found.

Peace is the confident assurance that nothing will separate us from the love of God.  It is when we accept that love that we are empowered to love as we are loved.  That is what Jesus commanded those who would be his disciples.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  It can be easy to practice this with those we deem to be likable, those who are kind, generous, loving and beautiful.  But this love must go beyond to embrace also the unlovable, those who do evil things, and those who seem to have abandoned all signs of humanity.  These are the peacemakers who pray for reconciliation and healing.  These are the ones who believe that society’s fundamental option must be for the poor.  They uphold the dignity of all people, the able and the disabled, of both genders, of every race, color, and creed, believers and unbelievers – all.  Will they see the fruit of their peace making?  Sometimes, but not always.  That is where hope enters with the confident assurance that one day, God’s will will happen and peace will reign.

May the peace of Christ be with you,

Didymus

BLESSED ARE THE SINGLEHEARTED, FOR THEY WILL SEE GOD

Dear Reader,

My heart is heavy as I write this.  There have been 18 shootings in schools in our country so far this year.  We are only in the second month of 2018.  Yesterday’s shooting, the deadliest in 5 years, killed 17 and wounded several others, two of them critically.  It’s too soon to know the motive, but the action is another indication of the anger and hatred raging through the land.  It wasn’t that many years ago that schools were thought of as safe havens for children and young people.  Then came Sandy Hook and before that, Columbine.

The school shootings mirror the violence in the streets and the domestic violence.  The vision Jesus proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mountaintop and in the eight Beatitudes must be heard and help us to be ambassadors of that vision so that healing, reconciliation, and familial unity can be restored.  That vision should be advocated not only by the Church but by the state as well.  Enough of the vitriol, the sexism, and racism.  Let love reign.

In this Beatitude Jesus blesses those who are single-hearted.  The vice that seemed to rankle Jesus most was hypocrisy, i.e., to pretend to be something on the outside that did not correspond with the interior.  More than once Jesus chastised the Pharisees, the epitome of those preoccupied with the minutiae of the Law, for being among those who pay lip service to God but whose hearts were far from God.  The Pharisees confronted Jesus because he cured the blind and the lame on the Sabbath.  They were disturbed because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.  Jesus’ attitudes and values scandalized them.

What Jesus urges in this Beatitude is that those who choose to be his disciples be single minded in their desire to do God’s will in everything they say and do.  No thing will hold God’s place in their lives.  We hear the phrase “pure in heart” as a translation of single-hearted and can think in terms of purity of flesh and sexual purity.  Of course a right ordered sexuality fits here.  But Jesus is not casting negative aspersions on the flesh.  He does not say that flesh is innately sinful.  He is not saying that one can only please God in the spirit.  Down through the ages, there have been those who have taught that the flesh is sinful and that “saints” are called to flee the flesh and live in extreme asceticism – scourging the body, fasting excessively, and living in isolation, cut off from human commerce.

That is not what Jesus taught.  If we go back to the beginning as it is described in the Book of Genesis, God creates human kind in God’s image and likeness.  God breathes God’s life into human flesh.  Man and Woman are at the apex of creation.  In that innocence they are told to go forth and multiply.  Sexuality is not an evil, but an essential part of what it means to be human.  Flesh is not evil.  We believe that the Word became flesh and lives among human kind.

Jesus calls his disciples to live right ordered lives when he says that the single-hearted; the pure in heart are blessed.  That means all the senses are to be right ordered.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach and passes on?  Thus he declared all foods clean.  And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man.  For from within, out of the heart, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile.”

Each of the capital sins focuses our attention on how the senses can be disordered.  Lust rises out of disordered sexuality and demeans the other.  Gluttony results in appetites out of control.  Gluttons eat too much, or drink too much alcohol.  The insatiable appetites of addictions are forms of gluttony.  Greed destroys perspective regarding wealth.  Legend puts King Midas before us as one who was destroyed by lust for money.  Scripture has it that “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Notice that it is the LOVE of money that is the root of the evil, not money itself.  Sloth puts the human in perpetual idle, lazing, doing nothing productive.  St. Paul raged at the slothful and told the rest of the community that they should not feed those who do not work.  Wrath is the human temper out of control that results in destruction of life and limb of innocent ones.  Envy causes one to lust after someone’s goods and makes on willing to do anything to make the envied object one’s own.  Envy drove Cane to kill his broth Abel.  We know that pride comes before the fall.  The prideful one sees himself as superior to and better than the other, and so denies the others dignity and worth.  Narcissism comes under this heading.

Blessed are the single-hearted, they shall see God.  The single-hearted live right ordered lives.  They do not give themselves over to the capital sins.  They live in right-ordered relationship with others, recognizing others as their sisters and brothers that, like them, are created in the image and likeness of God and are the beloved of God.  The single-hearted are pure in their desire to see all people, all races, both genders, all nationalities, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists live in justice and peace.  They will do nothing to make another subservient.  Again, Jesus is the model.

The Jews dreaded ritual impurity incurred by their coming into contact with someone deemed to be impure.  One who was ritually impure could not enter temple worship before being cleansed and declared clean by the priest.  Jesus turns such an attitude upside down by reaching out to the shunned and, through his healing and forgiving touch, draws them back into community.  In quick succession in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a leper, a desperate (Gentile) centurion, a hemorrhaging woman, and a dead girl.  He touches each one of these people who, in their condition, the law said should have rendered Jesus impure.  But Jesus not only does not accept that impurity, but also, by touching them and declaring them healed, restores them to a pure state.

Then there are the “shocking” guests he welcomes to his table and shares meals with them: prostitutes, tax collectors, and generic sinners.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” became one of the key charges that called for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Notice in each of these encounters, it wasn’t Jesus who changed, but those who yielded to his transforming touch.

Each one of us who knows what it means to be a sinner, that is, one who recognizes that all of his/her appetites are not quite right ordered, must come to understand that we, too, need that healing encounter with Jesus.  That happens when we let the light of Christ shine on our lives and so help us to see not only what we are, but also what we might, through Christ’s grace, become.  Each one who gives his/her life over to one or other of the deadly sins, in Christ sees how that life can be changed when imitation of Christ becomes the goal of living.

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, two disciples of John the Baptist begin to follow Jesus.  He turns to them and asks them, “What are you looking for?”  They respond, “Master, where do you live?”  And Jesus says, “Come and see.”  They do and stay with him that night.  Following Jesus on the Way necessarily involves learning what it means to imitate him, that that imitation will always result in humble service of the poor and others deemed by the rest of society to be inferior and even outcasts.

The pure in spirit, the single-hearted love as Jesus loves.  And Jesus promises that those who imitate him in loving will see the face of God.  How many of the saints have told us how they came to recognize Christ in the poor they served?  St. Francis met Christ in the leper.  St. Teresa of Calcutta tended the wounds of Christ in the poor and dying ones she cared for.  In the serving they knew the presence of God.

One final note on this subject: notice that when Jesus calls the disciples, they leave everything and follow him.  In order to enter that purity of heart and single-mindedness that promises to led to the vision of God, we have to be willing to let go of whatever stands in the way of our experiencing God.  That takes us back to those capital sins.  We must let go of those addictions and so find the freedom of the children of God.  Then we experience the happiness that Jesus said would result from that single-mindedness, that purity of heart.

And there will be peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus