Archive for the ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ Category

BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL; MERCY SHALL BE THEIRS

Dear Friends in Christ,

Mercy was no more a cardinal virtue in Jesus’ time than it is in our own.  That might explain why when a merciful person acts today, the result is newsworthy.  So, too, was it then.

Imagine yourself in that crowd gathered around Jesus listening to these incredible statements that seem to be challenging and contradicting every commonly accepted value.  You have heard four stunning statements already.  Each one builds on the one before.  Who can find it easy to accept that the poor in spirit are blessed or happy?  Where is the joy in mourning?  If you are meek, won’t you get trod on?  How can those who are hungry and thirsty be happy?  Coming as they do in rapid succession, there is hardly a moment to digest what you hear before you are confronted with a more demanding attitude that, if accepted, will push power, prestige, and economic success farther from your grasp.

Some in the crowd are becoming restive and want to say enough of this and so move on.  Others sit in rapt attention  and hang on Jesus’ every word.  These are the ones who have declared themselves to be disciples.  They want to be part of the Kingdom they believe Jesus brings.

“Blessed are the merciful; Mercy shall be theirs.”  If you use a different word you will come close to what Jesus suggests as a core value of those who will walk with him on The Way.  Blessed are the compassionate.  Compassion means to enter into another’s suffering, or to suffer with another.  That is what God does.  Those of Jesus’ disciples who are compassionate will help others believe in this compassionate God.

What was the common experience of that age?  Frequently in the Gospels we read of people who cry out to Jesus for pity, even as those around them try to silence the poor.  Lepers were shunned and relegated to the outskirts of town.  Widows and orphans were in constant peril, their survival in danger.  Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their lack of compassion, even as they rail against Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road near death.  Religious figures, on their way to temple, pass by on the other side of the road and continue on their way.  They had to.  If they touched the man and came into contact with his blood, they would have incurred ritual impurity.  Then they would not have been able to enter the Temple and worship without first being purified.  Then comes a Samaritan.  Had the religious figures come into contact with him, they would have met with the same ritual impurity.  But the Samaritan, not bound by those laws, does not have the same dread.  He ministers to the poor wretch, binds up his wounds, puts him on the Samaritan’s beast of burden, takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay and time of recovery there.  The Samaritan promises to pay any overage on his way back.  The Samaritan entered into the man’s sufferings and took them on as his own.  Jesus told the parable as an example to be imitated and followed by those scribes and Pharisees who heard him.  It goes without saying that he meant the parable to lodge in the hearts of his disciples and motivate them to the same kind of response to others’ sufferings.

What must be remembered is the mindset of Jesus’ times.  All of the social and physical ills endured by people were deemed to be the God-sent punishment for sins – either of the one suffering, or of his parents or grandparents.  That might have given the crowds permission to ignore the cries of the poor, much less to respond to their needs.  The blind, the disabled, the lepers – all these are in their desperate condition because of sin; just as all those who are secure and wealthy are in their condition because of their virtue.  God favors them.  Jesus challenges those assumptions when he touches and anoints blind eyes with mud made with his spittle; when he touches the deaf ears and puts his fingers into them; when he takes the lame man by the hand and invites him to rise.  In every case those cured are extolled for their faith that has enabled their healing.

The new community that Jesus forms will be made up of a different kind of people.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of the New Way.  Compassion will be expected of those who accept the invitation to be disciples.  Be compassionate.  Enter into and take upon yourself the sufferings of your  sisters and brothers.

Compassionate responses may be applauded in the media today, but I do not think that means that compassionate response is the common experience.  How can that be when many in our society accept that “It’s all about ME”?  Children are taught to be competitive from an early age.  Winning is the most important thing.  A moral theologian once said that he believed competition is the source of most of the moral evils of every age.  In competition someone wins and someone loses, just like in wars.  Compassion can play no part in wars.  It is kill or be killed.

When the Nazis set their sights on the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s woes, the first thing that they had to do was convince the people of the Jews’ lack of humanity.  How else could a people look the other way during the attempt to exterminate the Jews?  Others from outside Germany could look on and bemoan what came to be called an example of “man’s inhumanity to man,”  This was a concept the Nazis could not grasp.  Their enemy was not fully human and therefore did not have basic human rights.  They had to be eliminated as a scourge on the coming Third Reich.

It was the denial of the Blacks’ humanity that made it possible for them to be captured, branded, and exported as cargo to be auctioned off to slave owners.  Evidence of that racism persists to the present day.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful.”  The first instinct might be to say, “Thank God.  Now maybe someone will take pity on me.”  That is not what Jesus is saying.  Rather he is placing the onus squarely on the disciples’ shoulders.  Each one is called to be merciful, to be compassionate, and to give of self that others might simply live.

The Eucharist is at the heart of our faith life.  We gather as brothers and sisters, as one people, to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  Jesus promises that when we do this he is present to us.  That is what “Do this in memory of me” means.  As important is what happens at the conclusion of the celebration.  Those who have been fed by the Word and by the Eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ by what they have done.  Now they are sent.  “Go in peace to love and serve the lord and one another.”  In other words, “Go and be Christ’s compassionate presence where ever you are through whatever you do.”  To act in that manner is to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized.

Mercy.  Compassion.  Add now, forgiveness.  Recently I heard a woman in interview.  She is a survivor of Auschwitz.  The interview happened as she emerged from a tour of the concentration camp with its gas chambers and crematoria.  Her parents and siblings had perished there.  She told the interviewer that she had returned to express her forgiveness to those who had committed the terrible atrocities.  Until she forgave she could not know peace.  Her words were met with a stunned silence.  Who could do that?  Who could forgive such horrors?

Sister Helen Prejean responds to this beatitude in her ministry to prisoners on death row.  St. Teresa of Calcutta responded through her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of India.  Hospice workers do the same as they assist the dying so that their dignity is revered to their last moments on this earth.  Those who serve in shelters for the homeless, or minister to street people and treat them with kindness and respect have taken the invitation to heart.  The same can be said for those who minister to the developmentally disabled and those locked in insanity.  It does not matter the poverty to which the compassionate respond.  Jesus looks for those who are willing to enter into others’ sufferings as their own.  In the process they will recognize Jesus there and experience his mercy and compassion in return.

One final note on this Beatitude: the compassionate response of believers to those who suffer reflects God’s attitude toward us all.  God comes to us as the Samaritan did to the beaten and abandoned man on the road.  God comes to lift us up and share the burdens of our lives, to forgive our sins and support us in our repentance, and to bring us safely home at the end to be with God forever.  That is the promise Jesus gives, isn’t it?

Blessed are the merciful; mercy shall be theirs.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS:THEY SHALL BE SATISFIED

Dear Friends in Christ,

It is not surprising if you have a problem with this beatitude.  Those who heard it the first time did too, but for a different reason.  The current difficulty has to do with the word “righteousness;” and that more than likely is because of the tendency to hear self-righteous.  We are all familiar with the judgments of the self-righteous and their gratitude that they are not like the rest of people, especially those they are reviling and condemning.  They seem to think that God is in lock-step with them and just waiting to cast the ones they deplore into hell’s unquenchable flames.

The cause doesn’t matter.  Those opposing it are so invested that there is no room for dialog.  Anyone who holds the position they are against is reprehensible.  Politics has moved in this direction.  The result is a nation more divided than it has been since the Civil War.  Racism.  Sexism.  Elitism.  All are rampant and taking heavy tolls.  There is no room for dialog.  Much less is there a proclamation of the dignity and worth of all in this land of the free and home of the brave.  I was astounded to read recently that there are not a few who believe that the United States was founded to be a nation made up of White Christians of European ancestry.  And that is the way it should be today.  The white supremacists chanted that as they marched in Charlottesville.   

It has not been that long since a young gay man was beaten, hung on a fence in Wisconsin, and left to die.  Those who perpetrated the despicable deed felt justified because of the infamous Leviticus text.  That might have been the motivation of the man who entered the gay nightclub and killed those on the inside.  Anti-Semitism flourishes.  Neo-Nazis emerge from the shadows bearing the Nazi flag and the swastika on their arms.  

Jesus condemned attitudes like those above.  He spoke against the Pharisees who, Jesus said, strained over the speck in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.  It is the judgmental attitude that condemns another’s sin while understanding and accepting one’s own.

The righteousness that the blessed hunger and thirst for in the beatitude is better translated for us as right relationship; right relationship with God and right relationship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  These are people who long for union with God and for justice and peace in the world.  There is an intensity about them that creates a longing and a willingness to suffer in order to attain what is longed for.  Hunger and thirst.  Human beings need food and drink to survive.  More important for these blessed ones is the unitive way, the way that leads to living in the presence of God, embraced by God’s love.  More important than the lavish banquet and the fine wines is the desire to see the oppressed liberated, sexism banished, the impoverished sharing in the goods of the world necessary for their survival.

There is a hymn that achieved secular popularity in the late 1960s and 70s. 


“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found;

was blind but now I see.” 


The hymn is about conversion, about seeing in a totally new and wholesome light an abominable behavior that before was acceptable, in this instance the transporting of enslaved men and women out of Africa and across the sea, their humanity denied, destined for the auction block in America.  Once grace entered the author’s consciousness, he was never the same and could never accept the institution of slavery again.  But that is not enough to qualify as one of the blessed in this beatitude.  It is not enough to find the evil unacceptable.  What must follow is the willingness to do whatever can be done to eliminate the evil.  The former ship’s captain worked tirelessly to bring about the end of the horror.  

Today we hear the chants of “Black Lives Matter.”  We witness thousands marching in the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd and many others.  People are marching across this country and in several other nations around the world seeking justice for our Black brothers and sisters.  It would seem to be the result of a huge outpouring of grace and the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Dorothy Day was a woman steeped in that same Amazing Grace.  There was a restlessness in her from her youth.  She saw oppression and inequality in society, the downtrodden poor enslaved in their poverty while others lived lavishly.  The way of Communism seemed for a time the answer.  She joined the party.  She became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion.  Then she met a man who told her about the Gospel and especially about the Sermon on the Mount.  That is when that grace entered her life, created a longing for God, and empowered her to live the rest of her days in poverty as she witnessed to the dignity of the workers and their worth before God.  (That 75-year-old man who was pushed to the ground and received a serious head wound is a member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and goes to daily Mass.)  Dorothy Day fasted.  She spent a portion of each day in contemplative prayer.  She went to Eucharist every morning.  And she marched for civil rights.  There is an unforgettable picture of the then senior Dorothy Day seated next to Caesar Chavez and peering over glasses at the baton-bearing policemen who would arrest them for defending the rights of migrant workers.  Saint Dorothy Day?  Not yet.  Some say never.  After all, she was a sinner in her youth, a Communist who had an abortion.  Surely she wouldn’t get to heaven.  Or would she?

The self-righteous may say, “Surely not!”  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would have no problem with Dorothy’s salvation, because they recognize that it is all grace.  God’s love is all embracing.  God’s desire is to forgive and reconcile.  St. Augustine knew he was a sinner in his youth and later had loved God long after God had first loved him.  Righteousness is God’s gift, God’s grace working in the human consciousness that enables the so gifted to see the possibilities for peace and justice once they recognize each other as equals before God, all created in God’s image and likeness.  When they see through that prism, then they come to understand that when the stone is thrown, or the bomb dropped, when the person is lynched or shot, it is Christ crucified again in those who are wounded and slaughtered.

So as you sit at Christ’s feet and hear the proclamation of happiness for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, you have to ask yourself what stirs your passion; what evils inflicted on others fill you with outrage?  What is it you long to see?  What transformation do you pray will one day come about?

What I suggest here might not work for everyone.  The bigoted are often blind to the humanity of those they hate.  We tend to think of those enduring the evils that limit and even take their lives in terms of statistics.  23 million people are dying from HIV/AIDS in Africa.  We are currently dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, stunned by the number of cases and the number of deaths.  People in Puerto Rico and Haiti still suffer from the results of hurricane and earth quake.  The numbers mount and can move us to some extent.  But put names and faces on those people and we can find ourselves moved to the core.  Look at the effect the diary of a young girl had on untold millions of readers regarding the evils of anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

My suggestion is to allow yourself to think of the people suffering as members of your family.  Why do you think it is that when we celebrate Eucharist the central symbols are one bread and one cup?  Why do we gather around one table to share the one meal?  It is one family gathered at the family table.  As another hymn has it, “We are one body in this one Lord.”  It is to that kind of sensitivity and realization that this beatitude calls us.  Once we awaken, we hunger for the day when our sisters and brothers no longer endure that suffering, the day when the cure for the disease has been found and there is a vaccine to prevent it.  We thirst for the day when the wars will end and peace will reign.  We long for the time when humanity is enough to guarantee the shared dignity that God has in mind for us.  And then you will realize how close God is as you feel secure in God’s embrace.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they shall be satisfied.”  In truth, that is what heaven is all about.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO MOURN, FOR THEY SHALL BE CONSOLED

Dear Friends in Christ,

Blessed.  The word can mean “happy.”  Remember that as we continue to ponder the teachings uttered on the mountaintop.  To hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and now, “Blessed are they who mourn,” must perplex those sitting in awe as they try to absorb the instructions that form the bases of the New Way.  It will take time and continued exposure, as well as periods of contemplation to understand that Jesus is initiating a New Creation and, in the process, turning the old order upside down.  The danger is to assume too quickly that one understands what Jesus is talking about.  If his words fit too easily into the scheme of things, you can be sure that you have not felt the full challenge of what Jesus calls his hearers to be and to do.

The Beatitudes, at least the first half of the pronouncements, the “Blessed” part, must have stunned those first hearers seated at Jesus feet in rapt attention.  Some of those had decided to throw their lot in with Jesus, to be disciples and strive to follow him.  They began to believe that through him the Kingdom would come, and with the Kingdom, power and prosperity.  Others in the assembled were still searching, wondering about Jesus, and not yet able to make that decision.  They could have been in desperate straits and wondered where else they could turn to find meaning, direction and hope in their lives.  They would hang on every word hoping to have that moment of awakening that would convince them so that they too could become disciples and be part of his realm.  Notice that at no time does Jesus make the decision to believe easy.  The opposite is the case.  It is as if Jesus says, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  And this is before they had seen the end of the beginning.

So we hear, “Blessed are they who mourn.”  What does Jesus break open for us?  Through what new filter does he challenge us to view our life and our times?

Mourning is a frequent state of mind in Hebrew Bible.  The Prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as the people abandoned the Law and YHWH and followed Baal and the other gods of the Gentiles among whom they lived.  They mourned 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 as they were led away 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 mourn at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition.  No one who has compassion can live long before experiencing a situation that causes these responses.  Then 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 again in their lives.  Akin to depression, it is in truth the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill.

Reflect on these times in which we live.  The novel virus has swept around the world causing sickness and death.  In our country over two million people have been contaminated and sickened.  Over 400,000 people have died.  There is a whole new order to our lives – social distancing, sheltering in place, masks and gloves.  And just when we thought COVID-19 might be abating, there are reports of new upsurges in many states.

We watched George Floyd gasp for breath for over eight minutes and die as a police officer put his knee to George’s neck.  Then came a sea of mourning as we were challenged to recognize that Black Lives Matter.  Thousands in many cities across the country, thousands of multi races, marched and chanted for an end to racism, an end to the killing of innocent and unarmed Blacks.  Black lives matter. Isn’t that another way of pleading with the American people to recognize that we are all one family in God?  Each of us has had the opportunity to reflect on our own attitudes, our own prejudices, and move toward repentance.  Blessed are they who mourn.

There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn.  Choose not to love.  If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one over whom you could mourn.  Husbands or wives may have to survive their spouses and mourn them.  Children mourn the death of their parents, albeit, often in due time when full lives have been lived.  It can happen that a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies.  There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury a child.  Deaths of friends, the end of relationships, failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.

Natural disasters confront us.  Earthquakes have flattened villages and towns, killing and injuring the inhabitants, leaving destruction in their wakes.  Hurricanes and typhoons 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.   But mourning is not an end in itself.  Those who mourn can be happy when mourning leads the mourners beyond their 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 before Death claims the loved one.  Family and friends, indeed the whole Church, all gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying.  Why do that, unless there is a belief in something more than what can be seen; a conviction that death is not an end to anything more than a life as it was lived in this world?

The casket is draped with a pall.  The faithful recognize the baptismal garment that the deceased was clad in when s/he came out of the waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God, emerging identified with Christ and 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.  Those assembled celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising.  They 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 victory?  Where is your sting?

Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.”  I do not agree.  I would not encourage weeping and wailing and wallowing in self pity.  That is self indulgent behavior and can paralyze.  Weep, yes.  Wail if you must.  Let out the terrible pain.  Remember the state of mourning that Jesus says is happy results when the mourner experiences the darkness, the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of one’s life, and accepts the fact that 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 to 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 be signs that inspire that hope.  It is not enough to look on with pity and even weep with those who suffer loss.  Believers must respond like the Eucharist they celebrate and allow 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.  Think of first responders and hospital personnel caring for those suffering from the pandemic.  Think of those marching together for racial equality and justice.  Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one thing.  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 to 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, ‘Good-bye 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.  Pope Francis calls us to be a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  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 Jewish people as their brothers and sisters?  They had to deny the Jews’ humanity in order to carry out their atrocities.  Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to burn crosses in the yards of those they recognized to be their Black sisters and brothers and hang them from the nearest gibbet?  We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters 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 again on the Mountaintop we hear: Blessed are those who mourn.  We rejoice because we believe the mourners will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever; those who allow God to shed light on 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.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus