When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,—Matthew 5:1–12
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.
Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In today’s gospel, we are given a glimpse into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. More specifically, we are given the eight Beatitudes. Like many things Jesus preached, they were difficult to accept by the people of his time. Yet the reward is great: Heaven. Considering there are eight Beatitudes, I could go on and on speak about them all in great length, but I will speak about them generally (and focus on three) and of my own experiences as a Catholic as we all try and strive for holiness. (There are four other Beatitudes and four woes in the Gospel of Luke but that will be discussed another time.)
Of note is that many doctors of the Church and many spiritual writers have often compared the Beatitudes (or rather their completion) to climbing a staircase to see Jesus at the end of our life. If we are successful at leading lives of holiness, we’ll no doubt have a moment akin to the very end of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “But already my desire and my will / were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed / by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII 142-145 trans C.H. Sisson). Dante Aligheri firmly understood – from an artistic and theological point of view – that seeing the Triune God at the end of our lives was something so great that it was beyond our comprehension. It was “the Love” that moved the entire universe. Not a love that dribbles a ball, or cradles a baby lovingly. The whole universe and all its stars. Truly beyond our comprehension. Following the Beatitudes, in essence, would allow us to see God at the end of our lives. And what greater reward is there than Heaven?
St. Chromatius of Aquileia preached something about the Beatitudes that I had never heard, but which a friend had pointed out to me. What St. Chromatius said was understood by many of his contemporaries and many Doctors of the Church. In a sermon on Matthew, Chromatius once wrote, “Our Lord, our savior, establishes extremely solid steps of precious stones, by which saintly souls and faithful can climb, can rise to this supreme good, which is the kingdom of heaven…”
In short, climbing this staircase is definitely something we should all strive for. There’s an old Catholic saying I hear often: “Aim for Heaven. Because if you aim for purgatory, you might miss.” While many of us strive for excellent athletic abilities or enjoy hikes in the coming summer weather, are we also making sure to climb this spiritual staircase to Jesus? I know I sometimes certainly struggle. With that being said, considering there are eight beatitudes, let me focus on just a few of them and my final thoughts. I will be focusing on the first three, not just due to length, but because these are the ones I have struggled the most with.
The first (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) and third (“Blessed are those who mourn”) Beatitudes refer to some kind of detachment from the world. Instead, we choose an attachment to Jesus. While there are many of us that struggled with some sort of economic or spiritual poverty due to the ongoing pandemic, this refers to a poverty that we choose. A poverty that we choose out of love for Jesus, and regardless of our state in life. You perhaps may have heard that if you are wealthy, it is more difficult to reach Jesus. Indeed, even Jesus states something akin to this: “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). (Jesus was, of course, making a point in larger content to other matters. Yes, you can reach Heaven if you are wealthy.) However, that being said, Jesus also refers to a sort of detachment and spiritual poverty. Material objects are good, but not if we enjoy them so much that we treat them as ends in themselves. (e.g.: If it takes us away from the life of faith.) For example, I used to jokingly tell people I lived the life of a starving artist (when I was in a PhD program for several years) so I was done with that. “No more!” I said. I wanted to move on to a more stable job where the salary was 2.5 times greater than I used to make. And while there is inherently nothing wrong with making a stable income, especially if you discern married life and have to provide for a family, was I also treating my soon to be newfound wealth in a rather facetious manner? Instead I thought, “My goodness! I can now get season tickets to the NY Mets! I can buy better shirts! I can move to a better place!” Why was I not thinking instead of living a more sustainable life with my income and giving more to the poor? In essence, when it comes to wealth, do we make that wealth self-centered and not Christ-centered?
When we take into account “blessed are those who mourn,” we have to remove our detachment to sin and remember Christ shares in our suffering. Indeed, tragedy strikes us all, and I lost several people I knew last year to COVID. Indeed, these past 17 months felt like such a moment of national mourning not unlike 9/11. Oftentimes, in my life, in some period of great mourning, I felt almost separated from Jesus, not because of Christ, but because I was so focused on my own mourning that I failed to see Christ was there with me. It also refers to the fact that we should mourn and repent from our former lives of sin. The suffering that we have to endure in our everyday lives is not “vengeance” or “punishment” but a sharing in His own suffering. Even when we ourselves face chastisement for sins, our repentance should be ordered toward our final bliss (Christ) and not our own destruction. Unfortunately, personal crises, even crises of faith, can arise from pride or suffering. I remember very profoundly that when I was first diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder in 2016, and contemplating medication and therapy for the first time in my life, I felt overwhelmed. I had a crisis of faith. I did eventually recognize not only was Christ with me in my suffering, but this was an opportunity to unite my suffering with His. Do we also allow ourselves to be cleansed with His grace, instead of second-guessing and regressing into sin?
The second beatitude (“Blessed are the Meek”) refers to detachment from self: choosing to be more like Jesus. Noteworthy about Jesus is that despite the myriad of miracles Jesus performed, there were plenty of occasions where Jesus told the townspeople *not* to tell others of what he had done. In essence, Jesus was the greatest superhero that ever lived, and He refused to flaunt His superpowers. Humility is at the heart of this. Before COVID hit, if you knew me, I liked to throw parties, liked to go out, and I was very extroverted. In many ways, I was a “social animal.” But while the gatherings I liked to organize were centered on Christian fellowship, there were many occasions where I honestly just enjoyed the attention. I liked accruing “social capital.” People in the NY Catholic scene knew me, they heard of me, and once COVID hit, we couldn’t really gather anymore. Here I was, alone at home, struggling to perhaps try and talk to people. We couldn’t see people, we had Zoom, we were told to pray, we were told to come up with some new habits. While we are all the Body of Christ and built for community, there are often many moments where we need to have peace in silence. And then rest in Jesus and make Him the center of our lives. To no one’s surprise, one of Cardinal Sarah’s most popular books is entitled, The Power of Silence. Do we facetiously “hunger and thirst” for attention, when such hunger is better acclimated to nourishment that is not associated with gluttony? Or do we instead – because of grace – choose to put others and Christ first? I’m similarly reminded of something St. Teresa of Calcutta once came up with – the acronym J.O.Y. In short, it stands for focusing on Jesus (J), others (O), and then, and only then, yourself (Y).
In many ways, the Beatitudes are like a spiritual staircase to Jesus. And when I think upon the gospels, I often think of Peter who could perhaps serve as some representation of someone who went through all of them, and then eventually acquired the best “job” – the Pope. Despite all his faults, Peter became Pope and then willingly went to be crucified at the end of his life. Peter at first has some humility at Jesus’ miracles, and even tells the Lord, “I am a sinful man” in Luke. But even then, Peter has missteps and dares to correct Jesus when the passion is close, and Jesus simply responds in a way perhaps none of us wants to hear: “Get away from me Satan.” In essence, Jesus tells us, “Yes, the road will be difficult, there are no shortcuts to Heaven.” Jesus himself knows Peter will go from humility to boastfulness, and to even pride. Peter, of course, denies Christ in his own act of self-centered behavior and in some haphazard attempt at survival. Peter is then nowhere to be found as only St. John and Our Lady are there when He is crucified. When Christ rises from the dead, Christ doesn’t even have a semblance of vengeance towards Peter, the man who denied Him three times. Jesus simply asks three times, “Do you love me?” In many ways, could many of us actually do this when we feel betrayed by a friend or family member? And when Peter, who could have avoided death, sees Jesus once again, he chooses to be crucified, this time upside down. In many ways, because of righteousness. But it’s not due to self-centered behavior. Because compared to Jesus, Peter does not see himself as worthy enough to be crucified in the same upright position our Lord was. In many ways, I think we can all learn a great deal from St. Peter.
While none of us should ever hope to deny Jesus, Jesus sees the humanity in all of us and asks every day, ”Do you love me?” To follow the Beatitudes is simply to love Jesus.
That’s not to say any of this is easy – it’s not. Jesus himself says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In fact, many of His followers turned away upon hearing the demands of Jesus. Do we turn towards Jesus every day and seek the great reward of Heaven?