The verses containing the Beatitudes might be among the most famous in all of the scriptures. They represent a certain summary of Christ’s teaching, a new companion to the Ten Commandments, an inspiration and hope to Christians throughout the ages. Yet when we closely examine them, in this week’s case, the shortened list from Luke’s Gospel, we might find something strange there. They might seem like a way of glorifying suffering in this life, either by soothing those who suffer with the assurance that their pain is actually good for them, or by promising a certain moral superiority to any who suffer, promising that they will have their day in the sun, while those who have pleasant lives will pay for it later. The Beatitudes, if understood in such a way can then seem to promote either an unhealthy love of suffering for its own sake, or promote self-justification and pride on the basis of how much one has suffered. Since neither can be the true Gospel, we must insist on seeing these Beatitudes in a supernatural fashion.
The tradition of the Church makes clear that the Beatitudes describe a person who has God first in their heart, rather than someone who simply suffers more than others. Thus, the poor who are blessed are not blessed for having little, but because they desire God and not worldly things. It is quite possible for a person to be poor in practice, but greedy in spirit, just as it is possible for someone to have enough of this world’s goods in practice, but love only God, ready to abandon their possessions at any moment. It may be much more difficult to practice such detachment if a person is physically rich, but the interior disposition is what makes one blessed.
Likewise, those who hunger are blessed, not because it is a good thing in God’s eyes to starve, or because God wants to take vengeance on those who can eat in this life, but because those who never stop desiring God more than they desire bodily food will be more capable of receiving the great gift of God’s life. Those who always wish to be filled more with God’s love and mercy, prepare their hearts more each day for the greatest blessings, not stopping at the comparatively small blessings of earthly food.
So also those who weep are blessed, not because all sorrow is good –in fact if our sorrow comes from despair or from a refusal to accept the truth of reality, it is dangerous and potentially a rejection of God—but because those who rejoice in God first, and experience sorrow at their own sin, the sins of others, and their distance from God here in this life, will be more ready to go forth and meet Him when the time comes. We may well note that this holy sorrow can, and does, coexist with the incredible joy of knowing God’s love and goodness. Far from leaving the soul merely downcast, it expands the soul’s desire and ability to rise up to the highest gifts.
Finally, it is not those who are insulted and rejected for any reason who are called blessed, but those who are cast out because of Christ. Rejection does not sanctify. Love sanctifies. It is not suffering itself that makes one blessed, but, as before, connection to the Lord above all things.
All of this instructs us as Christians and tells us where we should aim our sight. We should not look on suffering with total fear the way the world does; it is far worse to be separated from God than to suffer. We should not look on suffering as good or desirable in itself; it was not God’s desire for us in the beginning. We should not boast of our suffering or unnecessarily point out our trials to other people out of pride; hardship on its own does not make us holy or good. Rather, we should fix our eyes on Christ Himself, and let everything else fall where it may. We might then find tribulation here in this life, but we can face it with the joy of knowing we possess the one thing necessary, and are on the road to inheriting eternal life.