Readings are in their usual spot.
I had gone into this one without a clear ending in mind; mainly because this homily is essentially an amalgamation of three separate homilies I tried to write throughout the week. The Beatitudes are at once both simple and complex; I found them to be a lot more difficult to preach on than I first thought. Anyway, I had no clear ending, and so each time I preached it, it ended a little differently. What’s posted here is a desperate attempt to remember what exactly I said; it’s certainly not accurate.
You may have heard it said that if you go to Mass every Sunday for three years – that is, if you cover the entire cycle of readings we have in the lectionary – you’ll hear the entire Bible. That is false. Ok, but what if I go to Mass every day? Well, the daily Mass readings are on a 2-year cycle, but even if you add that into the mix, you still don’t get the entire Bible in. Not to say you wouldn’t get a ton of graces for going to Mass every day and receiving the Eucharist so often, but at the end of the day, you’re not gonna get the whole Bible in. Sometimes you need to finish your work at home.
I mention all that because today we hear from the prophet Zephaniah, and we don’t get to hear from him often. In the 2 year, weekly cycle, he shows up exactly twice – the same reading on the same day each year – and on the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings, he shows up twice. And today is one of those days.
Zephaniah’s not a long book, only three chapters, and we only get even a brief snippet of it today. His overall mission is to call the people back. Back to worship of the one true God, rather than the idolatry of worshipping the sun and moon. Back to keeping God’s law, rather than making up their own rituals and decrees because it felt good. Back to their identity as the chosen people of God, rather than selling out their culture to a foreign power. And if they don’t do these things, Zephaniah warns, it will all collapse; but God, in His mercy, will still save at least a remnant. Zephaniah goes on his mission of prophecy to save, to redeem his people.
Jesus wants to do more.
Obviously, He wants to save His people, and we know that He accomplishes that in a wonderful way on the cross, but more than just redeeming His people, He wants to restore them. He wants to give us back the dignity that we had before the Fall. He wants us to become what we are – that is, made in the image and likeness of God. Saint Athanasius wrote, God became man so that men could become like God, and all that leads us into the Beatitudes that we hear today.
Pope Benedict XVI once said, “In truth, the blessed par excellence is only Jesus. He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice.”
Jesus is all those things, and now he invites us to be them as well.
There’s some hesitancy on our part to say yes to those things, I think, because they just don’t seem very appealing, do they?
It’s hard to be poor in spirit. This has nothing to do with economic status – you can be flat broke and not be poor in spirit; you can be the wealthiest guy in town and be very poor in spirit. A person that is poor in spirit is one that is spiritually detached from things, and instead relies solely on God for a sense of value, of purpose, of meaning.
I don’t want to mourn. Another translation of this verse reads, blessed are the afflicted ones – and no, I don’t want to be afflicted, either. What are they mourning? What are they afflicted by? In many ways, what they suffer is not a personal suffering, but a corporate one, because these people recognize that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully realized in this world. And they also recognize the resultant Godlessness of our society as a byproduct of that. And so, they see the many injustices of the world, and rather than ignoring them or saying, not my problem, they mourn them and take them seriously.
Be meek? I mean, I don’t want to be arrogant, but I don’t want to abase myself in front of others, either. I don’t know that I can stomach that level of humility. I’m too afraid that I might be taken advantage of.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness? Or for justice? I want those things: I want to be in a right relationship with God, and I don’t mean in just an interior way; I want my exterior actions to mimic that…. but to say that I hunger and thirst? That’s a lot. Couldn’t I just want it a little?
Merciful? You mean the way God does mercy? The way God cancels out our debts to Him over and over and over again because He knows we cannot repay Him? I must do that?
And what’s this purity of heart business? In the Hebrew culture, the heart was the seat of decision making; it was not where feelings come from. Those with pure hearts are those who are able to make the good and right choices that lead them to conform to God’s law. Recall what God says to Jeremiah the prophet – He will not give the people a new law to follow, but he will give them new hearts.
Could I really be a peacemaker? Not just non-violent, but could I really be someone that works for reconciliation not just between people, but between people and God?
Persecution for the sake of righteousness? And on account of Jesus Himself? I mean, I want justice, and I certainly love Jesus, but do I really have to go through persecution?
The whole business of the Beatitudes is just unsettling.
And that’s exactly the point. The Kingdom of God is not like the world you know, and thus, the program of life for that kingdom is not like anything we know. But on the other hand, you were not made for this world; you were made for heaven. And heaven is what the beatitudes are leading us toward. Notice how Jesus constructs them: Blessed are they who mourn, for they WILL BE comforted. The reward is not immediate; it comes to us later. Yet while they are mourning, they are blessed, because their Father sees that, recognizes that, and comes to dwell with them.
In other words, living the Beatitudes helps restore us to the glory that was once ours, and to the glory that one day can be ours again. Living the Beatitudes is not easy work, which is why we are gathered into a family called the Church, that we might assist one another in reaching that goal. It is also why we are fed with the Eucharist, that we might have the strength to achieve our goal. But above all else, living the Beatitudes is not optional. It is mandatory. Let’s get to work.