A reflection on the Beatitudes by Teresa White, fcJ first appeared in Church Times, to mark the feast of All Saints.
The Gospel for the feast of All Saints’ is the Beatitudes. In eight brush-strokes, Jesus paints what is, in truth, a self-portrait, giving clarity and definition to the features of the person whom Paul calls “the image of the unseen God” (Colossians 1.15). Jesus’s contemporaries saw how he took the side of the excluded, the disreputable, the unimportant; how he comforted the sorrowful, and stood up for what is right; how gentle and kind he was, how open and honest; how compassionate he was to those in need or distress; how his words brought peace to troubled hearts; how he forgave even those who hated him and wanted to kill him.
They seem to have understood that this is what God is like: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1.18). Christians are called “to imitate God” (Ephesians 4.1), and in this portrait of Jesus we have an appealing model.
The Beatitudes echo the two great commandments: love of God, and love of neighbour; but – unlike the decalogue – they do not tell us what to do and what not to do; what is allowed and what is not allowed. Jesus does not command us to be poor in spirit, to be gentle, to seek justice and peace. He simply acknowledges God’s rightful place at the centre of our lives, and assures us that, if we follow his example, we will be blessed.
Weakness, struggle, and pain are somehow encompassed in God’s provident love, which is shown through the ordinary things that we do for one another out of love. So, Jesus pays tribute to those who carry heavy burdens, and to those who, by their actions, try to lighten those burdens. His message is that, wherever charity and love are found, the Kingdom of God is present.
On the feast of All Saints, in 2016, Pope Francis, preaching at an ecumenical service in Malmo, Sweden, said that the “identity card” of all Christians was found in the Beatitudes, and that these timeless formulations of human virtue and vulnerability could be constantly applied to the troubles and hardships of life in every age.
Faith, hope, and love are at the heart of Christian discipleship, but new situations require a new energy and a new commitment; so he suggested six “new” Beatitudes:
- Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others, and forgive them from their heart.
- Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalised, and show them their closeness.
- Blessed are those who see God in every person, and strive to make others also discover him.
- Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.
- Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.
- Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion among Christians.
He singles out for special tribute – as does Jesus, in the original Beatitudes – those whose actions or burdens illustrate the way human beings should live and behave. Unsurprisingly, the groups that he chooses mirror some of the great themes of his teaching as Pope: mercy and forgiveness; care for the poor and oppressed; finding God in all things; protection of the environment; responding sensitively to the concrete needs of people in any kind of distress; unity among Christians.
The groups he chooses mirror some of the great themes of his teaching as Pope: mercy and forgiveness; care for the poor and oppressed; finding God in all things; protection of the environment; responding sensitively to the concrete needs of people in any kind of distress; unity among Christians.
The Beatitudes have a special significance for Christians, because they come to us from Jesus, who takes it for granted that it is from God that “all blessings flow.” Jesus tells us that a blessing rests on those who know their need of God, and that anyone who is kind, compassionate, and ready to forgive, anyone who seeks peace and stands up for what is right, will experience this sense of blessing.
But what about non-Christians and unbelievers? If God and the Kingdom of heaven are seen as the backcloth for the human actions and behaviour that Jesus affirms, do the Beatitudes have any place in the lives of agnostics and atheists? In our secular world, are those who uncomplainingly accept challenging and difficult situations when they cannot be avoided, those who respond to human need following the urgings of the heart, but without reference to God, also blessed?
We all know people who do these things: people who are patient in adversity; people of integrity who are conscious that our humanity draws us into mutual relationship with one another; people who are generous, altruistic, and fair-minded, but for whom God is a stranger or an irrelevance.
Or does blessing depend on faith? Perhaps the tag “Bidden or not bidden, God is present” points to an answer to this question. These words – of pre-Christian, Classical origin (purportedly found in the jottings of Erasmus, but immortalised by Carl Jung, who had them inscribed on a plaque above his front door) – seem to override the need for faith: God is there, pouring out his blessings, whether or not we acknowledge his presence.
Christians of different denominations may well have differing views about what could be called sainthood as understood, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church. But all the traditions would probably agree that the blessed are those who have experienced the touch of God in the depths of their humanity, and responded by reaching out to their brothers and sisters in love.
All the traditions would probably agree that the blessed are those who have experienced the touch of God in the depths of their humanity, and responded by reaching out to their brothers and sisters in love.
We’ve all met them: they take delight in God’s world; they are joyful people; and the light of God shines out in their lives. Poor in spirit, gentle, sorrowing, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, seeking peace, persecuted in the cause of right, they know their need of God; and they give without counting the cost.
They show us that true happiness – blessedness – lies not in prestige and acclaim, nor riches, nor multiplicity of possessions, but in living according to the unifying, restoring power of love. These are the saints: unobtrusively holy people who make visible the Kingdom of God; and, at this season, we pay tribute to them all.
Top image by Noam Halaby-senerman/Wirestock Creators – stock.adobe.com. Image of Pope Francis by Manfred Kindlinger from Pixaba
This reflection by Teresa White, fcJ has appeared in Church Times in 3 November 2023. Sr Teresa a former teacher, she spent many years in the ministry of spirituality at Katherine House, an FCJ retreat and conference centre in Salford, UK.