Friday, January 27, 2017

To Be Blessed

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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What does it mean to be blessed? When you count your blessings, you probably think of the good things you have in life: food, shelter, health, friends, family, and so forth. This makes sense. A blessing is something conducive to happiness or well-being. In a religious sense, a blessing is a bestowing of God's favor or protection. Either way, to be blessed is to be happy.

So I imagine Jesus challenges our perception of what it means to be blessed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we are poor and meek, when we mourn, when we are insulted and persecuted. These are generally not things we think of as contributing to happiness.

Jesus does have a way of turning things on their head. But what exactly is going on here? Are we to believe that what really will make us happy is mourning, poverty and persecution? Things that generally make us feel pretty miserable when they are happening? Does Jesus expect us to believe this?

Yes. He does.

But like most things with Christ, there is more to it than what we see at first glance. Consider the phrase "poor in spirit." What Jesus has in mind here is not mere material poverty. What does poverty of spirit mean, and why is it a good thing? In part, it means recognizing that we are all materially poor. Sure, some of us have more goods at our disposal than others. But none of us really "owns" anything. Not really. The richest and the poorest among us all end up in the same hole in the ground. Consider these famous words from Job: "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb and naked I shall return" (Job 1:21). You can't take it with you when you go.

Part of Christian discipleship has always involved a detachment from material goods. St. Paul even says that "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Tim 6:10). Note Paul does not say money is the root of all evil, but rather the love of it. Neither Paul nor Jesus have any problem with wealth per se, only placing too much importance on it. This is why Paul could write in Phillipians 4:12 that he knows how to be rich and how to be poor and to be content in all circumstances. For Paul, it didn't matter whether he was rich or poor in material wealth because he knew that the only thing of true and lasting value was his relationship with God. His happiness depended entirely on Christ. Paul was poor in spirit.

Consider the phrase "blessed are the meek." To be meek is to be small. It is to be humble. Part of Christian discipleship also involves cultivating the virtue of humility. The remnant of Israel mentioned in the first reading is said to be "a people humble and lowly" (Zep 3:12). Humility is the opposite of pride, the most dangerous of all sins. Pride is said to be the sin that caused Satan's fall. Pride is the most deadly sin because pride prevents a person from admitting they are wrong. Pride prevents a person from seeking help. Pride precedes a fall because pride precludes repentance.

It is easy for man to be proud. We stand at the pinnacle of material creation. We are higher than all the other animals, masters over the earth. The scriptures even say that God made us just a "little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor" (Ps 5:8). Impressive. But so what?

So what if we are higher than the animals? What does it mean to be better than a guinea pig or a kangaroo? Even the highest being in all creation is still a created being, small in comparison to the Almighty God. To be meek and humble is to realize that. It is to recognize your place in reality.

But the question remains: how does recognizing that we are poor and meek compared to God make us blessed? How does it contribute to our happiness?

Imagine two people who have cancer. The first recognizes some symptoms and goes to the doctor for an examination. His cancer is diagnosed. He begins treatment and is cured. The second person never admits to feeling ill. He refuses to see a doctor. His cancer is never diagnosed, and never treated. He is dead within a year.  Two people. Both with cancer. Only one of which we might describe as "blessed" -- the one who recognized that he was ill, and sought out a physician.

We are all "ill" in spirit compared to God's standard of perfection. Only the meek and humble will recognize that. Only the meek and humble will seek out the Divine Physician.

In our second reading, St. Paul points out how most of the first Christians were not "wise by human standards." They were not powerful, or of noble birth. They were weak and lowly. But in Christ they became wise. They found righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:26-31). They found blessedness.

Meekness and spiritual poverty are but two of the marks of beatitude Christ mentions. Jesus also calls us to hunger for righteousness, to show mercy, and to keep a clean heart. If we do these things, then Jesus promises us great reward in heaven. Unlike the fleeting happiness we may enjoy in this world, our heavenly joy will be forever. There will be no more mourning, no more hunger, no more war or persecution. We will rejoice and be glad forever.

This is the blessing God wishes to bestow upon us, and the only blessing worth pursuing. It is not a blessing that fades with time or that the world might take away. He offers us eternal Beatitude.

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