Saturday, January 29, 2011

Heaven on Earth: The Way of Christ and the Way of the World (Reflections on the Beatitudes, Matt. 5:1-12, 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The words of Jesus speak eloquently in and of themselves in today’s Gospel. How then can ordinary individuals like ourselves add anything more to the words uttered by Jesus himself? How can I, tasked with breaking open the message of scripture, even dream of explaining something like the Beatitudes that in their vividness and power, seem to need no further explanation? Perhaps what we need is not so much to add more words to what Jesus has already said, but to actually listen more attentively to what they say.

Maybe what the Beatitudes need is not so much that we add our own words to them, or that we explain each of them in detail. Maybe what they need is to be repeated—for us to hear them again, to listen and look at them a second time, for emphasis, to make them stick, to allow them to really enter into our hearts and not merely our ears.

Blest are the poor in spirit, God’s kingdom is theirs.
Blest are the gentle, they shall inherit the earth.

Blest are those who suffer, they will be consoled.

Blest are those who work for justice, they will be satisfied.

Blest are those who show mercy, God will also be merciful to them.

Blest are the pure in heart, God will show his face to them.
Blest are those who love peace, for they are sons and daughters of God.

Blest are those who are persecuted because of God’s kingdom, heaven is theirs.

The Beatitudes are words of blessing that Jesus pronounced. They are a promise of both earthly and heavenly happiness to those who follow God's way. The Old Testament is also full of such beatitudes or proclamations of blessing and happiness. The psalms, for instance are full of them. But there is a difference between the way the Old Testament pronounced beatitudes and the way Jesus speaks of them. In the Old Testament, these beatitudes contained promises of blessing and happiness that will be granted later on in the future.

With Jesus on the other hand, the beatitudes he proclaims take a future blessing and declare it to be present already, here and now. With Jesus, the promise of grace, blessing, and salvation in the future, is made a reality in the present, in our very midst.

This is what the beatitudes proclaim. The poor are already blest; the sorrowing are already consoled, the merciful and gentle are already receiving their reward, the pure in heart already behold God, the Kingdom is already at hand, heaven is already on earth. But is it, really? Just read the papers and watch the news, and you’ll see that this doesn’t seem to be true. The Kingdom, here in our midst? Heaven, here on earth? You’ve got to be kidding.

But the fact is, that is what Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes. How then are we going to make sense of this? How are we to understand Jesus’ teaching that indeed the future promise is already here? Is not the Kingdom of God still to be fulfilled in some far away time in the future? Can heaven actually be experienced on earth? These are tough questions to answer.

Have you ever had the experience of waiting for someone really important to you? At one point, before I became a priest, I remember there was this girl that I really liked. I remember waiting for her one time, and she was late for about ten to fifteen minutes. You know how long that 10 to 15 minutes seemed? It was like an eternity. I was so anxious, so excited to see her walk into the door, that for all intents and purposes, she was already there, in my head, in my mind, even before she actually showed up.

Or have you ever lost something really important to you? When we sometimes misplace things, and we go all over our place, turning it upside down just to find what we’ve misplaced; the thing we’re looking for so occupies and consumes our thoughts that it seems more present when we’ve actually found the misplaced object.

It’s said that the excitement and anxiety you feel while waiting makes the person or object you’re waiting for or looking for just as present, if not more present to your mind than when he or she, or it, has actually arrived. Those of you who have waited for loved ones at the airport will recognize and understand what I’m talking about.

The serious and involved anticipation of something or someone is sometimes so strong, so powerful, and so compelling, it’s as if the person’s already around. This experience of eager and involved anticipation—when what we’re so excited about is so much already present to us—is the way to understand Jesus’ proclamation in the beatitudes that the Kingdom of God to be realized in the future, is already here in our midst.

We can experience heaven here on earth. How? By seeing things, not in the way the world sees them, but in the way Jesus sees them.

Whereas the world boasts of its wealth, Jesus speaks of simplicity and poverty of spirit. Whereas the world admires oppressive might, Jesus speaks of gentleness.
Whereas the world puts power and authority on a pedestal, Jesus speaks of weakness.
Whereas the world cries at the top of its lungs for revenge, Jesus speaks of mercy.
Whereas the world settles disputes through wrangling and war, Jesus speaks of brotherhood and peace.

Those who really eagerly await the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, those who sincerely wait for the coming of his Kingdom, those who truly are “blest”, know in their hearts, that the Kingdom is already present, here and now. Right here in our midst. We can experience heaven here on earth. There is nothing in the Beatitudes that mirrors the world’s idea of power, of authority, of grace, of blessing, of success, of victory. But it is how our Lord sees it. And follow him we must. For indeed, blest are we if we see things not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of our Lord.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)