This weekend the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Feb 2nd) falls on a Sunday – and so we celebrate that event in the life of Christ. When the Feast falls on Sunday, it replaces the Ordinary Time celebration and the associated Gospel, which happens to be “The Sermon on the Mount.” The Sermon contains the listing of the Beatitudes and is one of the great discourses in the Gospel according to Matthew. I thought I would at least provide some food for thought here in the column.
Each Beatitude begins with “Blessed are…” Blessedness is something that is part of, or should be part of, the fabric of our life. As a friend pointed out, the message on my phone concludes with “Have a blessed day.” I am not sure what people think, but I always feel hopeful when I hear it and I appreciate its spirit of goodwill. But it carries no guarantee. My friend who kids me about my message tells the story of being in line behind a woman at the grocery store who seemed agitated and in a real hurry. The check-out clerk finished bagging her groceries and said, “Have a nice day.” The woman replied, “I’m sorry, but I have other plans.” Some days the best attitude in the world can’t keep misfortune at bay. What does having a blessed day mean on those days? What does it mean to be blessed?
A lot of people think the Beatitudes originated with Jesus, but they are found in the wisdom literature common to the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs. Israel’s sages and poets used them to commend admirable but traditional actions and attitudes.
- “Happy the one who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)
- “Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the LORD. Blessed those who keep his testimonies who seek him with all their heart. They do no wrong; they walk in his way.” (Ps 119:1-3)
- “The just walk in integrity; happy are their children after them!!” (Proverbs. 20:7)
The Psalter opens with this Beatitude: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps 1:1-2)
The Beatitudes offer formulas for what constitutes blessedness—not good fortune or prosperity or personal achievement, but rather being surrounded by a sphere of spiritual well-being as an individual and as a community. In the Old Testament that meant pursuing wisdom, following the commandments, and treating others with respect. The fruit of such a path in life is, “He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.” (Ps 1:3)
Jesus’ beatitudes have a paradoxical twist. They begin well enough in Matthew’s version. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3) But quickly blessedness is associated with mourning, meekness, being merciful, being persecuted, and also reviled. What about self-reliance and building a good reputation for productivity and success?
Positive attitudes are a good thing. But Jesus’ Beatitudes are less about insuring individual prosperity and reputation and more about risking it for the sake of his vision of God’s kingdom. They seem not to care about personal success and security. Rather, it is our alignment with the values of risky faith, radical mercy, and an active search for justice for the entire community that matters to God.
So when Jesus says to us “Have a blessed day,” the response “Sorry, but I have other plans!” is not what is called for. Perhaps we can borrow from the Prophet Samuel and reply, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”