Thirty-eight years ago, in 1971, I heard a sermon that I still remember. The gospel of the day was the Sermon on the Mount and, in particular, the Beatitudes. The point that really stayed in my mind was that the preacher repeated the refrain, “Oh, if only we were hearing these words for the first time!”
He spoke about the poetic beauty of the text, which has earned for it a place in many anthologies of world literature. Then he paused to lament that, sadly, familiarity does breed contempt. As soon as we hear the opening bars of the overture we stop listening. We know what is to follow. We have heard it many times before. Blessed are the poor in spirit and all that! And our thoughts go off to graze on something more interesting.
To say that the philosophy of life propounded in this short text is revolutionary is an understatement. It completely overturns many of our most dearly held beliefs. We don’t really think that poverty, grief, and meekness will make us happy. We may accept that mercy and purity and peacemaking are good things, but they don’t figure greatly in the choices we make about our daily behaviour. As for hungering after righteousness and hoping for persecution, that is a bit out of our league.
We have to remind ourselves that these few verses are not intended merely as an aesthetic banquet but as a spur to changing our whole way of thinking about life. This text invites us to see the way of the Gospel as putting a question mark alongside some of the complacent assumptions that rule our culture. What seems to be present advantage may not be so if it reduces our desire for the world to come, if it cuts off our sense of dependence on God.
“We have all that we want; we don’t need God.” What is unexpected is that those disasters which crack open the comfortable world we have built for ourselves often open us up to the mercy of God.
When all else fails, there is only God. Once contact has been made, hope is born. The future, however bleak it seemed, becomes merely the darkness before a radiant dawn. And so we too may start to find an inner happiness even in poverty and persecution. In such a scenario, the Beatitudes begin to make sense.
(November 1, 2009.)
This reflection has been taken from the book by Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2019), eBook location 861.