Sunday, January 29, 2017

Beatitude and the Humility of God

St. Thomas Aquinas, by Carlo Crivelli (1435-1495)

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 28 and January 29, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I.  See Zephaniah 2:3-3:13 and Matthew 5:1-12)

This weekend (January 28) we celebrated the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th Century Doctor of the Church and renowned teacher of the Catholic faith.  The beautiful story is told about St. Thomas, that towards the end of his life the Lord Jesus appeared to him and said, “You have written well of me, Thomas.  What reward would you have for your labor?”  To which Aquinas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.”

One of the most basic teachings of St. Thomas that reflects this experience, and one that affects us all in a very direct way, is the truth that God created us to be happy.  When God brought us into existence, He intended for us to be truly happy in this life, and to live in eternal happiness with Him.  

Justly could we ask today, however, “Then why are there so many people in this world who are unhappy?”  Why are many people (maybe even most people?) not as happy as they would like to be?  Part of the answer to that question might be that they are not seeking the happiness for which God has created them.  

According to Aquinas, God creates us to be happy in this life by knowing the truth and desiring the good.  Above all, we are created to know the truth about God—that He is loving and merciful, that He is a God of justice and faithfulness, and that He is a God of forgiveness and compassion.  To not know the truth about God, then—to think that He is vengeful, narrow or unforgiving; to believe that God is distant and unconcerned for us; to not believe that He exists or to live as if He did not exist—this is what leads us to great unhappiness.  

To not desire the good, likewise, would inevitably leave us unhappy.  When people desire, instead, things that are harmful or evil, things that God never intended for us, they depart from the path of happiness and begin to walk down the road of discontentment.  To know the truth and desire the good, those are the things that make us happy here in this world.

But St. Thomas Aquinas also teaches that there is something even greater than this happiness for which we are created, an invitation by divine grace to a blessedness and a happiness that begins here, and continues into eternity.  He calls it amicitia dei, friendship with God.   Not only to know the truth about God, or to desire the good things that God provides for us; more than that, we are created to know and love God Himself.  We are called to be in relationship with Him.  We are called to friendship with God.  We spend time with Him, and speak to Him in prayer about what worries us, what saddens us, what we are hopeful about; we give ourselves generously to Him in the silence, that place where He speaks to our souls and refashions them in love.  We become more and more like God by our intimate relationship and friendship with Him: amicitia dei.

This friendship with God is perhaps the best way to understand the Gospel of St. Matthew this weekend: Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes.  Jesus is teaching us about the blessed life, the life of happiness, the life of beatitude.  But clearly the program He outlines for us is very different from the one that we ordinarily associate with happiness.  Jesus proclaims:  Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn. . . Blessed are the meek. . .Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. . . 

These are not the things that usually come to mind when we think of happiness.  One of the most radical and profound dimensions of the beatitudes, in fact, is that Jesus does not promise a happiness for these souls in the next life only, or merely in the world to come.  No, he makes it emphatic:

Blessed ARE the poor in spirit!  Right here, right now, they are already blessed.  Blessed ARE those who mourn!  Yes, they will be consoled, they will receive a great recompense in the life to come, but they are already blessed, even in this life.  Blessed ARE they who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .  Blessed ARE the clean of heart . . .

The remarkable reality of the beatitudes, as described by Christ Himself, is that they already anticipate, and even initiate, the life of heaven—eternal happiness, beatitude—here in this life.  They will ultimately lead us to eternal life and the vision of God, but already they draw heaven down into this world, and imbue this place with divine light.  Pope Benedict XVI, in Volume I of his tryptic, Jesus of Nazareth, writes beautifully on the beatitudes as an encounter with this descent of God into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus proclaims, “for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3).  

In our first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, we are exhorted: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).    Those who seek after these things, they are the ones who embody this humility and poverty of  spirit that Jesus indicates will take hold of the kingdom of heaven.  But they will not have the wherewithal to rise up and lay hold of it by their own power.  No, it will come to them, descend upon them in the person of Christ.  God cannot resist drawing close to the humble heart.  Pope Benedict explains:

“Now Israel recognizes that its poverty is exactly what brings it close to God; it recognizes that the poor, in their humility, are the ones closest to God’s heart, whereas the opposite is true of the arrogant pride of the rich, who rely on themselves.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 75 

  Constantly in the television ads and the images that are presented by the media and in film we are given the message that wealth will make you happy; power will make you happy; always getting your own way will make you happy.  But those who are most wealthy, or most powerful, or who consistently manage to get their own way are often the unhappiest of all!  Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3).  

Pope Benedict also examines the beatitude, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  He insists that this teaches us exactly the opposite of what the modern world holds about religion and salvation.  He explains that the prevailing view is that everyone should simply follow their own religion and that will lead to a blessed life.  He calls in to question this position, asking whether the destruction of one’s enemies in a holy war will lead to blessedness.  Is Jihad working well in the Middle East and in other places on the earth?  Is that making people happy?  Or, he questions, will blood vengeance?  This practice, held religiously in some places of the world, will that make people happy?  Will atheism and the denial of God make for the blessed life?  Or those who make their own conscience and their own personal desires the moral norm for life,  will these find happiness and the blessed life?  “No,” he answers, “God demands the opposite.”

We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we do not immediately find it; we long for and pine for more than what we see and experience, and cry out to God for more.  In this hunger and thirst, Pope Benedict explains, we are open to the God who comes to us in that encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Christian religion is unique in that it is ultimately not a quest where we discover God at the end of the journey, but one in which our longing and yearning opens our eyes to the reality that He has come to us.

Finally, in the beatitude “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8), we discover once again the descending love that imbues us with beatitude.  Pope Benedict XVI explains that, ultimately, we are not the ones capable of achieving this purity that will open our eyes to the vision of God.  Purification happens, instead, when we follow Christ and unite ourselves to Him.  It is not our sacrifices that purify us, but His sacrifice on the cross.  Christ descends from heaven to earth, and in that sacrificial offering of Himself on Calvary His blood, poured out in love, is that which purifies and sanctifies us.  Brilliantly, Benedict XVI explains:

“God descends, to the point of death on the cross.  And precisely by doing so, he reveals himself in his true divinity.  We ascend to God by accompanying him on this descending path.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 94 

When we unite ourselves to the cross of Christ, we receive that purification that allows us to draw closer and closer to Jesus Christ.  God descends to us in the person of Christ, to the point of the crucifixion, uniting Himself even to our suffering.  We are not alone in the crosses we bear.  He comes to us.  When we unite ourselves to Him, God draws us closer to Himself in the blessed life, and allows us to ascend on the path of beatitude. 

This weekend Christ calls us to a life of beatitude, a life of blessedness and happiness.  Are we willing to follow Him on that path?  Do we desire to be “Poor in spirit,” truly humble as we seek the things that God desires for us?  Do we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” longing and pining for that which only God can give, awakening our souls to the life of grace?  Do we long to be “clean of heart,” uniting ourselves even in our suffering to the God who loves us enough to die for us on the cross?  If so, we can discover what St. Thomas Aquinas taught about being happy in this world and happy forever in the world to come.  If we follow Christ on the path of beatitude, we will discover what it truly means to live the blessed life.