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Saturday, May 23, 2020


*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

The most interesting part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the first word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Blessed. In the original Greek, the word is makarios. It’s not an easy word to translate. “Happy are the poor,” you’ll find in some translations. Jesus begins each of the beatitudes with that word. “Blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” and so on. In Latin, the word is beati. “Beati misericordes” ― “blessed are the merciful.” Beati is where we get the word “beatitude.”

Usually, when someone hears the word “beatitude,” they think of these aphorisms of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. But there is a second meaning to that word. Traditionally, “beatitude” has also referred to the experience of people in heaven. Indeed, “beatitude” describes the state of mind of someone who’s beholding the face of God. Theologians call this the “beatific vision.” The two meanings are linked. Yes, Jesus is describing to his followers something about what it means to live well in this world ― “blessed are the peacemakers, etc.” But he’s also talking about heaven. There is a reason Jesus only offers these beatitudes after he’s ascended a mountain. It is an ascent to heaven, and he is describing what it looks like to live in heaven. In short, the beatitudes describe how people are when they behold the face of God.

This is the great mystery of the beatitudes. They bridge heaven and earth. Indeed, what Jesus’ beatitudes reveal, above all, is that there is a way ― even in this world ― to access the life of the Blessed, the way of life that is promised in the life to come. Jesus reveals that this life is available to us here and now ― that beatitude is possible even in this life, even if “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). [1]

But here’s the strange and awful thing about the beatitudes. We've said that the beatitudes describe how people live ― the way they are, even ― when they behold the face of God. But look at the very first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke's gospel is more blunt: “Blessed are you poor” (Lk 6:20) This is not the typical conception of heaven. We think of heaven as a becoming-rich. We say that so-and-so has “gone to their reward.” Even if we understand these rewards as spiritual realities, we still typically understand heaven as the accumulation of good experiences. 

On the contrary, when the scriptures describe the process of our final beatitude, it is not described as an accumulation of something but as a stripping away. In this same sermon, Jesus described the process of entering heaven as a paying of “every last cent” (Mt 5:26). Saint Paul mysteriously described the process of salvation as a “burning up” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). The New Testament depicts heaven not as a making-rich, but as a making-poor, a burning up. 

With respect to living in this world, Christianity offers the same logic. “I must become less,” John the Baptist said (Jn 3:30). The whole spirit of Christianity is about accumulating less of this world into your person: “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are anxious and troubled about many things.” It is the many-ness that is Martha’s problem. “One thing is needful” (Lk 10:41-42). What Martha needs is to have her many-ness stripped and burned away from her.

Americans in particular struggle with Jesus’ depiction of blessedness. We tend to think of blessedness in the images taught to us by the gospel of American consumerism. Blessedness means abundance. It means accumulating more. It means many-ness. My blessedness primarily has to do with my house, my clothes, my retirement, my Thanksgiving dinner. It means having and consuming. 'The reason we have all this is because we're blessed.' But it’s Amazon and Nabisco who have convinced us of this, not Jesus. 

Upon finishing the last beatitude, Jesus says that the "reward is great in heaven" (Mt 5:12). The reward is great. How certain are we that we know what he means? Americans are tempted into thinking that heaven is about more. Americans are tempted into longing for the heaven of Martha, for the heaven of many-ness. “Martha, Martha…. One thing is needful.” The Judeo-Christian tradition seems to suggest that, on the last day, when we look God in the face, we won’t find a God eager to pour out more and even tastier consumables for our hungry hearts to devour. It seems, rather, we’ll find ourselves not quite as hungry as we remembered. We will experience, I think, a different kind of hunger, and we will feel it with extraordinary acuteness. The Blessed, we are told, “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And on that day, we are told, “they will be satisfied.” In heaven, the Blessed are not rich, but poor. They have become empty, and thus filled with God. They have, as John the Baptist hoped they would, “become less, so He would become more” (Jn 3:30).


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.69.2.