Several years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on merging churches. The moderator asked each of us to tell the assembly the most important thing we had learned in a brief statement. When my turn came, I recited the Beatitudes from St. Matthew. I understand why this was met with some bewilderment, but I will stand by it – and add that if we wish St. Charles to develop, it will be because we have accepted the Beatitudes as our parish handbook. Let us look at why.
Beatitude means “blessing”, or to be even more precise, that which gives us bliss. Matthew tells us that true blessings are to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, persecuted for the same righteousness we were thirsting for and insulted for the name of Jesus. (Matthew 5:5:1-12) In what world do any of these things make good sense, much less bring bliss? Quite simply: in God’s.
After Jesus was baptized and tempted, Matthew tells us that he took up John the Baptist’s mission and preached repentance “for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”. (Matthew 4:17b) Kingdom of heaven does not mean the afterlife. Many of Matthew’s community would have been very devout Jews who would have been uncomfortable by calling it the Kingdom of God, and this was an acceptable substitute. The Kingdom is very much a this–worldly phenomenon, although one that will continue into the afterlife.
Mark and Luke join Matthew in proclaiming it. It is harmony between God and humanity, all humans and humanity and nature. It is already here, but not yet fulfilled. That fulfillment will only come when Jesus returns. But when he returns, it is not to end the world, but to perfect it. Scripture and thus church teaching are very vague on the details, but very clear on the reality: Jesus never loses his focus on this world in which we live, and neither should we. This is not a doctrine of progress; we cannot perfect the world – only Jesus can. However, it is a call to action. There is always struggle and defeat with as many failures as successes, but this world is where we are to direct our attention.
Today’s reading is the addendum to the Beatitudes. Matthew speaks of salt and light. Salt had two functions. As now, it could give taste to bland food, but it could also preserve it. In this latter function, it was critical to a people who did not have refrigeration.
This was also before electric or even gas lighting and even though the light by candle or oil jar would be weak by our standards, the world was so dark that this light could still provide a path. Christians were expected to preserve the world, both by keeping it from decay and insipidness. We are also to shine forth in such a way that people know the source of and reason for the light ”that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father”. (Mt 5:16)
To accept these things as blessings, we must accept that what the world holds as key and important ultimately do not last. People then as now would have been urged to pursue wealth, fame and position. These are not in themselves bad, but not able to preserve the world nor give much light. They will ultimately die with the person or the institution which sought them so intently. To truly persevere, we need the virtues Jesus himself tells us will last, however difficult it may be for us to accept them now.
As the year continues, Matthew will show us how the church will need these blessings. For example, for the next two weeks, we will see that Jesus told people that they have been taught one thing by tradition, but because of Him they will need to change.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Mt 5:31–32)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’39 But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. (Mt 5:38–39)
This was said to a congregation composed of some born Jews and some Gentiles and caused confusion for all but in different and conflicting ways. Conflict was inevitable and we can feel it on the page two thousand years later.
They needed peacemakers, and we are reminded of the beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Mt 5:9). We usually do not much esteem peacemakers, which may account for why we have so few of them in our society or perhaps even in our families. But they are required for any institution to exist. They are the salt which allows the light to shine. There will be many opportunities for us to see the beatitudes in action and to recognize that St Charles will become who we are called to be to the extent we put them into action.
This is church building in the truest sense. We are renovating our church structure. This is necessary and important but St. Matthew is telling us today that a parish is built on the blessing of God and the virtues revealed through these blessings: because of them, our faith will be firmer than any foundation of stone, our hope stronger than any wall of brick, and our love more splendid than any window of glass.