Friday, January 1, 2010

BEATITUDES FOR THE NEW YEAR

I had an odd juxtaposition of thoughts: thinking about New Year's resolutions, I somehow leaped to the Beatitudes, that list of eight striking "blessings" or "attitudes"--or whatever they are--that Jesus shared (Matthew 5:1-12). I guess I was mulling over whether or not the Beatitudes qualify as resolutions.  I don't think they do, per se, but the New Year certainly offers an opportunity to consider embracing their challenges as an invitation to radical living today.

Here are the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A few reflections as I think about the Beatitudes in light of New Year's resolutions:

1. They go to the heart of what Jesus said and lived.


2. A Beatitude is likely to be perceived as a "blessing" only when we have lived through the tough circumstances to which it is a gracious response.  When we respond in Beatitude responses, we will know we have embraced them.

3. The Beatitudes are radical.  They go to the heart of our deepest passions and life circumstances.  They point to gut-wrenching realities of life: poverty and emptiness, loss and grieving, powerlessness and social contempt, spiritual hunger and yearning for right to prevail, seeing needy persons being treated unjustly and neglected, bitter division and violence, religious persecution, insults, gossip, and false accusations.  It seems to me that only heaven-borne grace can conceive of and make possible the radical outlook and actions described in the Beatitudes.

4. It is one thing to learn the Beatitudes, to have memorized them and to be able to quote them.  This is often as far as it goes in Christian catechism or Sunday School.  But, like the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer, familiarity does not mean we understand them or joyfully cultivate them as a heart and life orientation beyond a merely formal and legal application.  Compliant and eager to be an ideal Christian as I was as a child, I remember inwardly revolting at most of the Beatitudes.  It was easier to just recite them and keep them as stained glass phrases.  As I have continued to revisit them, my understanding and appreciation has increased, but they are no less challenging forty years later. 

5. The Beatitudes run counter to American machismo and status quo.  They unsettle the presumptions of consumer Christianity.  On the surface the Beatitudes seem to be a se-up for certain failure in society that apparently rewards rugged individualism, conformity to sameness, upward mobility, the appearance of mental or physical toughness, and a thoroughly materialistic and self-indulging orientation to value and action.  Dig deeper in the Beatitudes and it gets increasingly difficult to straddle kingdoms.  What emerges is that Jesus actually declares people blessed whom Western civilization has over the millennia come to despise or disparage.  The rest of Jesus’ ministry is one way or another verification that his is an upside down kingdom, an invitation to downward mobility, and an lifting up of all who sorrow, who are relegated to the margins.

6. Above all, the Beatitudes call for what Brennan Manning calls “ruthless trust.”  Because the blessedness or results described in the Beatitudes seem so far-fetched or distant, they call for ruthless trust in the invitation, worldview, Kingdom order, and certain future Jesus describes.  As Manning puts it: “Faith in the person of Jesus and hope in his promise means that his voice, echoing and alive in the Gospels, has supreme and sovereign authority over our lives.”  Does it get any more radical than that?

7. It is appropriate to consider the Beatitudes on the first day of the New Year.  And in this case, on the first day of a new decade.  So while we wish each other a Happy New Year, we might do better by offering each other a prayer for Beatitude grace.  And may we also receive the ruthless trust to see them come to fruition in our hearts, lives, and world.

In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility.

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