Part Three of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, subtitled Life in Christ, opens with a quotation from St Pope Leo the Great, a Doctor of the Church. It is a call for Christians to recognize with dignity their connection to the kingdom of God and to remain there by avoiding sin. (CCC#1691) The words of this simple sermon are a prelude to showing Christians the meaning of the vital life lessons taught by Jesus. One of those lessons has become known as the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:3-11)
It was late spring in AD28 when Jesus went to a meadow on a hillside followed by a large crowd. He intended to speak directly to his closest disciples, but as he spoke, the crowd drew closer. Matthew recorded the event as a sermon on the mount, but the words Jesus spoke had been the essence of his teaching all along. This particular speech would be a consolidation of all that humans must do in order to retain the kingdom of God.
In the past, anger and retribution had been significant marks of humankind. Covetousness and dishonesty were common traits. Throughout the Old Testament, people broke the covenant with God, but he never stopped giving them another chance. When Jesus came to earth in human form it was with the intention of fulfilling all that had been promised so that humans could move past their propensity to sin and reach the kingdom of God in a more progressive, proactive way. Jesus saved the faithful by showing them how to save themselves.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he began. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Most of the nine Beatitudes are easy enough to understand on their surface, but they are not little, individual affirmations of a particular deed. It is not a list of behaviors and rewards for doing any single thing. Rather, the Beatitudes are together a composite of what it means to live a truly Christlike life. The faithful are not called to be meek, or hungry for wisdom, or merciful, or peacemakers, but are called to be ALL of those things.
The word ‘beatitude’ signifies a great blessing or happiness. In the words of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered both to all who would follow him. In the catechism, the analytical, prayerful words of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas are used to depict every individual’s desire for happiness. Each blessing that Jesus offered increased the awareness of what it truly means to live in the kingdom of heaven.
St Peter wrote about our attachment to this blessed happiness and called the faithful “partakers of the divine nature” because in being Christlike, one is removed from the corruption of worldly things. (2 Peter 1:4) Those who followed Christ were being called to step above the licentiousness, dishonesty, and hostile aggression that had always dominated human history.
It was before 10,000BC that ancient humans began to demonstrate their desire for something of a divine nature. The first solid buildings they constructed were not homes or businesses but worship spaces such as Göbekli Tepe. All that is really known about humans before that is: survival was a constant concern. It was kill or be killed whether by an animal or another person. The ancients were not farmers until later, and hunting was a necessity. As people developed communities, their aggression towards one another increased, and even the Old Testament is saturated with violence, greed, and lust…the kind of lust that means a desire to control everything.
With the Beatitudes, Jesus was reiterating: the Way (his Way) was to rise above the desolation of the earth, to a higher presence. The ‘poor in spirit’ have been interpreted in many ways, but one great possibility is that they are those who recognize the temptation worldly things offer and through prayer and Christlike living have separated their spirit from it. Faith and hope in God is what they have, and that is what sustains real life in Christ. These are not the hermits and those who have chosen to step away from worldly life, but, as the catechism shows, those faithful who use everything at their disposal, even the things of the earth, to enliven the kingdom of heaven and glorify God.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the Beatitude, that is the blessing, the promise, the happiness, requires one to make “decisive moral choices.” It reminds that true happiness is not found in wealth, fame, power, or, for that matter, any human accomplishment, but by living life in Christ. Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God.