I love the Beatitudes of Jesus. They serve as the opening salvo of his Sermon on the Mount, and that Sermon is rightly understood to be the foundational statement of Jesus’ teachings.
The Galilean pronounces blessings on people who nurture and exhibit certain character traits. Along with each virtue, Jesus explains the reason for the blessing. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
You might know that there are two versions of the Beatitudes. One is Matthew 5:3–11, and the other is Luke 6:20–26. These two have well-known differences. Luke has only four blessings, while Matthew has nine. Luke includes four woes, but Matthew has none. Some of the Beatitudes themselves have variations. For instance, Luke’s rendition says, “Blessed are you poor.” But Matthew affirms, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Preachers, theologians, and authors have written countless volumes about these crucial teachings of Jesus. Often, the word “blessed” used in the Beatitudes is interpreted as “happy.” Happy are they who mourn. Happy are they who are persecuted for righteousness. Happy are you when people hate you.
Understood in this way, the Beatitudes present deep paradoxes. How can people who weep and mourn be happy? Why should people who facing hatred and persecution consider themselves happy?
The Beatitudes played a prominent role in the lives of the first Christians.
Many of the earliest Christians texts point to saints rejoicing in their persecutions. In 2Corinthians 12, St. Paul boasts in his weaknesses and delights in his hardships. In 1Peter 4, the apostle encourages his readers to praise God for the fiery ordeal they were suffering. The fifth chapter of the letter of James resonates with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. James pronounces woes upon the wealthy and blessings upon those who patiently endure unjust persecutions.
The earliest non-canonical Christian books echo Jesus’ Beatitudes. The Didache says, “Rather, be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth.” The letter of 1Clement pronounces a blessing upon those who are humble (30:8). In vision 2 of the Shepherd of Hermes, the author blesses the persecuted Christians.
Christian hagiography celebrates saints who embodied the blessedness of the Beatitudes. St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp both wrote about and exhibited the blessedness of persecution and martyrdom. The Acts of Paul lists 13 Beatitudes, only two of which repeat the original blessings. These beatitudes became exhibited in the life of one of the main characters of the Acts of Paul who was one of the heroines of early Christianity: Thecla.
Using “happy” as a synonym for “blessed” has always seemed more than paradoxical to me. It has really felt not quite right. Happiness seems too glib, too passing for these blessings. Happy are the mourners? Happy are the hungry? Happy are those who are suffering?
We could, of course, point to the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness comes and goes, but joy remains rooted deep within a soul.
Moreover, the early Christians found the joy in their union with Christ. The blessing was not for its own sake; it came as a result of the disciple’s bond with Jesus.
St. Paul begins his letter to the Philippians by reminding his readers of their fellowship in the gospel and with Christ. The apostle affirms the joy of suffering because his persecutions “fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). This communion makes joy in persecution possible (1:3–7). In 1Peter 4:13, the blessing results as people “partake of Christ’s suffering.”
Perhaps St. Ignatius serves as one of the clearest examples of how early Christians understood the paradoxical joy of union with Christ. He was arrested and sent to Rome for trial. In his Epistle to the Romans, Ignatius admonishes the Roman Christians not to attempt to save him from martyrdom. He begs them not “to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God.” His impending death would make Ignatius a “martyr in behalf of His own precious sufferings.”
I can understand people rejoicing that they have developed the spiritual ability to extend mercy, demonstrate the characteristics of meekness, and live with deep humility. Even so, the idea of rejoicing in your own humility seems self-defeating.
Maybe many of the Beatitudes are just beyond me. When I think of someone hungering for righteousness, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind. I cannot fathom the extent of his hunger. He craved for righteousness so much that he gave his very life. Perhaps my imagination is limited, but I am unable to understand how his hunger and thirst have been abated. Furthermore, how is he joyfully blessed? His martyrdom is one of the saddest events of the past half-century.
Perhaps I simply have not developed spiritually enough to fully comprehend finding joy in persecution. I mean I see how it is theoretically possible, but I struggle with comprehending how anyone could truly delight in undergoing persecution.
I think of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. How could anyone rejoice in being blown to bits or suffering shrapnel wounds? Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya in 2015. They have been recognized as martyrs of the faith, but who is celebrating their brutal murders? In April 2019, terrorist groups slaughtered seventeen Nigerian Christians at a baby dedication. Do we have the gall to describe this as a joyful occasion? Can anyone find joy in the ethnic cleansing of Assyrian Christians from northern Iraq?
A couple years ago I read something that transformed the way I understand the blessedness of the Beatitudes. I wish I could credit the author, but I cannot recall who it was. More than that, I do not remember if it was in a book, article or tweet.
The author asserted that the blessings of the Beatitudes are privileges. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” could be read as, “Privileged are the poor in spirit.”
This approach revolutionized the way I understand these fundamental teachings of Jesus. Instead of searching for some kind of impossible joy in the face of persecution or self-contradictory happiness in humility, we can consider ourselves privileged.
These paradoxical privileges may or may not result in joy. But like any privileges they bring responsibility. The poor in spirit are privileged to receive the kingdom of heaven. With that privilege comes the responsibility to represent that kingdom appropriately. Those who are merciful have been given the privilege of continually showing greater amounts of mercy to those who need it.
Ultimately each of the blessed privileges epitomizes the one who gives the blessing. The deep paradox for the beatitudes, then, is a divine one. More than only ethical demands, the Beatitudes signify the character of God. As we become more open to the grace of the Beatitudes, we become transformed into the divine likeness (Romans 8:29 and 1Corinthians 3:18). Theologians call this theosis or divinization.
Seeing ourselves as privileged in the ways of the Beatitudes demands a change in mindset of what privilege — and God — is. Privileges typically involve rights to make our lives easier. The Beatitudes’ privileges do not work that way. The privilege of the Beatitudes is being conformed into God’s likeness.
This is not something Jesus demands of us that he did not do himself. The incarnation may be the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. Jesus emptied himself, became human, and died on a cross. St. Paul wrote about it in Philippians 2:5–11. Through self-emptying and entrusting himself into the Father’s hands, Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted. The blessing of resurrection comes through self-emptying, or to use St. Paul’s word, “kenosis.”
In living the Beatitudes, we embrace the paradoxical privilege of theosis through kenosis. Blessedness become ours by relinquishing our selfish desire for privilege. By picking up our cross and dying to ourselves, we become like Christ — which is nothing less than becoming human. And by becoming fully human, we receive by grace what Christ is by nature.