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Sixth Sunday of the Year

Blessedness, happiness or something else?

Today's account of the beatitudes from St Luke's Gospel is rather more "down to earth" than St Matthew's version: and not just because in St Luke's gospel this episode take place "on a level place" while St Matthew has it as part of the "sermon on the mount". St Luke talks of the poor, those who actually have nothing; the hungry, those who actually have nothing to eat; those who weep, those actually shedding tears; and those who are actually excluded by the community. St Matthew's beatitudes are rather more spiritualised, talking instead about the poor in spirit; those who hunger for righteousness; those who mourn, but aren't necessarily crying; and those reviled and slandered but not necessarily cast out of their communities.

St Luke also passes over the other four of St Matthew's beatitudes (the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers) preferring instead to report four "anti-beatitudes", four proclamation of woe to those who are not poor, hungry, weeping and outcast.

It is a matter of continuing controversy whether the beatitudes should be translated into English using the word "happy" or the word "blessèd". In fact, though, neither word quite fits the bill. It is conceivable that someone who is "poor in spirit" could be happy and contented and even consider himself fortunate to have this spiritual gift. The "poor in spirit" could also be considered blessed, receiving God's consecration and worthy of reverence. But in St Luke's account, Jesus doesn't talk about the "poor in spirit": he talks about those who are actually poor, hungry, weeping and outcast. Poverty, hunger, tears and exile may not be absolute barriers to happiness, but in no sense can they be regarded as causes of happiness; on the contrary, they are causes of suffering and distress. And if poverty, hunger, weeping and exile are signs of blessedness, then God has very strange and seemingly unjust ways of showing his favour.

We can't simply say that the beatitudes promise future happiness to the suffering; certainly they do promise future reward for the poor, hungry, weeping and outcast, but these people are told that they are happy or blessed now, not just in the future.

Why are these suffering people called blessed? We need to recognise that it is not the fact of suffering itself which implies blessedness; as is made clear in the fourth beatitude, it is those who suffer "on account of the Son of man" who are happy, and this qualification applies by implication to all the beatitudes. It is the purpose and end which we pursue that leads to happiness or blessedness, not in itself the suffering we may endure on the way. This is made clear also by our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah: blessing or curse depends on where we place our trust, whether in man or in the Lord.

So blessedness or happiness is a result of our purpose or aim; but the question still remains of what the beatitudes mean when they say that people are "happy" or "blessed". Curiously, the Greek word we translate "blessed" or "happy" is one with connotations of divinity. It is used as an attribute of God in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:11), and the Ancient Greek poets Homer and Hesiod both use it of their Greek gods. It is the calling of each one of us to be "divinised", to be made a participant in the divinity of God.

In this sense we are quite accustomed to use the term "blessed" as a title for the saints: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of course all those saints who have not been canonised. The happiness and blessedness of the saints goes far beyond simple contentment or consecration, extending to sharing in the divine life of God.

St Luke's "anti-beatitudes" give a stark warning: if you enjoy the comforts of this world for their own sake, you are not a saint, and you will know the desolation of separation from the divine. But this is a warning alongside a greater promise. The message of the beatitudes then is this: if you do everything for the sake of the Son of Man, even to the point of suffering worldly pains, you are already a saint. And that is a cause for leaping and rejoicing.

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