In the Church’s liturgical imagination, the Beatitudes are most closely associated with the saints. The “blesseds” of the beatitudes can be literally the “blessed” saints in heaven. So this portion of Matthew 5 is read most prominently on All Saints’ Day, and it’s one of the common options for other saints’ feast days. But the reading is also an option for other moments in the Church’s life: confirmations, marriages, the consecration of religious. In those instances, it’s clear that the beatitudes aren’t simply a description of the saints in heaven; they also function as a road map for us on earth. In other words, if you want to attain to the life of beatitude, this is what it looks like.
Today is the one time we hear this passage as part of the long, continuous reading of the Gospel in ordinary time, so it’s worth thinking about that context as well. So far Matthew has given us his genealogy, his infancy narrative with the Magi and the escape to Egypt, the baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, and then Jesus’ early moments calling his disciples. The content of Jesus’ preaching so far has been simple: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. But here for the first time we get a real taste of what he means by that. The beatitudes serve as an introduction to the sermon that follows, which in large part presents Jesus’ interpretation of the Law. If much of what he says puzzles his listeners, in the rest of the gospel story, they have the opportunity to interpret what he says by what he does—to find new meaning in his teaching in light of his passion, death, and resurrection.
But let’s sit for a moment with these opening comments. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” These days, I suspect it is easy for the phrases to slip by our eyes and ears, falling into that vague quasi-Christian concept of being “blessed” that has become little more than a hashtag for the famously sincere and the sincerely famous. Here we are not talking about “blessings” if by that we mean the nice temporal things that come to us by fortune. “Blessed” here can mean “happy,” but with every line it ought to become more clear that we do not really know what that word means if it means what Jesus says it means. How can someone be happy when he is mourning? How can someone be happy when he is hungry and thirsty? How can someone be happy when he is persecuted and insulted?
In one of his older video series, I recall Bishop Barron pointing at the famous Isenheim altarpiece, one of the most grisly and disturbing depictions of the crucifixion, and saying, “That is a happy man.” He goes on to suggest that happiness must start from this point on the cross: in loving what Jesus loves and hating what Jesus hates.
So we could put it like this: true happiness, according to the gospel, doesn’t just mean being cheerful all the time; rather, it means being cheerful about the right things and sad about the right things. It means loving good and hating evil. The righteous person, the truly happy person, does mourn. The righteous person is poor in spirit, having a proper humility in the face of God’s mysterious will. The righteous person can be happy in the face of persecution and insult just as a couple deep in love can ignore all manner of difficulties because all that matters is the embrace of the beloved.
These are counterintuitive things to say, both in the face of a world obsessed with comfort and safety and in the face of a popular Christianity that sees being “blessed” as having just that same comfort and safety. But the early Church didn’t grow because Christians went around on their sedan chairs and gold jewelry proclaiming on first-century TikTok how they were just so blessed. It grew because Christians blessed God as they were devoured by lions before the angry crowds. It grew because Christians claimed that by undergoing torture and death, they were the subjects of God’s blessing.
That’s all weird, in the eyes of the world, but it’s also powerful. Why? Because, as St. Paul tells us, God’s power is seen most clearly in weakness. “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” This isn’t just rhetoric; it’s fundamental theology. In the Creed, we say God is “almighty,” which means that in him there is the absolute fullness of power, that in him there is no lack at all. Included in that fullness is the fact that God does not need anything. He doesn’t need to create. He doesn’t need you or me. He doesn’t crave our prayers or our sacrifices. In Psalm 50, there’s almost a divine twinkle in the eye as he asks his people: do you think that I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? If I were hungry, would I tell you?
The world’s power can be shown only in greatness, in splendor, in wealth, in honor. And so if we had our way, we would ask God to show his power by vanquishing all evil, scouring the face of the world, healing corruption, dramatically raising up all the good things that have been cast away. But is this his way? No. He shows his power by refusing all of that (at least for now). He doesn’t need to make a show. He comes to us as a child—is there anything more humble than an embryo? He is vulnerable. He submits himself to human parents. He submits himself to persecution and even death. Yet on the cross, at that greatest moment of weakness, when in his humanity he feels the depth of separation from God, there God the Son shows his greatest power. For his power is so great that he loses nothing when he gives it away.
This contradiction is at the heart of the gospel. How, after all, could God’s infinity suffer us to participate in any way in his redemption of us? How could God the Son’s perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice allow itself to be supplemented by the suffering of his saints? How could the final and perfect prayer of the divine Son in his humanity allow any place for the prayers of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth?
What appears to the world as weakness is strength. God’s power is so far above us, so transcendently perfect, that he wants to show us again and again that nothing we do can compete with it in any way. None of the power he shares with us—the power of prayer, or the power of the sacraments, or the power of human freedom—takes anything away from him. And so we can see how this God is worthy of our trust. Unlike the other gods, the other powers of this world, there’s no ulterior motive, no self-interest. No motive but good. No motive but love.
Can we live like that? Can we claim the happiness of God? Not on our own. But in his power we can claim the inheritance and the happiness of the beatitudes. We can love what is good and hate what is evil. We can live as citizens of the kingdom even here on earth. And the more we do so, not only will our own happiness grow, but the more will God’s power be shown to the unbelieving world.