Sermon preached by the Prior of Pluscarden
at the Edinburgh University Catholic Chaplaincy,
29 January 2017, Sunday 4A, Matthew 5:1-12.
We begin today a reading of the Sermon on the Mount, according to St. Matthew's Gospel. We will hear more of this over the next four Sundays, after which the cycle will be interrupted by lent.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. Here Jesus on the mountain gives, as it were, a manifesto or blue print of his Kingdom, the Kingdom of his heavenly Father. As St. Matthew presents it, this follows consciously on from Moses, who on another Mountain long before had given the 10 commandments of the law. The commandments of Moses were mostly prohibitions. Of course they still hold. To break them is to do what is wrong, and thereby to separate oneself from the all-holy God, and from his People. With the Beatitudes, though, Jesus offers something more sublime. These are not prohibitions or commands, but a series of astonishing promises. They present an image of moral and spiritual beauty. We see here Jesus offering us a self portrait; and it would make no sense at all without reference to himself.
We can never get used to the Beatitudes, any more than we can ever get used to Jesus himself, or to the mystery of his Cross, and of his Resurrection from the dead. Immediately we are offered strong doctrine, with power to shock, and perplex, and exhilarate, and convert. Jesus appeals here to the extremes of human desire. On his own authority, he promises precisely beatitude: perfect happiness, total fulfilment, absolute peace. No! More than that! Who is filled with insatiable ambition? Who feels always somehow dissatisfied, and wants always more, and more, and more? If so, then your desires fall short, suggests Jesus. What I will give goes far beyond them. Twice here, at the beginning and at the end, he promises the Kingdom of Heaven. That is, he promises a share in God’s own divine life, and beatitude, and goodness; the eternal possession of riches that infinitely outstrip anything we can even imagine. And if that should too remote, or abstract, Jesus also promises the earth - yes all of it - for our heritage. He promises too that we will be comforted for all our sorrows, and perfectly satisfied in all our good desires; that we will receive mercy for all our sins; that we will see God, face to face; that we will share the Title and Status that belongs to Jesus as Son of God.
And we are here now because we believe that what Jesus says is true. The one who makes these wild promises comes from God. He is very Truth himself. Because of Who he is, and because of what he has done for us, in his death and resurrection, Jesus has the power to make everything he says here a reality in our lives, both now and in eternity. So we come today to listen to his teaching yet again; to celebrate it, and to claim it all for our own.
So we dwell with open hearts also on the other side of each Beatitude: the deeply paradoxical presentation of how to enter this perfect happiness; how to gain all these blessings. Poverty of spirit; gentleness; grief in face of sorrow and loss and pain; a merciful attitude towards those who sin against us; purity of heart; being peacemakers; being persecuted in the cause of right. What? Isn’t all this just too much for us; contrary to every natural instinct? No: the Saints bear witness, the whole Catholic Church bears witness that all these things are attainable, and are good for us. The way of Jesus, as set out in the Beatitudes, does not oppress. On the contrary: it’s a way of freedom: a path way towards true holiness and goodness of life. And it’s better to be poor in spirit, gentle, mourning with those who mourn, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, than the opposite. If we consider instead the way of pride and arrogance, we see at once how unattractive it is, and also how foolish. Lust, greed, selfishness; contempt of others; disregard for justice; disdain for God; willingness to do evil whenever that seems expedient; these things degrade our dignity as human beings, and make us unworthy to be called children of God. They do not make us happy, and their end, if pursued consistently, is eternal loss.
I’ve come down to Edinburgh today to speak about monastic life, which I propose to do after this Mass. Let me now just offer a definition of the monk which is especially associated with St. Gregory the Great, who became Pope in the late 6th century. The monk, says Gregory, is a man of desire; or more specifically, he’s a man of one desire. He wants God, and nothing less will ever satisfy him. He wants also all the good things that Jesus promises; and life in all its fullness. A monk is one who has glimpsed something of the beauty and goodness of Jesus, and he can’t live unless he makes that the central focus and goal of his whole life.
The first monastic Fathers of the fourth century liked to quote the Beatitudes when they spoke of the goal or aim of the monastic life. Our ultimate goal, our ultimate desire, they said, is to see God. And so our intermediate goal, what we need to focus on especially in order to achieve that, is purity of heart: Blessed are the pure in heart, said Jesus, for they shall see God. So the ancient monks spoke a good deal about purity of heart, and what we have to do to achieve that. What they taught of course has relevance to all of us, whatever our vocation in the Church. What we do matters, they said. It’s obvious really. Our habits matter; we should cultivate good ones, and get rid of bad ones. But also; what we think also matters. What goes on inside our heads is of the greatest significance too. So we have somehow to clean up the contents of our mind, in order to attain a pure heart.
This of course is no small undertaking. So we come to Mass, and to Holy Communion. Here, once again, we are given a pledge of the union with God in Christ for which we long. May we then receive from this Mass the grace to live according to the Beatitudes. Then we will deserve to receive what God in Jesus Christ wishes freely to give us.