“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
They are the blessednesses. The quintessential expression of Christian ethical teaching. They form the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel; and are found in a different tone and register in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Matthew presents us with the classical eight beatitudes; Luke with four together with four contrasting notes of warning, the woes that are the counter to the blessings. Felicity and misery are wonderfully juxtaposed.
But what are the Beatitudes and what do they mean? At once well-known and yet strange; at once compelling and confusing; the Beatitudes concern the summum bonum, the highest good for our humanity. Yet, in the Common Prayer tradition, it may seem that we encounter them rather infrequently, liturgically speaking. The Beatitudes from St. Matthew are appointed to be read on The Feast of All Saints’ which despite its significance only rarely occurs on a Sunday; parts of The Sermon on the Mount including the Beatitudes are read at Evening Prayer on The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity in Year One; hence they are read every two years. It might seem that they are either overlooked or taken for granted, much like the Ten Commandments.
And yet, the Beatitudes are directed to be read in the Penitential Service for use on Ash Wednesday, “if there be no Communion” and an instruction to be given. They are, in other words, part of our Lenten pilgrimage and belong to our Christian vocation, our call to blessedness. It is altogether about what God seeks for us.
The Beatitudes are a necessary part of any consideration of Christian ethics. They challenge and compel as much as they confuse and even mystify. They seem to turn the world on its head. But, as G.K. Chesterton notes “it is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” To ponder the mystery of the Beatitudes is to stand on our feet and to think with Christ. It will challenge us.