Feasts of All Saints and All Souls
The text of the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel serves as the gospel for both All Saints and All Souls. This text is taken from Matthews’s Sermon on the Mount and presents to us the moral ideals that Jesus offers to all Christians. This text is appropriate for both feasts because the recognized saints are celebrated for having achieved these ideals, just as the faithful departed are hopefully also saints who have not yet been recognized.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes and in fact they strike the keynote for all that follows in the three entire chapters (5 to 7) of that Sermon. It is also true that the first Beatitude offers the key to the meaning of the seven remaining Beatitudes in Matthew’s account.
The decisive word in this first Beatitude is the word, “poor.” Its meaning is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “an afflicted one.” Originally, it was applied to those Jews of the immediate pre-Christian era who were economically and politically powerless but who continued to hope in God even though he seemed to have abandoned them. They were often poor in the economic sense but their more basic poverty was in the realm of power and control.
Jesus makes the daring statement that these downtrodden ones should in fact be declared blessed, i.e. fortunate. What could possibly justify such a radical and apparently nonsensical conclusion? Jesus certainly does not intend to bless powerlessness as such. However, he does affirm the blessedness of those who, because they are powerless, are saved from the fatal illusion that worldly power can in fact give us the truly important and lasting gifts, such as, love, happiness and life itself. Being delivered from that disastrous illusion, they are then free to turn to God, who is ready and willing to give them the Kingdom. Matthew specifies this as poverty “in spirit” because it is essentially an attitude of humility and trust in the goodness of God.
The ideal presented here must not be mistaken for a misguided passivity or timidity in the presence of the challenges of this life. Rather, it liberates us from self-centered and self-serving efforts, which will ultimately prove unproductive, so that we may be present to others in a loving, caring and helpful way. This is summed up neatly in the seemingly paradoxical but very true statement, “The only gift we can keep is the one we give away!!!” Or, in gospel language, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life” (Mark Chapter 8: verse 36)?
The remaining seven Beatitudes are really echoes of this primary one.
Those who “mourn” are those who have dared to become vulnerable, and to risk painful grieving, because they love. The “meek” have renounced power and violence as a means of acquiring happiness … and thus are surprised by happiness. Those who “hunger for justice” have a passion for the reforms that will enable everyone to live and dream. Those who are “merciful” renounce anger and vengeance as they offer forgiveness. The “pure of heart” are the sincere and truthful ones who reject all that is mere sham and pretense in life.
The “peacemakers” promote forgiveness and reconciliation as the only sure way to peace. And those who are “persecuted” are those who persevere in the pursuit of these ideals in spite of ridicule from those who seem to be wise and prudent. Thus, the Beatitudes represent a program for true holiness as illustrated in the lives of that great army of saints whom we honor today.
Father Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.