Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
In the Gospel reading today we are told that large crowds came to Jesus to hear his extraordinary message. Surely they were also attracted by his ability to heal people and to drive out demons. Some perhaps wanted healing for themselves or for a loved one. Others may have come out of curiosity to see someone healed and to marvel at this extraordinary man who could do things that are impossible for ordinary people.
But, of course, with Jesus along with his healings you also get his teaching. And his teaching is as remarkable as his healing. After a while we come to realise that actually the teaching is far more important than the healing.
If you think about it, a healing directly affects only one person even if it has a very profound effect on them. It also has a significant impact on their family for the obvious reason of their natural sympathy for the one who is afflicted, but also perhaps because it may well restore a breadwinner to them.
But teaching is something else entirely; it can affect generation after generation and there is almost no end to the good it can do. Look at us, two thousand years after the event and here we are gathered around an altar discussing the implications of the teaching of Jesus given on a hillside two thousand years ago. We can only imagine the amount of hope and comfort that these teachings of Jesus have had on countless generations since they were first spoken.
I do not want to dismiss the powerful effect of the healings Jesus performed but only wish to emphasise the far greater effect on humanity of his teaching. And there is no segment of his teaching which has had greater effect than the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, which is set before us today.
First of all we should notice that it is in the form of poetry. This is not a piece of straightforward prose; no, it is a poem. And there is no literary form that has had a greater impact on mankind than poetry because poetry speaks to the soul; poetry finds far more profound resonance in our hearts than any other kind of literature.
The way these few verses are constructed are unmistakably written in a poetic way with their repeated emphasis at the beginning of each line on those who are happy and then giving us the reason for their particular joy. The choice of each of these groups of people: the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn and so on also has deep poetic resonances.
It is important to understand that in Hebrew poetry it is not words which rhyme but ideas. If you look at these verses of the Beatitudes in this way you will see that the poor in spirit are equated with the gentle and we easily see how these are related.
As we go on there is another parallelism between those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You might not think these two concepts are immediately related but in the Hebrew understanding mourning is often what the prophets do as they consider the situation of the people who are experiencing oppression of one kind or another. The prophets mourn because the people are subject to unfairness and exploitation. Here we see that the mourning refers not just to those who have lost a loved one but to the whole nation that has lost its innocence.
The parallelisms continue with mercy being equated with purity of heart, something we can easily understand. The same goes for the peacemakers and their equivalence with those who are persecuted. It is obvious to us that peacefulness within society is a pre-requisite before people can be released from unjust oppression by others.
We can see immediately that the Beatitudes are not merely platitudes, and we begin to have an appreciation of the profound religious and literary depths that they tap into. I am no scholar of Hebrew but it is obvious to me that there is an awful lot more to the Beatitudes than just a series of trite phrases spoken to placate a crowd standing on a hillside in Palestine.
It is a remarkable fact that millions of people, including ourselves, have come to appreciate the beauty of these sublime words which came from the lips of Jesus on that blessed day when he started to expound his teaching to the people gathered on the hillside in Galilee.
More puzzling though is the last verse which is very startling compared to what has gone before. ‘Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad because your reward will be great in heaven.’
This moves the object of Jesus words away from nameless poor and mourning people directly on to us who wish to be called the disciples of Jesus. Suddenly his words move from the abstract to the particular; they swiftly become deeply personal. No longer are they directly outwardly at someone else but now directly concern ourselves. And the message is not good.
Suddenly it is we who are in the frame, we immediately realise it is us who will be persecuted and abused and hated and defamed. And we are told that these things will happen if we choose to follow the Lord. It is as if Jesus is placing this warning right at the beginning of this extended discourse so that we can make a choice as to whether we wish to engage with him or not.
We know from the Acts of the Apostles and from the history books that what Jesus said has proved to be true. Not just in the early centuries of the Christian era which saw gruesome persecution by the Romans but actually right down to the present day. All the way down the centuries there have been constant attacks against Christians because of their faith.
Christians might not be facing overt persecution in Britain today but there are a lot of examples of covert persecution. Just try speaking up for the faith in the workplace or in the media and you will discover just how virulent anti-Christian feeling is in this country. There are lots of examples of people being reprimanded at work for wearing a crucifix or for offering to pray for others. And we can think of bizarre examples such as the bakers who were recently dragged through the courts for not putting gay propaganda as the icing on a cake.
We need to be alert to these signs of anti-Christian prejudice and help to defend those who are disadvantaged as a result. We need to stand up for our faith in the public realm and not allow it to be denigrated by the media. The persecution is there but to be a disciple of Christ means standing up to it and actively resisting its insidious growth in this world of ours.
The Beatitudes are beautiful poetry, they give meaning and purpose to the lives of countless people; but Jesus is reminding us that they do not reside in a meek and mild world of religious sentimentality. No, the Beatitudes are bold and robust and if we actively espouse them then we invite attack and persecution.
So let us be a bit bolder about how we go about expressing our Christian faith, let us become more active, let us speak up for Christ. And if doing these things brings hardship upon us then so be it.
St Joseph's Catholic Church
191 High Road
18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
09.30 (Family Mass)
11.00 (Solemn Mass)
12.30 (With Hymns)
Weekdays: 07.30 & 10.00
Confessions: Saturday 10.30-11.00 & 19.00-19.30
St Joseph's Catholic Church
T: 020 8427 1955
Saturday: 18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
Sunday: 08.15, 09.30 (Family Mass), 11.00 (Solemn Mass), 12.30, 18.00
Weekdays: 07.30, 10.00 - additional mass every first Friday at 19.00
Saturday: 11.00 & 19.00-19.30
First Friday: 18.00-18.45
EXPOSITION & BENEDICTION
First Friday: 18.00-18-45