The weekend was embraced by death. Funerals on both Friday and Monday focused my faith and expanded my sense of hope. Amid tears of grief emerged smiles of joy, creating a contradictory emotional experience. But such is the nature of human life, which is often filled with paradoxes defying easy explanation. Crying and laughing in the same situation might provide a paradoxical truth allowing for some sense of stability in the midst of the polarities of sorrow and joy. It was Dr. Seuss, the quirky children’s author, who was quoted as saying, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” In both funerals tears freely intermingled with smiles and the shadows of incongruity soon melted into a resolution of appreciation for the life of the dead persons. No doubt about it, everyone present seemed most appreciative that the lives of these two women had happened.
Both Barbara, age 64, and Pearl, age 93 were childless, but both of the funerals were filled with children by extension. Generations of nieces and nephews reminisced with tears of joy and sorrow along with other relatives and friends. Both Barbara and Pearl were compassionate, intelligent, and spunky women who provided open hearths and homes to countless relatives and friends. Lovers of knowledge, puzzles and card games both women had ready answers and advice for those who asked. Both loved to laugh but did not suffer fools easily. Barbara found comfort in her left-brain by solving impossible puzzles and knowing all the answers on Jeopardy. She was skeptical of simplistic theologies. Pearl was a shrewd card shark, a connoisseur of White Castles and loved to crochet animals to give away to children. Both of their lives brought tears with their deaths, but also smiles because their lives had been so intimately shared with others. At Barbara’s funeral I shared a snippet of a poem by Maya Angelou who had said, “I’d call a place pure paradise where families are loyal, and strangers are nice.” At Pearl’s funeral, I quoted e.e. cummings’ insight into aging, “Life, who never grows old, is always beautiful and that nobody beautiful ever hurries.” Young or old, neither Barbara nor Pearl seemed to be in hurry and clearly found life, even in final illnesses, to be beautiful.
Searching for the extraordinary gift of life, even in the face of death, becomes a challenge for all of us. In between the two funerals, The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time came and went offering consolation and fear to millions of Christians who attended mass and listened to Jesus once again warn us, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” How many times have we heard this phrase and actually believed it? Welcomed into the Kingdom, both Barbara and Pearl can easily believe Jesus’ invitation to rest in peace. But on-going questions remains for all of us who seek a place in this Kingdom: “How do we prepare ourselves to take seriously this admonition? Just how many funerals do we have to attend to understand that Kingdom of God is really at hand?”
As one friend of mine was fond of saying, “No one gets out of this life alive.” Admittedly he was a funeral director and had a lot to gain in death, but his insight remains true. While we do not know the day or the hour of our own entrance into the Kingdom, Jesus does provide us with some workable criteria for organizing our lives and preparing us for the Kingdom. The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time lays the requirements on the line and, once again, Jesus becomes our teacher and guide.
Describing in very concrete images how the Kingdom will be ours, Jesus portrays the life of a disciple by accentuating the “happy qualities” acceptable to God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure of heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake; and blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you on my account.” These nine blessings are concluded with the promise, “Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in the Kingdom of heaven.” Jesus counsels his disciples that this reward in heaven is the direct result of their willingness to develop attitudes reflective of these nine blessings and to put them into action despite persecution. It is the faith of the individual that preserves a lasting relationship with God, but it is in the cultivation of an attitude of beatitudes where the teachings of Jesus become identifiable marks of those who will enter the Kingdom of God.
The longer version of the Beatitudes (The Sermon on the Mount) is found in the gospel of Matthew (5:1-12) and is a call to communal happiness. By becoming proactive in guarding against those conditions that threaten the blessedness of the community, Jesus uses the third person (“Blessed/happy are those who”) to illustrate that His teachings are for the whole community and must reflect a willingness to live the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes an invitation to challenge greed and the hoarding of resources creating pathetic poverty situations resulting from perceived scarcity. “Blessed are they who mourn” becomes an invitation to comfort those overwhelmed by grief, assuring them of the Kingdom to come and the security of the community. “Blessed are the merciful” reflects a willingness to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies and to forgive. “Blessed are the peacemakers” credits a life of non-violence in the face of war. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” demands an insistence upon justice in a world filled with indifference, inequity and lawlessness. “Blessed are the pure of heart” implies an intolerance of the exploitation of the traditional “widows and orphans” of our times, providing safety nets for those who are vulnerable. And “Blessed are the meek” demands that disciples of Jesus renounce the corrupting need for personal power and self-aggrandizement.
Seeking a hope filled future is not opting for a premature place in the Kingdom of God; rather, living the Beatitudes must generate an attitude of working tirelessly for the Kingdom of God on this earth. Transforming our Church, society, communities and our world begins with the transformation of us. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” does demand perseverance and patience on our part, even in the face of great danger. Discovering happiness is not an illusion nor found only in a distant Kingdom. Rather the real challenge of the Sermon on the Mount is to take seriously what Jesus said and to bring this Good News down from the mountain into the world in which we live.
In a world in which happiness is within our grasp, blessed are those who take seriously the Beatitudes of Jesus. As the family and friends of Barbara and Pearl gathered, I could only hope, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they would be comforted.” Believing in the words of Jesus allows us to cry in the midst of our grief, as well to smile because we know what has been promised to those who have worked diligently in the Kingdom at hand and truly believed in the Kingdom to come.
Peace, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.