I love it when our gospel reading leads us to a paradigm shift, inviting us to look at old concepts and old realities with new eyes. For example, we all understand what a blessing is, don’t we? We bless ourselves; we bless our food. The priest blesses us and our religious articles by making the sign of the cross or laying-on his hands. We offer bread and wine and say, “Blessed be God forever.” That bread and wine are blessed and given back to us as the Body and Blood of Christ. Our liturgy concludes with a blessing. We bless and are blessed nearly every day. So, imagine how I felt when I was reviewing today’s gospel and I realized that, no, I’m not at all clear about what a blessing is. Are you? Really?
What I discovered was that the Scriptures speak of blessing as the conferral of life. According to its usage, a blessing confers the power to grow, thrive, prosper, be fruitful, and multiply. At its core, a blessing is the gift of life bestowed on creation by God, and God alone. Human beings cannot, strictly speaking, bless. All we can do is pray…and we pray that God will bestow the blessings of life on the people and things that are important to us. Calling down a blessing upon anyone or anything is a prayer to God to transform whatever is blessed into something life-sustaining. And God always answers that plea for life from those who have any kind of relationship with him.
As I said, human beings are incapable of creating the blessings of life, they can only pray for God to do so…with one exception. Jesus himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Eternal life is gifted to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He is God’s blessing given to us. That’s why we use the sign of the cross in our prayers for blessing. As we unite ourselves in faith with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we receive and transmit the gift of the Spirit which is life. As we, the Church, are the sacrament of Christ in the world, we, too, are blessing. We, too, give, promote, and sustain spiritual life. We’re meant to be the answer to the world’s prayer for life. As we are members of the Body of Christ, we, too come “that they may have life and have it to the full” [John 10:10].
How do we do that? How do we live our vocation to be God’s blessing of life in the world? Matthew tells us of the criteria that Jesus himself gave.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says. Who are these people? They are God’s little ones, the עֲנָוִים (anawim), those without wealth, power, or prestige. They are the survivors, the ones who don’t give up in the face of insurmountable odds. Despite all they may lack, somehow, by the grace of God, they live on. The reign of God breaks through into our world through such as these.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” he says. Who are these people? These are they who are lacking the satisfactions and consolations that come from a rich, full, life. Their consolation is knowing that they share in a rich relationship with God who not only knows and understands their emptiness and loneliness but also shares in it. The cross of Christ tells us that we worship a God who hurts when we hurt.
“Blessed are the meek,” he says. Who are these people? These are they who don’t need to get their own way by self-assertion. When Jesus said they’d “inherit the land,” he was referring to the promise that God made to Abraham. In other words, the meek are to be heirs of God’s promise—God’s blessing. We can’t buy God’s blessing or eternal life, nor can we win it by persuasiveness. Instead, we receive it as our inheritance because we’re willing to unite ourselves with the cross of Christ.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he says. Who are these people? These are they who put their relationship with God first. Righteousness is so much more than simply acting justly and morally. In the Scriptures, righteousness means having a right relationship with God. It means saying, with all meekness and humility, “I can’t; God can; I think I’ll let him.” Righteousness means a commitment to growing our conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation. The satisfaction we receive for our hunger and thirst for righteousness is knowing not only that God can, but that he will, and he does.
“Blessed are the merciful,” he says. Who are these people? These are they who show compassion to all living things. Life energy is blocked by such things as hatred, anger, vengeance, envy, and jealousy. Only limitless compassion and forgiveness can open those channels and keep them open. The mercy that flows to the merciful is nothing less than God’s divine Spirit of life itself.
“Blessed are the clean of heart,” he says. Who are these people? These are they whose thoughts, words, and deeds are not consumed with worthless distractions and pursuits. They’re not wishy-washy, running off in all different directions, consumed by concerns that don’t matter. For those whose hearts are fixed on love of God and neighbor, they will see the living God. In other words, they will become ever-mindful of living in God’s loving presence.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says. Who are these people? These are they whose thoughts and actions are focused on building relationships. They strive to bring divergent perspectives together, to facilitate communication, to create connections, and to break down walls and barriers. They will be called children of God because, as reconcilers, they have made themselves channels of life and love.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” he says. Who are these people? These are they whose hunger and thirst for a personal relationship with God cause confusion and reactions from others. The blessed—the life-givers—play by a different set of rules. They cause others to confront their prejudices and biases. Their way of life itself gives the lie to the way the world thinks and behaves.
What is the way of the world? It’s the way that honors wealth, power, and prestige; that demands pleasure and self-satisfaction over the needs of others; that requires self-aggrandizement and self-promotion; that sees spiritual life as optional at best and worthless at worst; that insists on punishment for wrongdoing and vengeance for injury; that rewards dilettantes and the frantic pursuit of the new and different; that equates might with right and values winning over everything else and the ends over the means; and that is ready to give up anything—even spiritual life—rather than risk disapproval. The way of the world chooses death over life.
“Blessed are you,” Jesus says. Eternal life be with you. The Lord be with you. That is our blessing. And our response? “Blessed be God forever.” We return God’s blessing to him as our sacrifice of praise. The gift of life that the Father poured out upon us in and through his Son, Jesus, we return to him in thanksgiving. This is our blessing. This is our offering. This is our eucharist.