Advent begins this week, and we will spend time preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. As such, I will provide a four-week series reflecting on how the beatitudes help us to become more childlike and receptive to the coming of the Word of God as a child himself. These reflections draw inspiration from Heart of the Gospel: How the Beatitudes Show Us God’s Plan for Happiness, by Sebastian Walshe, O. Praem.
I will briefly explain the beatitudes in general before expounding on the first two specifically. The word beatitude — the same in Latin and English — means happiness. The human heart was created for a profound, all-inclusive happiness that can only find its origin in God (cf. CCC #1718). The beatitudes might seem counter-intuitive at first, but they are the heart of our Lord’s teaching and serve as a formula for achieving happiness. Jesus then punctuates each beatitude with a promised blessing to accompany it (cf. CCC #1716). This happiness transcends superficial emotion and satisfies the very longings in our hearts. It is happiness experienced in the present life while simultaneously anticipating the happiness of eternal life in heaven.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 5:3
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? A man who is poor in the worldly sense is a man who is not preoccupied with vacations, luxury cars, or vacation homes. Instead, he directs all of his concern to providing for his basic needs and sometimes his very survival. Similarly, a man who is poor in spirit directs all of his attention to providing for his basic spiritual needs through prayer, sacrifice, and sacraments. As the poverty of his spirit demands that he focus on spiritual necessities, he will find no space in his heart to love fleeting things.
Along with a poor spirit, comes an utter dependence on God to provide for all of one’s needs, both spiritual and temporal. To be poor in spirit causes a childlike humility that also illuminates profound spiritual maturity. To be aware of your littleness and helplessness in relation to God is to understand who God is and how everything you have is a gift from his love and care for you. This childlike abandonment produces a sense of freedom, knowing that you do not have to worry because you trust your Father will take care of everything.
The reward attached to being poor in spirit is the promise of Heaven. The significance is that God is a king, and Heaven is his kingdom. When you are poor in spirit, you have no time to concern yourself with frivolous preoccupations; you rely on your heavenly Father to provide for your needs, which he does abundantly. Far more significant than any worldly possession, achievement, or satisfaction — your inheritance is an entire kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. It seems to me to be a relatively small sacrifice to embrace spiritual poverty for the short time I have here on earth, when my promised inheritance is an eternal kingdom, unparalleled when compared to anything available here.
Now, consider this beatitude in relation to Jesus. As a baby and child, the God-man himself was utterly dependent on his parents to care for all of his needs. Throughout his ministry as an adult, he was never particularly concerned with worldly things. Whenever he spoke, performed miracles, or engaged with anyone, it was purely for the greater spiritual needs of others to lead them to the promised kingdom. Finally, his spiritual poverty culminated on the cross, when he was so poor that he could not even be concerned with feelings of pain and humiliation because his concern was meeting the basic need of sacrificing himself to reconcile man to God through the forgiveness of sins.
Similarly, Mary and Joseph exhibited spiritual poverty when Joseph fled with his family to Egypt to save Jesus’ life in response to a dream. The family abandoned everything they owned and every relationship they had to escape to a foreign land, trusting that God would provide what was necessary, which he did.
Can you deepen your spiritual poverty? Can you let go of worldly concerns, trusting that your heavenly Father will take care of everything to the point of not even considering any pain and humiliation that may accompany your complete abandonment? The reward of Heaven is so much greater than any of the physical and emotional comforts found here.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” -Matthew 5:4
This is a beatitude that seems more counter-intuitive than others. If the beatitudes are a formula for achieving happiness, how does mourning fit in? The Greek word used by Matthew for mourning is penthountes, which specifically refers to the sorrow experienced when someone has died. However, mourning someone who has died is a natural reaction and hardly a goal for which we ought to strive, so there must be a deeper meaning to this death. The ultimate death is the death of our souls inflicted on us by the effects of our sins. Blessed are we who mourn from witnessing the sin in our world, our families, and the pain and suffering we experience from our own personal sin. Blessed are we who repent of our sins and weep from the sorrow in our hearts for being attached to the sins that wound our souls and our relationship with God. Blessed are we who mourn Jesus, who was put to death by our sins.
The promise we receive for our mourning is that we will be comforted. Mourning implies love. When we mourn someone from whom we’ve been separated, most consolations we receive fall short. The only perfect consolation we could receive is to be reunited with the one we love. Fortunately for us, that is precisely the consolation we will receive, to have our souls reunited with God in a relationship that had been killed by sin. Once we’ve experienced the deep sorrow of sin, we can put our old selves to death to become new in Jesus Christ (cf. Col 3:5). As the letter of James puts it:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:8-10)
Think of Jesus and Mary, themselves free and blameless of any sin, who yet voluntarily took on suffering and mourning for ours. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said of Jesus and Mary, “Jesus died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.” Often, it takes loss to bring to light the depths of the love we had. Our sin causes afflictions to our relationship with God, resulting in significant spiritual loss. While we cannot receive the consolation of reunification with our lost loved ones in this life, we can be reunited with God when we mourn for our sin and seek reconciliation with him. This Advent, experience this mourning for what it is and seek his consolation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that you are prepared to receive him fully into your heart this Christmas.
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