by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important.” 1 Corinthians 1, 26-31
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God…” Matthew 5,1-12
The Latin word for soil is humus, and it has found its way directly into English with no change to its spelling. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humus as “the organic component of soil, formed from dead and dying leaves and other plant material”. Humus is treasured by gardeners because it is rich in nutrients. Humility, believe it or not, comes from the very same Latin root. Like good, soft crumbly humus, humility is what we all need to allow ourselves to be broken open in order to take in and absorb the seeds of lived experience, so that they can grow into wisdom for ourselves and for sharing with others.
Humility is the culture needed by all of us if we are to grow into the eight guides for living which Jesus outlined in what we now call the Beatitudes. These guides for life introduce chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel, which, taken together, make up the Sermon on the Mount. The teachings of Jesus brought together by Matthew in this section of his Gospel describe how people of faith would live if they accepted a world order guided by God. If we human beings opened ourselves to be guided by the wisdom of God, we would care for one another and treat each other with respect and dignity; we would genuinely console one another in times of grief and upset; we would care for the earth, conscious that it had been entrusted to us; we would be satisfied with what we needed rather than always wanting more; we would make mercy number one priority; we would know that we were dear to God and live as though God were dear to us. If we were to really live according to those standards, the lives of all those commonly categorised as losers – the lowly, the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, victims of persecution, and those busy trying to broker peace – would be lifted up and transformed simply because all those around them would be guided by the things of God.
Hope that such a world is possible emanates from the way in which Jesus lived his life and actually practiced what he preached. But that hope will never be realised if we, the people of God, the Church are not poor and lowly ourselves, working, with sleeves rolled up and hands dirty, among the truly poor and lowly. A cosy, self-satisfied church will never convince anyone that God really wants to transform them regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Above all else, the beatitudes offer us a new way of seeing, a new way of looking on our world and the people who make it up. The great Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin once said that his mission as a Christian thinker and writer was to help people to see. In similar vein, Harold Kushner, the eminent Jewish Rabbi and writer in his book Who Needs God? stated: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a difference.” (Harold S. Kushner, Who Needs God?, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1989 p.21)
Robert Barron, former professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary, Chicago and now Auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles expressed a similar thought in his book And Now I See…A Theology of Transformation (Herder & Herder, NY 1998, p.1): “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in the world, has a distinctive aspect and flavour. What unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of the cathedral of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth.” Barron proceeded to note that Origen of Alexandria, more than 1800 years before, had noted that “Christianity is seeing with the eyes of Christ.”
Putting the beatitudes into practice demands first that we see our world as Jesus saw it, and then we act on what we see. It is not by coincidence that the gospel reading for All Saints Day is the same as the gospel we have for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The point, of course, is that holiness is essentially seeing and acting in harmony with the beatitudes, seeing and acting with the eyes and heart of Jesus. That’s what turns ordinary people into saints.
In his book The Word In and Out of Season, retired priest Bill Bausch tells the story of Sister Cleophas who, after a life-time teaching maths in the classroom spent her days collecting left-over bread from bakeries and distributing it to the needy. Finally, illness meant that she could no longer do even that. One day, as she was slowly making her way to the chapel, she was passed by a young sister whom she greeted with a broad smile and a “good morning”. The young sister retraced her steps and said: “Sister Cleophas, I want you to know how much your smile means to me.” Without the slightest hint of self-pity, Sr Cleophas replied: “My smile is all I have left to give.”
If we truly value life as God’s gift to us, we will live it generously as a gift meant to be given to and for others. The life we each have is pure gift from God, given graciously and freely, never earned. The “blessed” of today’s gospel respond to God’s love the best way they can – by sharing it unstintingly with everyone they encounter.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Australian bushfires were at their most intense, a family stood by helplessly watching their home disappear in the flames. A pizza delivery van pulled up behind them and a young man jumped out with a basket of cool drinks and several pizzas. The father of the family, at the end of his tether greeted the young man sharply: “Look, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong address. Clearly, none of us ordered pizza, and besides, my wallet’s in that kitchen, going up in flames.” “Sorry”, replied the pizza man, “I just saw you all standing there and I had to do something. Look, it might help if you have something to eat and drink. There’s no charge.” With that, he handed them the food and drink, got back in the van and drove off.
The sequel to today’s gospel can be found in chapter 25 of Matthew: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” And the king will answer: Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25, 37-40).