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All Saints – Beatitudes

Halloween – A Vigil for All Saints

Today on the feast of All Saints many read what are called the Beatitudes. They are probably one of the most famous passages in the Bible. We don’t use the word beatitude much – it comes from the Latin beatus meaning happy or blissful. More of that in a moment.

As with other famous, regularly repeated parts of the Bible – it is easily misunderstood. The Monty Python team in their film which is 30 years old this year, The Life of Brian, plays up the misunderstanding of Jesus teaching.

Blessed are the Meek, which means humble, patient, submissive, gentle; Blessed are the Meek – in the Life of Brian (M: language) a listener mishears it as: Blessed is the Greek – apparently he’s going to inherit the earth. When they finally get what Jesus actually says, a woman says “Oh it’s the Meek…blessed are the Meek! That’s nice, I’m glad they’re getting something, ’cause they have a hell of a time.” This is soon followed by the political activist and terrorist leader, Reg, saying “What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.” This perfectly sums up the quickly growing annoyance of the violent with Jesus’ peaceful attitude.

Blessed are the peacemakers, is misunderstood in the Life of Brian as “Blessed are the cheesmakers” Gregory’s wife says, “what’s so special about the cheesemakers? To which Gregory replies: “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

So the teachings of Jesus are quickly misunderstood. Even from the moment Jesus first gives them. Yet that ought not to be the case – we have a lived example of the teachings. Jesus is the embodiment of his teachings. Jesus is meek, a peacemaker, merciful, persecuted for righteousness’ sake. All Saints is a celebration of all who are like Jesus – the living and the dead.

The Beatitudes read today is the start of one of five long sermons that Jesus gives in Matthew’s Gospel. The people in Jesus day looked back to five scrolls they attributed to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuternomy. So Matthew, in echoing these five scrolls in Jesus five sermons, reinforces the point he has already been making earlier in his Gospel, that Jesus is the new Moses. In Luke’s gospel Jesus gives this teaching on a plain, but Mathew wants to reinforce his point more. Just as Moses also goes up a mountain to receive a law; Jesus goes up a mountain to give a new law.

Jesus, Matthew says, sits down. We are used to teachers standing to teach – but that is relatively new. Traditionally a teacher would have sat to teach. Jesus disciples come to him. This is not, in Matthew, a message for the crowd – Jesus saw the crowd and left them going up the mountain. This is a message for Jesus’ close followers, for us his disciples.

Then the Greek text says three similar things: Jesus opened his mouth, he teaches them, he says.

We have left the crowd. We are privileged to be amongst his special disciples. He is clearly going to teach us authoritatively – and it is being reinforced we need to triply attend to what is going to be said.

But what Jesus says is shocking. The destitute, the sad, the meek, the merciful, and so on – these are blessed.

The Greek word is Makarios, translated here as blessed. Blessed is not a word we use a lot. It’s a very religious sounding word – and so it too easily flows over us. The Jerusalem Bible translated Makarios as “happy” – but that doesn’t really work does it: happy are the sad, happy are those who suffer, and so on. Yeah Right! So when they revised the Jerusalem Bible, the revision went back to “blessed” – Blessed are the merciful, and so on.

I recently found a translation for Makarios that I think fits much better without being the worn religious language we cannot hear any more. Makarios is “congratulations!”

As (in the Southern Hemisphere) students get close to exams and the congratulations inherent in our results, let us also remember the bigger picture of the examination that is our life:

Congratulations to the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Congratulations to those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Congratulations to the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Congratulations to the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Congratulations to the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Congratulations to the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Congratulations to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Congratulations to you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

God of the past,
on this feast of All Saints
we remember before you, with thanks,
the lives of those Christians who have gone before us:
the great leaders and thinkers,
those who have died for their faith,
those whose goodness transformed all they did;
Give us grace to follow their example and continue their work.

God of love
grant our prayer.

God of the present,
on this feast of All Saints
we remember before you
those who have more recently died,
giving thanks for their lives and example and for all that they have meant to us.
We pray for those who grieve
and for all who suffer throughout the world:
for the hungry, the sick, the victims of violence and persecution.

God of love
grant our prayer.

God of the future,
on this feast of All Saints
we remember before you the newest generation of your saints,
and pray for the future of the church
and for all who nurture and encourage faith.

God of love
grant our prayer.

We give you thanks
for the whole company of your saints
with whom in fellowship we join our prayers and praises
in the name of Jesus Christ
Amen.

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5 Responses to All Saints – Beatitudes

  1. I’ve been doing some reading on the concept of blessings and blessedness as part of PhD work I’m doing on the Lord’s Prayer, and I think a problem with translating ‘Blessed …’ as ‘Congratulations …’ is that it downplays or does away entirely with God’s role in the action. When you say, ‘Bless you’ to someone, you’re really saying ‘May God bless you’, and the blessing ricochets off the recipient and heads straight to God for His consideration. We’re not the ones able to perform the blessing, we’re just scouting people out and reporting back to God on whom he should take a closer look at. And a blessing is the mirror opposite of a curse (see Luke’s version of this sermon), a comparison that’s harder to make if you say ‘Congratulations’.

    • Thank you David for your comment.

      Although this post is clearly a simple, brief reflection rather than intending to be a doctoral thesis, might I respectfully disagree with your analysis.

      You appear to me to be viewing the biblical material through much later declaratory-blessing lenses. The biblical and early church concept of blessing is that we bless by blessing God. We bless by giving thanks. We preserve this tradition in the Eucharistic Prayer, in the blessing of water in baptism, in the marriage blessing, in the ordination prayer, and so on. The clarification is not unimportant, as the concept of blessing is more often than not misunderstood in current, often heated, debates about who or what might be blessed and how.

      Furthermore, in the Beatitudes Jesus is not merely “just scouting people out and reporting back to God on whom he should take a closer look at” – he is declaring God’s makarios. Far from “congratulations” “downplaying or doing away entirely with God’s role in the action,” my suggestion is God in Jesus congratulating. Your suggestion would have the possibility of God not accepting Jesus’ recommendation!

      Finally, other than in North America, English-speaking Roman Catholics at the All Saints Mass mostly heard the Jerusalem translation rendering makarios as “happy.” I am perfectly happy with “blessed” (NRSV, etc.) but very unhappy with “happy” which IMO certainly “does away entirely with God’s role in the action” – in fact there is no action in “happy”.

  2. And in fact, people who are persecuted generally are *not* happy; one would have to say something like “The persecuted ones *ought to be* happy.”

    What do you know about the etymology of “makarios”? What words is it related to in Greek? What are its ancestors? That often helps me in understanding how to translate a word.

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