What does Jesus mean? If we fail to ask what he meant by "blessed" then it's so easy to insert our own cultural meanings into this word. Yesterday, I received a copy of a new book by Intervarsity Press entitled Sermons on the Beatitudes by Gregory of Nyssa. This is a great paraphrase of the insights of one of the Church Fathers that helped to set the agenda for what we call Trinitarian Orthodoxy. (For previous post in this series on the beatitudes, click here.)
In it we read, "I understand blessedness to be a state of unconditional happiness and contentment. Sometimes it is easier to learn the meaning of something by comparing it with its opposite, and such is the case with the meaning of blessedness. The opposite of blessedness is extreme unhappiness, which is the undesirable experience of anguish that is the result of unbearable misery. The attitude of a person experiencing blessedness is significantly different from that of the person experiencing misery" (24).
With this clearly set before me, I've re-read the beatitudes slowly so that I don't assume that I know what I'm reading because I've heard them so many times. The thing that stands out to me is the paradox of Jesus' teaching. I can get my mind around the blessings that Moses pronounces in Deut. 28, which opens with:
"If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God ...
Then the text proceeds with a long list of things that would naturally make anyone happy, content and experience of state of blessedness. I get those kind of blessings.
But Jesus' list of blessings is full of paradox, the combination of two things that do not logically go with each other. Think about it:
- Content, happy and joyful are the poor in Spirit, that is those who are broken and have released a sense of superiority and pride.
- Content, happy and joyful are those who mourn, that is those who feel the pain of this world.
- Content, happy and joyful are the meek, those who don't force their way.
- Content, happy and joyful are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
This is the reason that the beatitudes are about discipleship, they are about receiving a different way of life from God. During this time of Advent, I reflect on the words of Elizabeth to Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! ... And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord!" (Luke 1:43-45)
Elizabeth saw the paradoxical mystery of the blessing of Mary, a mystery that almost everyone else was missing because Mary would have been labeled an outcast. Even her own parents would have assumed that she was an adulterer. No one in her hometown would have called Mary "Blessed." She probably cried herself to sleep many nights because of what people were saying about her. God's most significant miracle was clothed in paradox and a young teenage girl received that blessing that few would have understood.
Will we receive the mysterious ways that God wants to work in us? Even if it means that the blessings of God will come to us in a form that most do not describe as "blessed"? Will we embrace the paradox of Jesus and be shaped by him?