One of my great loves both in the form of a hobby and also in our Catholic culture is natural photography and art, particularly sacred art. The reason I am drawn to it is simple: beauty.
I enjoy taking pictures of beautiful things — a sunrise, a newborn child of a friend, a fresh snowfall untouched by footprints or car tracks, or a unique flower, plant, bird or my hyper-spastic black-furred Pomeranian puppy, Otto! I also always try to get a picture of a newly married couple after I’ve finished their wedding. Sometime I might just take a “family photo” as a form of a memory just like you often do at Christmas or other special times.
All of these are “beautiful.” As once said by a great author, “the world will be saved by beauty.”
The “Beatitudes” [Matt 5:1-12] begin with the words “Blessed are.” They are like Christian art. They are, lived out, most beautiful. Something that is beautiful attracts our attention. It stands out; it is different from normal. We are transfixed by it. When the Beatitudes, the first of Christ’s teachings in the “Sermon on the Mount,” were given, they “stood out” – they were different, and we find them beautiful, though we may not understand them fully at first glance.
The great theologian and author Hans Urs Von Balthasar says that, like beautiful art, the Beatitudes are like a self-portrait of Christ:
“He begins his ministry of proclamation with a self-portrait that invites his listeners to follow him” [from his book, “Light of the Word.”] When we see the Beatitudes in action – which when we really contemplate it, are at striking odds with what the world would consider “happiness” – we mysteriously and beautifully see God. We see Jesus! The Beatitudes are an image of Christ himself. Put another way, in very modern, current language: the Beatitudes are like “God’s selfie.” When you take a “selfie,” smiling, with your I-phone camera, you send it to a friend or someone, or you post it on your Facebook, it shows everyone your beautiful face!
So, if Jesus is the “face of God the Father,” then the Beatitudes are – today, right now, in 2017 – like the selfie of Jesus! They show us the face of Christ present to the poor in spirit, who must rely on God and his grace in every matter of life; through meekness and mercy, shown through being humble, and giving forgiveness to those who have wronged us; through purity of heart, a right, pure intention, and a courageous chastity within a culture that constantly provides challenge and temptations; through making peace in the midst of a division and conflict; through a mourning, a grief over the death of someone you loved; through a hunger and thirst for that which is right, that is particularly seen in active social justice and standing up for what is right (I particularly think of the March for Life just a few days ago, which had a much more “satisfied, victorious” tone this year); and last but not least, in the willingness to be persecuted and suffer at times for identifying oneself as a Christian, as a Catholic.
These qualities, characteristics are not the first things that come to mind when the average person thinks of happiness or beauty – but seen through the lens of faith in Christ, that looks toward a life beyond this one, it is precisely so. It is indeed beautiful. Like any piece of art, it takes time to complete, and the painting, the sculpture, becomes more beautiful as it is completed. This is what God does with us if we choose to live the Beatitudes – and the beauty is shared to those around us.
As you know, the common translation of “blessed” is “happy.” What is important to know is that the Greek word for “blessedness” and “happiness” is not so much an emotion or feeling the way we often use it: it is rather to describe someone in a fortunate, even advantageous situation. For as one recent biblical commentary notes “in Jewish tradition beatitudes either commended those who take a certain path of life, or promised future consolation to those in affliction and suffering.”
What if, when we find ourselves in material or spiritual poverty or perhaps weak in spirit, in a time of great grief and mourning, or risking the loss of a friendship, professional or family honor through the attempt of being a peacemaker or because of a burning thirst for righteousness: what if we then remembered: fortunate are you? Advantageous are you: indeed, blessed are you?
With a little grace, God can help us to see that our challenges, struggles and obstacles are actually real fortunes, true blessings. What an advantage we truly have.