This Gospel text is generally known as the Beatitudes – from the Latin word for Blessed. It may sound familiar; besides being often quoted, this is also the third time in a year that we’ve had it in the lectionary. We had the version from the Gospel of Luke last All Saints, 364 days ago, and we read Matthew’s version back in January when we were reading our way through the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.
Nevertheless, thanks to a commentary on this passage at the Salt Project website, I do have a new thought to share.
The Salt commentary points out that people have a tendency to try and turn this passage into instructions. Christians want to be blessed and here’s a list, direct from Jesus, of people who are blessed. So these must be our marching orders!
But these are not instructions. Grammatically, these sentences are indicative, not imperative. Jesus isn’t telling people that they should go get themselves persecuted, or find cause to mourn.
While aspiring to be a peacemaker, or to become more pure in heart, may be worthwhile, and while elsewhere Jesus does offer teachings about how we should live, that’s just not what’s happening here.
Rather, Jesus’ words here are revealing a truth that is counter to many peoples’ assumptions, past and present. The Salt commentary says, “Looking around the world, then and now, it’s easy to conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, strong, satisfied, ruthless, deceptive, aggressive, safe, and well-liked — and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly ‘blessed’ are actually the poor, mourning, gentle, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled… This way of beginning [his sermon] rejects at the outset the idea that what’s most important about God’s blessing is how to get it and keep it. On the contrary, for Jesus, the most important thing about divine blessing is that it’s already graciously given; indeed, it’s already all over the place, just not where we might … expect it to be.”
The famous repeated word in this Gospel passage, “Blessed,” can be translated equally well as “happy” or “fortunate.” And that overlap in meanings itself points to the idea that anyone who seems fortunate, who has things really going for them, must be particularly blessed and favored by the Powers That Be.
In every generation there are people and movements who rediscover and proclaim the idea that those whom God truly loves will inevitably be healthy, wealthy, and happy.
But there’s just no Scriptural basis for that idea. That’s never been the deal.
Spiritual writer Annie Dillard put it this way in her book For the Time Being: “You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials.”
What this means, among other things, is that suffering – and bearing witness to suffering, which is itself a kind of suffering – is just part of life.
If, as Jesus tells the crowd in the Gospel today, God’s blessedness particularly enfolds us when we grieve, when we struggle and yearn and shout, then there is no reason to think that belonging to God – being beloved of God – will somehow opt us out of the common human catastrophe in its many forms.
Blessed and beloved, we will struggle. We will ache. We will grieve and rage.
In our Revelation text today, John of Patmos gazes in wonder at the white-robed throng before the throne of God, and learns that these are those “who have come out of the great ordeal…”
John probably had a particular great ordeal in mind – likely the persecution of Christians in his time. But there have been so many great ordeals.
Those touched by the many ordeals of human history indeed make up “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
But. But belonging to God does matter. Somehow. Even if it doesn’t make us ordeal-proof. Even if we cannot opt out of the welter of colliding materials.
The first letter of John says, boldly and tenderly: We are God’s children now.
There is growth and becoming – what we will be has not yet been revealed – but: Belonging, blessedness, belovedness, are already given. We are already a people claimed and called. Held in holy love. Blessed to be a blessing.
I think I say this every year at All Saints but it bears repeating: We are used to hearing “saint” used for extraordinary people, people with stories of miracles or martyrdoms or great acts of courage or faithfulness or self-denial to their name.
But the early churches called all their members saints. People burdened by sorrow or beaten down by the daily struggle. People who never have enough. People who can’t reconcile themselves to the world as it is. The hungry, the lonely, the strange. Happy. Fortunate. Blessed. Beloved.
What does that word mean, anyway?
I know that going to etymology, word origins, is a frowned-upon tactic in freshman composition classes. But I sometimes find it really interesting to dig into the deep roots of a word, to find its nearest relations and see what that cluster of meanings might suggest.
Saint is a particularly annoying word to investigate. It comes, straightforwardly enough, from the Latin word sanctus. As in, sanctify, or the title for the thing we say or sing in the Eucharist that begins, Holy, holy, holy.
But the definition for both those words is just, more or less, sacred. Which has the same root word if you go back another language or two. And as you go further and further back in root words and origins, everything just means sacred or holy. It’s the proverbial turtles all the way down.
I think the frustrating circularity here does say something about the sacred: it’s hard to capture or define in words. We know it when we come close to it, but it’s hard to do more, within the limits of human language, than say: That. That’s sacred. That’s holy.
But I chased the etymology of saint and sacred a little further – with the help of my well-informed friend Google – to the Proto Indo-European root of this cluster of words. People who study language have figured out some possible very deep, very old roots of many of our European and Asian languages.
The likely Proto Indo-European root word here is sehk. And that root word has some other branches, which can help us think about what defines the sacred. One branch is, To seek. As in, to look persistently for something that might be hard to find.
Another branch is, Sacrifice. Giving or offering up something of value, something important to you – not in a transaction or a trade, but perhaps as an expression of gratitude, or loyalty, or in the hopes of strengthening a relationship by showing how much it matters to you.
Another branch on that word tree is, To make a treaty or a pact. To make an arrangement between two people or groups to be at peace, or to share resources or territory; or even to become one new thing, together.
So: Maybe the sacred is that which we seek.
Maybe the sacred is that to which we feel called to offer something.
Maybe the sacred is what we are missing, when we feel adrift, alone or disconnected. That with which we long to reconnect or reconcile.
A saint, then, is a person who has some kind of relationship with the sacred, the Holy – with that Other that we can’t easily name or describe. A relationship that might include seeking; offering; reconciling and belonging.
This is fuzzy and undefined – but that’s kind of what I like about it, because that’s how it feels to me, a lot of the time.
It resonates with my lived experience of sainthood, of striving to live my daily life as a person who belongs to God.
A person of faith, where by “faith” I do not mean a coherent and theologically sophisticated and unquestioning conviction of the divinity of Jesus Christ, but something more like the thread in William Stafford’s poem, The Way It is.
Listen: William Stafford’s “The Way It Is” –
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
I don’t know much about this poet. I don’t know what the thread was, for him. But I know that this simple poem captures something, for me, of what it feels like to choose and follow faith.
To be particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God.
To be a saint, even though I wrestle with that word.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt and die; nothing we do can stop time’s unfolding.
But that thread of relationship with the Holy runs through it all – that relationship that has something of seeking and something of giving and something of returning and belonging.
Today we observe the feast of All Saints. We honor saints widely known and named, the ones with miracles and martyrdoms and great acts of courage and faith. We remember with love our beloved dead, the faithful departed and the not-so-faithful departed too, who have gone on ahead. And – I hope – we know ourselves, and one another, to be blessed. Known and loved. Called and claimed. Saints.
Let us now continue with the lighting of candles on our saint altar. If you are so moved, you are welcome to come forward and light a candle in memory of someone you love and miss. Take your time; we will take as long as we need.
Salt Project commentary (accessed October 31, 2023):