The first was 'heureux' or happy - the word we usually translate 'blessed'. Blessed has a much more 'religious' feel to it. Quite possibly it better translates the Greek μακάριος and the French might also use the word 'beni' for that. Yet the French word 'hereux' is much more straightforward. This is what it is to be happy. Now human beings are always seeking after happiness. Preferably a quick fix of happiness. Hence the popularity of self-help programs and even lotto. We live in a culture and era where it is often assumed that happiness is about wealth, success, strength and stability. In the face of such key indicators of happiness Jesus's suggested list of the happy presents a challenge. Jesus says that the happy include the poor, the sad, the downtrodden, and the persecuted. We might question who would choose to live in such a way, let alone count themselves blessed to do so...
Which brings me to the second word that struck me in the French translation of this text. It was the word 'pleurent' meaning crying. In English we use the word 'mourn', with all its obvious connotations of loss. Again the French is more raw and direct. Jesus is saying that we are happy when we are crying. Now that's very hard to take on board. Of course there are moments when we weep with joy. But on the whole tears are not always received gladly. When a baby starts to cry, we look for ways to comfort them. And indeed Jesus is promising comfort and consolation. But when we are crying, whether for joy or sorrow, we are no longer in control. The harder edges of our ego have softened. We are in a place of vulnerability and weakness, and this is when God can take God's rightful place in our lives.
A place of tears is a place of openness in which transformation is possible. The popular philosopher Alain de Botton in his work 'The Architecture of Happiness' recognises this even in the appreciation of architecture, when he writes, 'it is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.' If that is true of buildings, how much more so our relationships with others and the life of the spirit! Our sadness is an indicator of an open heart, a heart open to compassion, a heart that is open to life and to sharing life with others.
Reliance on God and openness to the other, even when that causes us pain, are key indicators of what it is to be truly happy. They sum up what it is to live into the spirit of this central teaching of Jesus. So we might like to think about these in relation to our own experience. What blessings have come out of a time of crying and sadness? What have we learned from the times when we had to let go of control? I am sure that we would all have stories to tell about times when our sorrow has led us into a place of deeper trust and greater compassion and maybe we can share some of those over tea today.
For myself I would say that one of the great gifts in such times is the gift of hope. The hope that this will not last forever; that change will come. For the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, as we reflected last week, times were tough. They were enduring many hardships as a result of Roman occupation and must often have questioned what God was up to, allowing the people of God to suffer so much.
Jesus proclaims in this teaching a message of hope. Yes, things are bad, but we are happy because we are reliant on God who will liberate us. Yes things are bad, but we are happy because we are able to weep with one another and support each other as we seek to change the situation. Yes things are bad, but we are happy because a time will come when things are overturned and the little and the least will inherit the earth. And in the meanwhile we will move forward in hope, relying on God, unafraid to be vulnerable and not in control, knowing that this is the best indicator of true happiness. In the name of Christ who shared our tears and transforms our world. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Epiphany 4, Year A, Sunday 29 January 2016