To be a saint, to shine our light, is not about being especially good or holy. It is about being ourselves. And that’s not easy because we live in a culture that often encourages us to be someone else – to buy that car, wear that perfume or even donate to that charity. And while we know that none of that is true, the temptation to seek for happiness in the wrong places can be strong. Which is why the example of the great saints and the words of today’s gospel can help us along.
For today we heard read the opening of Jesus’s sermon on the mount, often called the Beatitudes. They are words worth printing on bright paper, cutting out and sticking up somewhere you will see them frequently. They are words to take to heart and learn by heart, for they help us to shine as a light in the world.
The Oxford English dictionary gives the meaning of Beatitude as ‘supreme blessedness or happiness’. Most versions of the Bible use the word ‘blessed’, some like the Good News offer ‘happy’. Yet as Philip Yancey wrote, ‘blessed is far too sedate a word to convey the percussive force Jesus intended. The Greek word conveys something like a short cry of joy, ‘Oh you lucky thing’! - ‘Oh you lucky thing – to be poor, mourning, hungry, persecuted – Mmm, feeling a dissonance here?
What perhaps helps is for us to remember that Jesus addressed these words to a peasant community, and that most of his followers were undergoing daily poverty and hunger, and often mourning. Hence, he was trying to tell them, ‘’you matter; you are important to God.’ You too can shine a light.
It also helps to realise that it is when we are in the place of the beatitudes that we are most easily enabled to be ourselves. The rich can afford to wear a mask. Those who hide from their griefs and those of the world can become disconnected from their being. But when we are true to ourselves – when poverty, or grief or persecution returns us to our essential being, well then indeed we are ‘lucky’. This is not – absolutely not – to suggest that God like some sadist in the sky sends bad things to make us good. What I think is meant is that in these circumstances (which can and do occur for all of us a, in some way at some time) we are given the chance to be most truly ourselves, if we are brave enough to take it. And when we do, then our light shines brightest. This is not a matter for the intellect, but rather for the heart. As the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it, ’by love they may be caught and held, but by thinking never’.
So, take the beatitudes home, stick them up somewhere where you will see them often. Commit them to memory and approach them with an open heart of love, praying that in their contemplation your living may be transformed and that you may become ever more yourself. For as Rowan Williams says “the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the word that gives each of them their distinctive identity.” And as ourselves, to shine our light to the glory of God, in the river of light that is the communion of saints. Amen.
Penny Jones for All Saints, 1 November 2020