Yet Jesus says they are blessed, these folk who are poor and hungry and weeping; these are the blessed ones. Notice that he does not say that poverty, hunger and sorrow are blessed. Just the people who suffer in these ways. How so? What is it about these people’s situation that makes them particularly fortunate? What is it about Cyprian’s experience of persecution and martyrdom that makes us account him among the blessed saints?
Maybe it helps if we think about why Jesus does not offer blessing to those to whom our world offers its blessing, the rich, the intelligent, the beautiful, the talented, or even those of more average ability. Can you imagine him saying ‘you are blessed if you come from a good stable, loving family. I can promise you a life of equilibrium and fulfilment.’? No one would have followed him, for we recognise that even though we may sometimes wish for such things, they will never ultimately be enough. In the end, the ability to be blessed, has to do with knowing that these outer things have no ultimate meaning; being blessed means being unaffected by the outer circumstances of our lives, because at depth we recognise that these are temporary and that in the end there is more.
The German theologian Schleiermacher identified ‘absolute dependence’ as the most necessary quality for growth in faith. So long as we believe that we have things under control, that we can choose to do things our way, we are not admitting our reliance on God. Sometimes it takes a disaster, a hurricane or earthquake whether physical or emotional, to help us realise that in the end we are not the architects of our lives. God and God alone has the final say.
This does not mean that we have no choices. Cyprian chose initially to run away from persecution, believing that God needed him to pastor his flock from afar and encourage them. Later, Cyprian experienced being despised and rejected by both the then wings of his church, both those who wished to expel utterly those who had made sacrifices to pagan gods and those who wanted to accept these lapsed Christians back with a minimum of repentance. Having forged a wise pathway between these extremes, he found himself at the mercy of the Roman demand for the death of all Christian leaders and embraced his own martyrdom gladly, even removing his own clothing and blindfolding himself before being killed.
The capacity no longer to care what others do to us or say about us can come from a few places. It can come from desperation and despair. It can come from zealotry and a total blindness to the possibility of other forms of truth. Some martyrs of all faiths come from both these places. But the true martyr is the one who like Cyprian, in their dying, witnesses to love and the unity of all creation in Christ. Such a one, Jesus rightly called blessed. Amen.
by Penny Jones, St Cyprian's day, Wednesday 13 September 2017, St Francis College Brisbane