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Today is the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost and the day on which many churches celebrate the Feast of All Saints. All Saints Day is a fixed date every year — November 1 — but can be moved to a nearby Sunday for communal celebration.
It is customary on All Saints Day for Christians to read and reflect on the Beatitudes. Found in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes are a poetic teaching, core to Jesus’ message, on what it means to live a blessed life.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
If you ask someone to describe people who are saintly, they probably wouldn’t respond (unless they were genuine church geeks) by quoting the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of blessings from the gospel of Matthew. Indeed, our “person-on-the-street” interview might result in some strange responses! Both of the words – “saint” and “blessing” – are awkward, vaguely confusing, and overly churchy in a culture increasingly distant from once-familiar heroes and stories.
“Saints,” of course, has developed negative connotations. Saints are killjoys and prudes, oddballs in the worst sense of the term, those who rejected all forms of worldly pleasure to find and know God. In some circles, the saints have made a bit of a comeback — their very oddness and imperfections seen as evidence of their humanity and relatability — but those circles are mostly countercultural niches (for the record, I like countercultural niches!).
But the word “saint” is sometimes reviled and often ignored in the flow of life in western societies. In the shadow of great, emptying cathedrals, I daresay we believe we’ve mostly outgrown the saints.
“Blessing” is neither reviled nor ignored. Contemporary people like blessing, talk about blessings, and celebrate blessings. We have pretty clear ideas of what makes a blessed life and have a new set of cultural Beatitudes:
Blessed are the rich, for they own the best stuff.
Blessed are the sexy and glamorous, for everyone desires them.
Blessed are the powerful, for they shall control the realms of the earth.
Blessed are those who get everything they ever wanted; they alone will be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are famous, when you are pursued and stalked by the paparazzi. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is eternal branding on Instagram and Twitter, for in the same way they chased and trolled the influencers and celebrities before you.
Money, beauty, power, achievement, and fame — we hold these things in esteem. If only we had them, or just one of them, we would be blessed. We identify “blessing” mostly with material things, personal prosperity, health, and consumer goods.
Celebrities, tech wizards, and even some politicians — those are the blessed. Perhaps, if you were looking at us from the outside, you’d think they were our saints.
But what are blessings in this ancient story from Matthew’s gospel? What did these words mean to those who first heard them so many centuries ago, uttered not by a prosperity preacher in an expensive suit or a wellness guru at a seminar, but by Jesus, son of the carpenter Joseph, the itinerant rabbi with a gift of healing and a knack for angering authorities?
The English noun “blessing” (that word we use with such cultural ease) means “gift from God” and is derived from the verb “to bless,” “to hallow, or to make holy.” Eventually, “bless” became associated with “bliss,” meaning merriment, happiness, and favor. Thus, “blessing” came to be used in two senses — as both a sacred gift and something that makes one happy.
The Greek word for “blessing” ascribed to Jesus in the Beatitudes is makarios, which means “happiness,” “privilege,” and “favor.” A few Bible translations actually replace “blessed” with “happy,” reading “Happy are the poor” and “Happy are the hungry.” To understand blessings as mere happiness (as we think about happiness), however, often results in a strange view of blessings: it seems to say poverty or starvation is a gift and we should be happy to have it.
Blessing is not just happiness, however, but privilege or favor. These alternate senses open a deeper, more theological, definition of blessing. In the Christian scriptures, the word specifically means God’s favor, often called “grace” or “abundance.” “Favored are the poor” or “Privileged are the poor” would be equally valid ways of making sense of makarios and as a translation of these verse.
The sense of the Beatitudes is not “If you are poor, God will bless you” (as a sort of consolation prize) or “If you do nice things for the poor, God will bless you.” Nor is it “Be happy for poverty.” Instead, “Blessed are the poor” could be read, “God privileges the poor.” If you are poor, you are favored by God. You experience divine privilege. God’s gifts are with you.
This would have shocked Jesus’s hearers on that day long ago. Blessing — favor — was beyond the reach of everyday people. The “blessed” in Greek actually became interchangeable with “the gods” and “the elite” and meant something like “those worthy of honor.” The ancient Greeks described their gods as makarios because they resided on Mount Olympus enjoying all the benefits of wealth, control, and power.
The word was also used to describe the rich, living free from the usual cares and worries of life. Thus, the “the blessed” were the big shots of the ancient world, the upper crust, those who lived above all the worries of normal existence. The poor, “the not blessed,” the losers, had to live with shame. Even back then, the blessed were the rich – the gods who walked among us – not the poor.
In the Roman Empire, the world in which the Beatitudes were first preached, people believed that the emperor was uniquely blessed and all blessings flowed through him — the one worthy of honor — to everyone else. The richer and more powerful you were, the more valor and virtue you possessed, the more blessed you were. Those blessings placed you close to the emperor at the top of the social hierarchy. From that position of privilege, you might bestow some your blessings (if you chose to) on those beneath you.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” he overturned this hierarchical pyramid of blessing. He preached that blessings were more than happiness. They are the goods of a subversive social vision — a “kingdom” where all are sated, freed from the burdens of grief, enjoying the full benefits of citizenship and community, and live in peace. God gives gifts to everyone. Gifts are not only for the few, but are wildly distributed for all. And the people we don’t typically see as blessed? The losers? God’s favor resides with them, the vulnerable and those at the bottom of society. In the kingdom, God privileges those whom the world scorns.
And that brings us back to saints — and sainthood. At the center of the Christian story — the very heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching — stand the blessings. These “beatitudes,” with their description of the blessed life, are the upside-down, topsy-turvy vision for each saint and for the community (have you ever noticed that the Beatitudes are plural?) of all the saints.
The Beatitudes are countercultural. They were then and they are now. Different cultures, wildly different audiences. Yet, they hold out the exact same hope: The big-shots of the world are not singularly blessed. You are, you who are citizens and journeyers of God’s commonwealth, those in the company of the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the grieving, the persecuted — all the saints.
who walked with us,
this is a prayer.
who have gone ahead,
this is a blessing.
who touched and tended us,
who lingered with us
while they lived,
this is a thanksgiving.
who journey still with us
in the shadows of awareness,
in the crevices of memory,
in the landscape of our dreams,
this is a benediction.
— Jan Richardson, please visit her website
you challenge the powers that rule this world
through the needy, the compassionate,
and those who are filled with longing.
Make us hunger and thirst to see right prevail,
and single-minded in seeking peace;
that we may see your face
and be satisfied in you.
— Janet Morley
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NOVEMBER GRATITUDE NUDGE
What blessings do you see today? Where is God’s favor — isn’t that a remarkable way to think about it? — showing up in your life or the life of your community?
A quote from Grateful for this Sunday: “Blessings and gratitude are intimately connected. . . What is the proper response to gifts? Gratitude. Blessing is an invitation to give thanks. In effect, thankfulness is the gateway to God’s justice.”
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK
January 12 -14, 2024
Our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy — and many in the The Cottage community have signed up to gather in person!
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
JOIN US THIS COMING JANUARY!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and my dear friend Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer (our “resident” Mary Magdalene guide!). Our special guest chaplain for the weekend will be the Rev. Winnie Varghese (St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta). And you’ll be treated to the amazing music of Ken Medema and Solveig Leithaug.
Please come and be with us in Georgia. SEATS ARE INCREASINGLY LIMITED and hotels are filling up!
Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.
A song for this Sunday. “A Gathering of Spirits” from friend of the Cottage, Carrie Newcomer.