In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the radical moral vision of Christianity. Quite striking is the way in which he begins this explanation. He does not commence his sermon with an abstract exposition of morality. Nor does he offer a basic description of the initial stages of the spiritual life. Instead, he begins at the end, describing the eight characteristics of the truly happy Christian. These eight characteristics are knowns as the beatitudes. In this way, Jesus orders the whole of the moral life toward happiness.
It is easy to see the beatitudes as praising mere misfortune, as if poverty and persecution lead directly to happiness. But this is not the case. The beatitudes are in fact an expression of perfection. They are grouped in three categories: the first three concern the flight from sin, the next two the active life, and the last three the contemplative life.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, who are not slaves to material goods. Blessed are those who mourn, knowing the emptiness of transitory goods and the gravity of sin. Blessed are the meek, who, knowing that we are all children of God, do not trouble themselves with petty disputes. The Christian is thus freed from sin.
When sin is subjected, the happy Christian is able to seek the good in his action. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness—not those with simply a natural indignation at injustice, but a true thirst for righteousness. At the same time, blessed are the merciful. This union of justice and mercy mirrors the union of these attributes in God. This divine harmony avoids the all-too-human excesses of both ungoverned indignation and inert well-wishing.
With his action in harmony with the divine ideal, the Christian rises to the contemplative life. Blessed are the clean of heart, whose hearts are not troubled by worldly corruption but have room for God alone. Blessed are the peacemakers who, seeing the beauty of God’s providential plan and possessing the peace that follows therefrom, are able to pass that peace on to others. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Since God is enough, even suffering is no obstacle to happiness.
Jesus thus sketches here, in a few brief statements, the portrait of the happy Christian. The Christian moral life is not about following a list of rules; rather, it is about detaching oneself from sin, seeking the good, and, as much as possible in this life, possessing God himself. This perfection was so great that the suffering of the martyrs was nothing compared to the happiness which they attained. This is a happiness which God still wishes to bestow upon all of us.
Image: Antonio da Correggio, Martyrdom of Four Saints.