The National Catholic Review
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), Feb. 3, 2008
“Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3)
Hope is essential to human existence. We have personal hopesfor good health, success in our undertakings and happiness in our lives. We have communal hopesfor seasonable and tranquil weather, peace among nations and progress in human welfare (justice, education, medicine and so on). Some hopes may be only dreams and wishes, because there is not much we can do about them. In order for hope to be genuine, there must be some possibility that what we hope for may actually come to pass. And it helps if we can do something about it.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are among the most famous and beloved texts in the Bible. They serve as a preface or prologue for the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes list the kinds of persons whom Jesus declares to be blessed, happy and fortunate, and they tell us what such persons can hope for. They place before us what our goal as Christians can and should be and show us how to reach that goal. They tell us how our hopes can be fulfilled. With respect to the kingdom of heaven, the Beatitudes are both the entrance requirements and the promises of the blessings to be enjoyed there.

Each beatitude has two parts. The first part declares blessed or happy those who display certain attitudes or perform certain actions. These are the qualifications for entering the kingdom of heaven. The second part explains what rewards such persons may expect in the kingdom. Many of us so focus on the first part that we neglect the second part and thereby turn the beatitudes into ethical rules and ignore the hopes joined to them.

When we view the Beatitudes from the perspective of Christian hope, we might do well to reverse the order and look first at the second parts. What can we hope for? The list includes the kingdom of heaven, comfort and consolation, sharing in Gods reign, divine justice, divine mercy, seeing God, being children of God and perfect joy and happiness. All these hopes are different aspects of the same thing: fullness of life in Gods kingdom. In Christian hope, Jesus life, death and resurrection have turned our wildest dreams and wishes not only into possibilities but into realities.

The first part of each beatitude lists the qualities, characteristics and behaviors of those who really aspire to fullness of life in Gods kingdom. Such persons try to be poor in spirit, compassionate, meek, merciful, clean of heart and peacemakers; and they are willing even to be insulted and persecuted for their ideals and values. These values stand in opposition to what is often celebrated and glorified in our popular media today. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of persons we must strive to be if we ever hope to turn our dreams into realities.

This coming week we observe Ash Wednesday. Lent provides us an opportunity to reflect on what we hope for, what our values and virtues are and why we can hope for fullness of life with God (hint: it is through Jesus death and resurrection).

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass
Readings: Zep 2:3; 3:12-13; Ps 146:6-10; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12

• What do you hope for? Where does fullness of life with God stand on your list?

• Using the first parts of the Beatitudes as an examination of conscience, where do you stand at present?

• How might the Beatitudes serve as a good entry point for your observance of Lent?

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