“The pursuit of God,” observed St. Augustine, “is the desire of beatitude; the attainment of God is beatitude.” It is obvious that “beatitude” is significant, but what is it?
“Beatitude” is derived from the Latin word meaning “supreme blessedness,” which comes from the Greek word meaning “blessed” or “happy.” The word “happy” can be misleading, unfortunately, because it is so often used today to describe an emotional state. But the blessedness referred to in the beatitudes is far removed from emotional responses. This blessedness and happiness is joyful, for it flows from the life of God and is, in fact, the great gift of divine life. In addition, it refers to a path or promise that leads to rest and consolation, especially for those who are distressed.
Having begun his public ministry, Jesus “went up on the mountain,” an act meant to call to mind Moses going up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Law (see Ex 19-24). In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), which is introduced by the beatitudes, Jesus established himself as the new Moses, the giver of new commandments and new law, and the great prophet promised to Moses and the people during the Exodus (see Dt 18:18).
The sermon is a blueprint for the kingdom of God, and the beatitudes express the essential qualities and dispositions of Jesus’ disciples. They represent, write Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri in their commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Baker Academic, $21.99), “a reversal of values, turning the world’s standards for happiness upside down. ... Jesus thus challenges his followers to see life from God’s viewpoint, not the world’s.”
The beatitudes draw deeply from the Old Testament, especially from the Psalms and Wisdom literature, which contains 45 beatitudes, usually introduced with the preface, “Blessed is the one ...” The first psalm, for example, opens with such a statement: “Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked ... Rather, the law of the Lord is their joy” (Ps 1:1-2). These passages usually depict blessings in temporal, material terms: land, health and so forth. But the Eight Beatitudes uttered by Jesus “begin to be experienced in this life and will be fully realized in the heavenly kingdom,” Mitch and Sri point out.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This poverty is not material, but is the absence of pride; it is a profound humility rooted in an awareness of our complete dependence on God. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” is both a warning and a consolation. It warns against seeking solace in our feeling alone, but also consoles those who are mournful, offering assurance that no suffering can sever us from God’s love. “Blessed are the meek…” for the meek, far from being timid, are gentle and patient, especially in the face of provocation and injustice; Jesus Christ is the exemplar of holy meekness.
Blessed are they, declared Jesus further, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
“The beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1717). They form a rich self-portrait of the King, who invites all men to enter into the Kingdom, and thus into divine life and eternal blessedness.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.