A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Beatitudes: Peace and Joy in believing.

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14). I saw a huge number, impossible to count, of peoples from all nations, race, tribe and language. The Apocalypse of John belongs to a form, a genre, of writing alien to us, but familiar to Judaism and the early Christian Church. It can use very powerful imagery which needs interpretation and application to become meaningful to our day. John in the preceding passages has been speaking of the judgment of God to be brought on sinful humanity. The followers of Christ are to be spared. Angels are represented as being agents of God’s anger. In a first vision the visionary John hears an angelic voice saying that the servants of the Lord are to have a seal put on their foreheads, a sign that would mark them out and have them saved when the destroying angel would come. In this first vision he hears the number of those thus sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand from all the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve thousand from each tribe. These probably represent Jewish Christians, not all Jews but a remnant from each tribe.

            After hearing this great number, he next has a vision of a huge number impossible to count from the entire world, from every nation, race, tribe and language standing in heaven before the throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus who was slain and has risen again. They are represented as innocent, dressed in white robes and with palms, the signs of victory, in their hands. They have been victorious, not a military victory but a survival in persecution. The victory has not been theirs but of God and of the Lamb, and this they proclaim aloud. The heavenly throne is surrounded by angels. John in this work also notes that there were twenty-four elders there, possibly as a sort of heavenly divine council. The angels and the elders proclaim glory and thanksgiving due to God. One of the elders explains to John the identity of those dressed in white and the significance of their clothes. They have come through the great persecution and been saved by the blood of the Lamb.

            John is comforting a Christian community suffering persecution or threatened by it. His message is that believers in Christ will be victorious. His words in the first instance were for the Church of his own day, but they hold for all ages, and can profitably be reflected on at the feast of All Saints, when the Church directs our thoughts on the glory of those from all races and ages now in glory with Christ, even if the persecution they underwent was that of their faithfulness to Christ’s teaching, and their cleansing themselves of sin through the merits of Christ.

Responsorial Psalm (23[24]:1-6). Such are the people who seek your face, O Lord.

Second Reading (1 John 3:1-3). We shall see God as he really is.This reading contains themes repeatedly made in this First Letter of John, and also in the Gospel of John. The “world” in question in this literature are those who consciously reject the message of Jesus, and are enemies of it. The Christian community, as this letter and tradition puts it before us, is a body of believers confirmed in their Christian belief by the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. Their Christian instruction and this firm conviction assure them that they are not only called children of God but so they really are, a belief and a conviction that cannot be shared by outsiders, be they designated as “the world” or any other name. The gift of faith already gives a knowledge of God; through faith, even in this life, Jesus can be “seen” as risen Lord and Son of God. All look forward to a day beyond this mortal life when believers see God as he really is. The brief reading ends with a reflection to be drawn from awareness of the great dignity of Christians, and their hope and conviction to see God or Christ as he really is. The hope to see Christ as he really is should inspire believers to aim to live already in a Christlike manner, to be pure, holy, sinless as Christ himself.

Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12). Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. In today’s Gospel reading we have the Beatitudes, in Matthew’s Gospel version. A beatitude is a declaration of blessing. The Beatitudes are the opening section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the charter for the people of Jesus’ new age and kingdom. The Beatitudes re-echo Israel’s ardent desire expressed over the centuries for the advent of the promised salvation. They speak to Jesus’ first followers on the joy to accompany the arrival of this great day; they have continued to speak as addressed to them personally to individuals and communities down the centuries and continue to do so today, and will do so in ages to come. The Beatitudes employ some terms that are rich in meaning, arising from their use in the history of Israel’s expectation, but terms still rich in meaning for any later generation. The poet-prophet in Isaiah 61:1 says that the Spirit of the Lord God has anointed him to bring good tidings to the anawim, a Hebrew word variously rendered as “the poor”, the afflicted, the oppressed, and to comfort those who mourn in Zion. At Nazareth Jesus solemnly proclaimed that in him these words were fulfilled (Luke 4:16-21). Fulfilment was intended by God to be greeted by joy. This was the message of the angels at Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-11). Jesus himself rejoiced in the Holy Spirit that the expectation of ages had come to fulfilment in him, and thanked his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for this, reminding his disciples privately how blessed, happy, fortunate, they were: “Blessed are your eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.” (Luke 10:21-24; Matthew 13:16-17).

            This background helps us understand the message of the Beatitudes better. The opening one declares blessed, happy, the poor. The term “poor” recalls the prophecy fulfilled by Jesus to bring the good news to the poor, to the afflicted, the oppressed. The term is not limited to social condition. To avoid such an understanding Matthew adds “in spirit”. The poor in spirit have a relation to God and his saving presence. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom for long awaited, but to be made present by Jesus. The designation has all the rich meaning it will have in Jesus’ preaching and work. The second Beatitude, about the gentle possessing the earth (or the land), is proper to Matthew, not found in Luke’s version. It says more or less the same as the first one. Jesus himself declares himself gentle (Matthew 11:29) and lowly in heart. The psalmist (Psalm 36[37]:8-9) advises a troubled believer to refrain from anger and forsake wrath; those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land. “The meek shall inherit the land” (Psalm 36[37]:11). For the Jewish mind and soul the land would refer to the land of Israel, but it may have a connotation of “the Land of Promise” yet to come, the same as the kingdom of God in a New Testament setting. Those who mourn would recall the Old Testament prophecy, mourning for the sad state of God’s people, for unfulfilled prophecies, but mourn for many other matters besides. The hunger and thirst for what is right (righteousness) probably refers to right behaviour in good works. That the merciful will have mercy shown to them by God is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel. “Purity of heart” is central to Jesus’ teaching. The heart is understood as what is most central to the person, and the root of all human activity. It can be referred to later (Matthew 6:22) by Jesus as “the eye”: “If your eye is healthy your whole body is full of light”; if not it will be full of darkness. Purity of heart means inner devotion to God and to what is right, “simplicity of heart” with all absence of duplicity. The pure of heart are said to see God (in the future). No one can see God in this life, but through faith and a pure heart believers can see his presence in creation and in his Son Jesus. Peacemakers are declared happy and children of God. Jesus will lay great stress on peacemaking through forgiveness and reconciliation, and he is himself the great Peacemaker, between Jew and gentile. The Beatitudes end with two items on the blessedness of those being persecuted for the cause of right, for Jesus’ sake. This persecution will be presented by Jesus as a link between the new age with Jesus himself and the age of preparation in the Prophets

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Beatitudes: Peace and Joy in believing.

Reflection: All Saints. A Great cloud of witnesses. Irish tradition and, indeed Christian belief, has been and is very conscious of the union of the saints in heaven and the faithful on earth, of the communion of saints. The feast of All Saints is celebrated on 1 November, which in Irish tradition is the feast of Samhain, a celebration in Ireland going back to pagan times. It was an occasion when mortals were believed to have contact with those in the other world, and had, and has, many superstitions connected with it. This belief was shared by European nations beyond Ireland. On this feast the Church invites us to recall that earth and the living are united with the other world and our departed through the communion of saints. On this feast we honour that innumerable multitude of believers who are now united with God, Christ, Mary and the angels in heaven, not just the canonized saints but all those who died in God’s grace. Since Christian belief and devotion tell us that we can pray to them, and that they can intercede for us, we can rest assured that they, our departed loved ones, are united with us and that we can pray to them for favours.

Dialogue: Beatitudes: Peace and Joy in believing. In Ireland today, as in many parts of the old world, there is a lack of peace and joy with regard to faith and the Church. In Ireland some observers, while noting the fact, are of the opinion that this is not evidence of a loss of faith, but possibly a manifestation of a new-found autonomy, freedom of spirit from what is regarded as the domination of an authoritarian Church, that dictated how they should think and act on many matters, personal and otherwise.

            This analysis of the present situation, and of the dominance of the Church in earlier times, may well be exact. The Church, and all believers within it, need to remedy matters if this is so. It may be some consolation, and a matter of encouragement, that the problem is an old one. The apostle Paul had to confront a similar situation with the Corinthian Church in his own day (about AD 57, six years after he had founded the church there). They were on bad terms with him, and in the course of a letter to them (2 Corinthians 1:24) he expresses himself on these words: “I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith”. This, too, today must be the concern of the Church with regard to the faithful: not lording it over their faith but working with them for their joy in the faith. Paul’s own letters, as the Gospels, are replete with prayers for peace and joy in believing, for instance to the Romans (15:13): “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace”.

            Peace and joy in believing are gifts of the Holy Spirit, to be prayed for. In the human soul they are connected with belief in the religion of Christ as the pearl of great price, and union with God here and hereafter as the one thing necessary. They can, and must, co-exist with the limitations of an institutional Church, and the preaching of the full saving message of Christ in new and changing circumstances. The Beatitudes are divine blessings from God, connected with the kingdom of heaven. But they do not exclude problems, even persecution. Let us pray that real or presumed weaknesses and failing within the Church do not take from the perception of Christian vision, and the person of Christ, which bring with them the peace and joy in believing.

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