All Saints Sunday
All Saints (Observed).22 “Beatific” Matt. 5:1-12
Who are the saints? What’re they like? Jesus answers these questions for us in his famous Beatitudes. The words are so familiar, so often quoted, so often cited by various authorities for various causes, that I wonder if we can even hear them in anything like their original sense? I have often been guilty, myself, of being swept along by the popular take on the “Sermon on the Mount” and though I’ve preached easily over 100 sermons on this text, familiarity has bred contempt and then indifference in me, sometimes…
But, when a text has been so over-used and, by overuse, become so worn-out for you that it barely even registers, well then: you assign it to the vicar so you don’t have to think about it—but then you remember you can’t because you already did that last week with the texts for the Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation, and since the specialness of vicar preaching is, as is well known, lost by having it more than once a month (like donut Sunday) you have to tackle it and say something about it yourself, like it or not.
And, at this point, when a text has become so thoroughly exhausted from overuse that it becomes almost a meaningless jumble of words, you can sometimes, as happened with me this week, see it absolutely new and fresh. Like the dead being raised to life, it becomes a new creation for you and speaks with something of the power it surely had for those on that mountain in Galilee, ca. 27 AD, who heard it first…
The Greek word μακαριος repeated 9 times in 9 verses in our reading this morning is commonly translated in English as “blessed”. It journeyed through Latin, in renaissance English turned into “beatified”. Scholars and theologians and those who like the old liturgies’ sonorous tones prefer “beatified” over “sainted” or “sanctified”—and way better than the thoroughly worn-out “blessed”. “Have a blessed day!” has surely destroyed that word for generations of thoughtful literary-eared types in our age. It’s ruined it for me. I can barely say “blessed” and would happily translate as the NRSV does with “happy”. Because “Happy Gilmore” keeps the word “happy” ever fresh and joyful for me.
When I read this text silently, in my head I hear μακαριος morph into “beatific” (hey; there has to be some silver lining for years of studying Greek and Latin) and the text comes to life, raised from the dead like Jesus at Easter dawn.
And suddenly: I’m transported to a mountain near the sea of Galilee (shockingly lovely) like Camus’ beloved Tipasa ruins, with a bunch of nomad mountain men and women in gnarly clothes, battered sandals, reclining in the grass on their backpacks, like 1st century Jack Kerouac beatniks, rapt attention focused on the guy from the Deesis Christos Pantocrator mosaic from Hagia Sophia gloriously come to life in full color (I always knew that’s exactly what Jesus looks like!), talking with us, with just barest hint of a smile curling up a corner of his mouth. Is that a whiff of irony I detect in the Master’s voice? Is he messing with us, just a little bit? And while you thought he’d be taller, seeing him live-in-concert, you realize Jesus is truly beyond all expectations of glory and beauty and delight…
He goes: “Beatified are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” and the words just flow like the best poetry, great because it seems effortless, artless, simple, yet exalted. Fresh as the morning sun on a mountain beside the sea.
The words are so beautiful, his voice so mellifluous, you’re mesmerized. So, you hardly realize how strange and shocking the content is. “Beatified” is the word the catholic church still uses for the saints. Jack Kerouac (a crazy catholic himself) rescued the word from its Roman bureaucratic overtones by cutting it down to the first syllable, “Beat” and exegeting that in his classic novel “On the Road”. Beat, for Jack, is, first of all: beat-down, beat-up because we won’t march to the tune society is piping. We won’t move to the suburbs, (trade dangerous Durham for boring old Cary!) get a good job in tech, do whatever the social media platforms tell us, work from home, get our shots, vote for Congress, embrace globalized late modern capitalist materialism and be anesthetized by Netflix into a vacuous conformity.
Thus were Neal and Jack—Beat, like this, back in the late 40’s. So were their rag-tag bunch of beatnik pals. I think the saints of old were pretty Beat—and Jesus and Co. too. They were the original Beat Generation. Homeless, friendless, outcasts. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. Beat-up by totalitarian states that punished nonconformity in the harshest possible way: (see Jesus on the cross…!). Sure glad stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore—glad our government wouldn’t shut down all regular public worship for years in order to keep us safe from a real bad cold, or cancel those who defied their orders…
Anyway, “beat”—as in beat-up and beat-down—is the first word in beatified. And when you realize that it is this for many in our day, you realize it was exactly so for our Lord and his disciples. “There is no holiness without suffering” Cordelia Flyte says to Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited” which we’ve been reading on Wed. evenings (will read at least once more this Wed. if you want to join us) “and there is so much suffering coming for us all. It is the spring of love,” Cordelia says, and rightly…(!)
Beatified are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Beatific are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Beatific are the genteel, for they shall inherit the earth. Beatific are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…”
See what Jesus did there? He’s turned the whole definition of holiness on its ear, with Cordelia. No holiness without suffering. No beatification without taking a good beating, first. The saints aren’t the ones who are filled with holiness, and peace, and luuuv. No! Real beatniks have—by suffering and cross and the love of Jesus—been emptied, as he emptied himself when he came to earth and was born in a stable and lived as an itinerant ex-carpenter rabbi preaching life through the death of his cross.
The beatific have nothing in themselves that makes them holy or righteous, happy or good, or beautiful. They’re empty—poor, mourning, meek (I like genteel better 😉 hungry and thirsty for a righteousness they do not find in their empty hearts—profoundly dissatisfied with the old world institutions’ skimpy provision of righteousness (even ecclesiastical institutions)—but seeing IT purely in Jesus, having IT only aspirationally, by the Spirit’s grace…
The last two beatitudes are the ones that really put the “Beat” in “beatific”, literally: “Beatific are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Beatific are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
There is so much suffering coming for those who love Jesus and his Kingdom more than this world’s health, wealth, and success. We’ve had the barest foretaste of what is coming, what will make us a truly Beat Generation if we cling to Christ and his Word more than the wisdom of this age.
But; “it is the spring of love…” There’s no holiness without suffering; and the word beauty is related to beatific too, you know.
Jesus provides it all now, for you, by Word, Sacrament. Since we can’t get to his mountain by the sea, ourselves, he brings it to us, here—brings old things back to life; he… beatifies. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.