ARE YOU BLESSED? Just asking that question can trigger a wide variety of responses. A quick google search of some headlines can illustrate what I mean: “Despite devastating loss after tornado, Pasadena neighbors say they’re blessed.” “[Basketball coach] on his 400th win says ‘I’ve been blessed.’” “[Professional athlete] blessed with baby girl.” “Florida derby champ says he is blessed with trio of runners in upcoming horse race.”
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the the FOURTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME – January 29, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
The awe and reverence obviously run on a scale of quite different extremes from someone who is thankful they survived a natural disaster as opposed to someone racing horses. But you get the sense people use the term “blessed,” to describe a sense of gratitude for things that are out of a person’s control.
We might have some Catholic guilt kick in that at the question “Are you blessed” instinctively makes us answer “Yes, of course, I am.” We want to answer correctly. And know on a particular level that there’s much to be grateful for. Things we take for granted or can forget to acknowledge over time. Yes – we’re blessed we can quickly answer. But I think this Gospel is meant to give us a moment to pause to think about what it really means to be “blessed?” How does Jesus define it?
If you’re like me, hearing the Beatitudes you quickly think of groups of those struggling in the world that Jesus identifies with. That He’s in solidarity with those who are poor, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted. And that’s what makes them blessed, that God has noticed them, that their predicaments are not punishments from God, that He draws near to them in their need. Which is very true. But that can leave the impression that if you’re not suffering you’re not blessed. Which can lead to all kinds of twisted misunderstandings and awful theology.
Instead, can we hear in this opening sentence to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount an invitation? That Jesus is calling us to be “Blessed?” I’m embarrassed that for most of my life, I never saw this as Jesus giving us a ladder to climb. The interconnectedness of these 8 beatitudes that make us citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven:
-The poor in spirit isn’t simply talking about physical poverty – but knowing they didn’t will themselves into being – that this breath that they breathe, this life that they live is a gift from God. They have no claim on God, there’s no entitlement, and they don’t deserve anything. But remarkably, God in His Goodness – He has created them. That He knows them. That He loves them. When they accept that truth, that is what makes them poor in spirit. They have nothing to offer.
– Those who mourn are those who after they’ve recognized that poverty in spirit mourn the ways and things they’ve used to numb, distract, and fool themselves from that reality. They’re mourning how often they’ve settled for being citizens of this broken world and pursued greatness here rather than living as heavenly citizens.
– The meek – humbly acknowledging that anything they have is by God’s grace. They can’t boast of themselves or their greatness recognizing that anything great they achieve ultimately the source is God.
– Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness maintain an awareness of their weaknesses as human beings, that even as they climb this ladder are still tempted by people, things, and broken desires, but choose to remain fixed on this call from Jesus, to reject those things and to keep climbing to not give into those things, but to keep climbing.
–Those who are merciful, can empathize with others who are struggling in their faith journeys. They know the temptation, they know the weakness of being a fellow human being, the struggle to make the right choices to follow Jesus and that makes us merciful.
– All of those steps begin to make one clean of heart. They start to see the fleeting nature of the things of this world and no longer feel an attachment to them
– Which makes being a peacemaker a logical step. They see the absurdity of the fights over the temporal goods, the lusts, and disordered passions that cause so much strife whether among nations or far closer to home.
– Ultimately after taking these steps, they find themselves as those persecuted for the sake of righteousness -where Jesus makes it clear that following Him, the world is going to hate it – hate you for doing it. Because following the way of God is counter-cultural, swimming upstream. And when you’re doing that, it is at first annoying to those who aren’t and inevitably an obstacle because you’re not cooperating with the goals, and desires, of the powers of the earth.
The more I sat with this and reflected on it, the more eye-opening it was. Jesus isn’t simply identifying groups of people who are “blessed” but calling us to desire being blessed ourselves. That it is accessible to every one of us right here where we are. That it is meant for every one of us to use as a point of reflection on whether we are truly blessed in the eyes of Jesus, and whether we are pursuing life as a citizen of Heaven that He lays out. The last few years especially that’s been a personal challenge.
– I have fears. I know my inadequacies, my faults, and my failures. I can overthink them. Which can lead me to believe lies about myself: I’m not as smart as that priest; I’m not as holy as that nun; I’m not as eloquent or creative as that guy; I’m not as talented or popular or liked as that person… and on and on. None of those thoughts made me a better person and definitely didn’t make me a better disciple or priest. Instead, it simply caused distress and anxiety and undermined what God had/is/wants to do. When I can silence that. Stop comparisons with others. Try to be clear that I want to honor the Lord. Follow Him. Serve Him. Love Him… it is then that I start climbing this ladder, that Jesus has given us recognizing I’m “poor in spirit.”
– This makes me embarrassed about all the times I’ve tried to do things my own way, maniacally focusing on controlling things. Wasting time obsessing in my quest for perfection. Letting my pride and ego get in the way. But that’s not meant to simply wallow in. God calls me out of it, which is why I repent of that I mourn that – the Lord comforts me by offering me His forgiveness.
– When I can internalize those truths about myself and what God initiates, what He is doing then I can be comfortable in my own skin… which causes me to be meek because I realize I don’t have to promote myself or diminish others to feel noticed or important or worthy. I can rejoice in being God’s beloved son, being called to share in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
– Which leads to remembering holiness is not something I possess. We don’t graduate and get a holiness degree. My ordination day was not my being licensed in holiness. I have to continue to want to be holy. I have to constantly choose to pursue it. I need constant penance. I need to fast. So that I’m always mindful of the need to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
– And these steps call me to not forget how hard it was and is to follow Jesus in our time. Knowing how I’ve failed. Knowing how I’m tempted. Knowing how easy it is to fall for the lies of the devil and look for loopholes and justifications for any and everything. I can’t help but empathize with those going through the same things – which is why I try to explain to people that when they come to confession, that’s a humbling thing for me as a priest- to hear people’s journeys, knowing how hard life can be, this world can be, how seemingly easily we can fall into temptation and sin. I can’t help but hear and see myself in their struggles, empathize, and understand the need to be merciful.
– The more I’m mindful of each of these steps, the more things change my perception of everything. I never imagined it would be possible to say I was in the vicinity of Clean of heart – it always seemed something reserved for people like martyrs or the most innocent of individuals – like children who’ve become canonized Saints. But recognizing that “clean of heart” isn’t just reserved for those Saints. It’s more about not obsessing over what is fleeting, especially at the expense of what isn’t. I shared not too long ago that when I started to realize some of my former obsessions like in the past being a rabid New York Yankees fan that had a whole assortment of collectibles, gear and magazines and books, and all kinds of stuff. Not that those things are sinful, but when I felt myself more intentional and focused on pursuing Jesus and what really mattered, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by how much time and space those things had taken up in my life. I remember when the Yankees beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series, the excitement, the exuberance how fleeting that was… when the next day listening to sports radio and they were talking about who would return to the team, who might leave, whether they could repeat and win again next year. I remember yelling at the radio “stop already – how much time and energy it took to get to this and we’re already moving on to next year?” Then I remembered I hadn’t played a single game. Athletically I’m a mess so I couldn’t if I wanted to. So what was all this time and energy watching and following every game all season, what did it really mean in the grand scheme of life? That was when it started to stop mattering so much to the point that I can’t tell you who’s even on the team anymore.
– As silly an example as that was/is, I never really realized that when I would see fans from rival teams as “enemies.” I used to tell people how I would go on a ban of all things Boston from Spring Training through the end of the season – no Boston Market, no Boston Cream Pie Donuts, no Sam Adams beer. I wish I could say I was joking. But I would seriously reject those things. Not as a superstition – but that somehow I was punishing Boston by rejecting those things. Now I see how in a small way that attachments to things of this world can make us even “jokingly” treat others as enemies that it actually can make us embrace division and discord rather than being peacemakers who find our only true joy in God.
This brings us to the final point of – Being persecuted, we live in a culture and society that tries to mock even the suggestion of that for us as Christians. Someone pointed out that Wikipedia has this posting for “Christian persecution complex” which they define as the belief, attitude, or worldview that Christian values and Christians are being oppressed by social groups and governments…. they conveniently ignore that throughout the world more Christians are being persecuted and martyred right now simply for trying to go to Mass or a Bible study or even identifying as Christian than at any time in the 2,000-year history of our Church. Right here in the US, in the last 2 years close to 300 churches have been vandalized through arson, broken stained glass windows, decapitated statues, and satanic graffiti for just try sharing your Christian beliefs like saying that life begins at conception and that life should be cherished and protected; that God made humanity male and female – that there are only two genders – that marriage is between a man and a woman… or a whole host of other examples that will quickly get you “canceled” for daring to go against the mainstream narratives.
Jesus gives us this path to holiness. Calling each and every one of us to use the beatitudes as our guide out of the brokenness of our sinful world and experiencing the joy of living as citizens of heaven right now. It’s hard work. It’s something that we will continue to struggle with. But as we engage in that struggle, as we strive at each and every step of that ladder, the Saints who left their witness that it’s possible are praying for us and cheering us on… The Lord is pouring His Holy Spirit that gives us the graces we need to keep persevering, Jesus is there with us each and every step of the way, constantly reminding us that God is Our Father who loves us. He has loved us for all eternity. And wants us for all eternity with Him. And for us to focus on these truths as the only thing that matters. Are we blessed? Yes indeed.