In Charles Dickens’s famous tale A Christmas Carol, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley, and is then shown three ghostly scenes from the past, present and future. This experience brings about Scrooge’s transformation from an utterly stingy person who has no compassion for his fellow human beings into a man who awakes on Christmas morning full of hope that the dire scenes he has witnessed can yet be changed. His acts of benevolence to the family of his employee Bob Cratchit and his own reconnection with his nephew’s family fill him with joy and good will toward all.
How do we find fulfillment and joy when the effects of sin and strife have marred the past and when hunger, poverty, devastation of the planet, ongoing wars and terrorism point to a bleak future? In today’s Gospel Jesus sums up in eight statements a way of life that brings true happiness and blessing already in the present, along with the promise of fullness of joy in days to come. There is nothing terribly new in this teaching. The prophets and wisdom teachers before Jesus spoke in a similar manner (e.g., Prv 3:13; 28:14; Sir 25:7-9; Is 30:18; 32:20). Each statement of the beatitudes begins makarioi hoi, “Blessed [or happy] are those who....” Each is in the third person plural, indicating communal action and relationship. The first thing the beatitudes tell us, then, is that living them is not an individual pursuit.
The beatitudes name the ways in which peoples’ happiness is threatened: grinding poverty (ptochos, in verse 3, denotes “beggar,” one who is destitute), grief, landlessness, hunger, war and persecution. Jesus does not advise that those so afflicted simply wait for a reversal of fortune in the hereafter, though the final verse does speak of great reward in heaven.
Jesus also counsels attitudes and actions that will bring about the reign of God, already tasted in the present. To be poor in spirit is not to accept poverty as an inevitable state of life but rather to find one’s wealth in God, to trust in God’s care for the poor (Ex 22:25-27; Is 61:1) and to seek righteousness, which rectifies the unequal distribution of goods so that all have enough to thrive.
To be meek is not to be shrinking violets who accept injustice but rather to know our proper place as children of God and to insure that all are treated as full heirs to God’s realm.
To be peacebuilders we are to engage in acts of mercy and forgiveness, which cleanse the heart and allow us to see God in the faces of our brothers and sisters here and now. And like the grieving women who went to the tomb of Jesus, we do not mourn in despair when we suffer loss, but we allow our sorrow to be transformed by hope in the Risen One.
Such a manner of life is able to heal the hurtful memories of the past and transform the present toward a hope-filled future. This is not proposed as an intense form of Christianity meant for only a few select persons. Jesus addresses this teaching to all his disciples and to a great crowd, inviting them to recognize their capacity for happiness in the present by espousing attitudes and actions that will influence the future.
Jesus’ teaching is different from the often-quoted maxim of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Happiness is available to us when we pursue Jesus’ manner of living, which is already within our grasp.