Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Joy is Hidden in Sorrow

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The 13th century Persian mystic Rumi wrote: “The most secure place to hide a treasure of gold is some desolate, unnoticed place. Why would anyone hide treasure in plain sight? And so it is said: ‘Joy is hidden in sorrow.’”  I would like to add: life is hidden in death, wealth in poverty, relief and liberation in suffering. This is the wisdom of the Beatitudes – “a treasure of gold” hidden in the darkest and bleakest of human experience.

The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin beatitudo, meaning “blessedness.” The main translation in use at Mass (from the Jerusalem Bible version) has replaced “blessed”, a rich and weighty word, with this possibly misleading word, “happy”'. Why do I say that this could be misleading? Basically, because of the danger that we may come to think that the way the Christian religion makes us happy is something like giving us an emotional “high” through the use of drugs or alcohol, or through entertainment and pleasure, or by fulfilling all our wants and desires – making us popular, powerful and rich. But even a passing glance at the Beatitudes makes it clear they're hardly anything but fun and happiness-invoking. Instead, these sayings are disturbing, threatening, and downright unpleasant. The Beatitudes predict that if we are to discover true happiness at all it has to be by way of a list of obviously unpleasant scenarios: poverty, tears, hunger, and even persecution. Hardly any cause for revelry. It is hard for anyone to understand how one can rejoice and be happy when oppressed, cursed and persecuted. It seems that all suffering leads naturally only to sorrow.

Understanding the context of these sayings may help throw light on the mystery of the text.  The Beatitudes placed at the beginning of His monumental Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the essence of discipleship. In other words, it is directed specifically to those who are ready not only to listen to Christ but to accompany Him. It is the key to understanding how a follower of Christ can imitate Christ. Here, our Lord presents a programme of discipleship, a standard of virtue that no ordinary person could understand, unless that person wishes to imitate Christ in both His mission and His destiny. For it is Christ who has become poor for our sake, who weeps over Jerusalem and our bondage to sin, who suffers violence for righteousness sake and when persecuted, remained meek and gentle. He is the One who hungers and thirst for God’s Justice and who reveals God’s mercy on earth. In a way, Christ is telling us, “If you wish to be my follower, if you wish to be like me, then live the beatitudes!”

And why should we imitate Christ in the Beatitudes? This is because the Beatitudes are stacked up like a ladder to heaven. Christ has forged a golden chain for us to reach heaven. It starts with the fact that the poor in spirit, the man of humility, will mourn for his sins and in this way will become meek, righteous and merciful. And the merciful is bound to become pure in heart. The pure in heart will be a peacemaker. And he who has attained all this will be ready for danger, and will not be afraid of calumny and countless tribulations. Readiness and fearlessness will be the crowning virtues that bring, according to Jesus Christ, joy and happiness.

The reason why we find these sayings paradoxical is because there is clear contradiction between the priorities and values of the world, and the values of the Kingdom which our Lord embodies. Let’s be honest. What is it that most of us are really looking for in life? We're looking for happiness, for security, for peace. But where are we looking for these things? We desperately try to protect ourselves by collecting more and more possessions, having to have bigger and better locks on the door, putting in alarm systems. We are constantly armouring ourselves against each other – increasing the sense of separation – by having more possessions, more control, feeling more self-importance with our college degrees. We expect more respect, and we demand immediate solutions; it is a culture of instantaneous gratification. So we're constantly on the verge of being disappointed – if our computer seizes up, if we don't make that business deal, or if we don't get that promotion at work. But aren’t we just chasing shadows?

But this is not to say that we should have nothing to do with material things, possessions and financial security. We need material support, food, clothing, medicines; we need shelter and protection, a place to rest; we also need warmth, friendship. There's a lot that we need to make this journey. But because of our attachment to things, and our efforts to fill and fulfill ourselves through them, we find a residue of hunger, of disappointment, because we are looking in the wrong places. As much as we believe that these things will give us “happiness”, they won’t.

But here in the Beatitudes, Christ is offering us another way of looking at these things without being enslaved to them. In fact, true freedom comes from embracing the Beatitudes. When you possess nothing, you do not need to suffer the fear or anxiety of losing anything. That is why the key to understanding the Beatitudes is Love, or to be exact, the price we are willing to pay for love. The Beatitudes are about the things that love will suffer, they are about what love will willingly endure, the things that love will find itself able to give, and to find satisfaction and even delight in giving. At the end of the day in order to love deeply, there are things we must be willing to forgo because we have found a greater treasure in the things we have grown to love. Only by sacrificing ourselves will we find ourselves in the fullness of life lived for God and for others. And to find ourselves in God and in others, we must lose our own selves.

The teaching of Christ, then, puts a literally infinite demand on us. We can't say, ‘No more’ or ‘That's it’. The Christian faith is a hard way. Following Christ is going to be costly. Ultimately, it means the way of the Cross. Any Christian religion or preacher that promises us a bed of roses, an easy life, success, prosperity and material abundance in this life is a counterfeit. Our Lord wants the whole of us and not just a part of us. Our Lord has the right to make an infinite demand on us, because He has given us an equally infinite grace not only to help us but also to raise us up to share in the divine life.

The Beatitudes provide us with a clear reminder that the Lord overcame the world by treading the path of persecution by His enemies, whilst remaining humble, meek, and gentle. It is important to understand that tribulations are necessary because there is no other way for us to imitate Christ and be freed from sin. In suffering, we become aware of our own weaknesses, helplessness and impoverishment, and, humbled in prayer and contrition before God, we receive divine help and joy in the Lord.

The Beatitudes of Christ shows that the blessing of sorrow, lies in the consolation we receive from God. Sorrow strips off beloved possessions—but reveals the treasures of the love of God. Just like the clouds that gather in the sky with ominous threatening; but they pass, and leave their rich treasure of rain. Then the flowers are more fragrant, the grass is greener, and all living things are lovelier. In the same way, we finally can discover that God has hidden His greatest treasures in the bleakest and gloomiest of experiences. Joy is hidden in sorrow, life in death, wealth in poverty, and glory in humiliation.  Whether the world will believe it or not, whether the wise can explain it or not, the Christian’s sole desire should only be the Cross; and for those who are willing to walk the path of the Beatitudes, they will find in it a joy so hidden, a sweetness so heavenly, and a happiness so exquisite, that all can proclaim with Saint Francis of Assisi that perfect beatitude consists in suffering for the Blessed Christ. 

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