Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 29, 2023
Saint Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church
Fort Worth, TX

Zephaniahs 2:3, 3:12-13
Psalm 146
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5:1-12a

Throughout the next several weeks, the Lectionary offers us readings from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is the heart of Christ’s moral and spiritual teaching which He imparted and offered for the salvation of all people in the world and for all ages.

Jesus begins His Sermon with His teaching of the Beatitudes, the most distinguishing aspect of an authentically Christian life of discipleship and morality. It is appropriate that we should begin our reading and reflection of Christ’s teaching of the Sermon on the Mount on this Sunday when we begin Catholic Schools Week.

The first words of today’s Gospel begin with, “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach….” The Mission of our Catholic schools is to teach as Jesus Christ taught. Today He begins His teaching with the Beatitudes. Just as the Beatitudes are the distinctly Christian aspect of Jesus’ teaching, so they must be at the heart of the Church’s mission of education to which our Catholic schools are committed. “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach…”

The Beatitudes are Christ’s response to the question of what makes human beings happy. This question really is a profoundly human question. It is a question that influences how we approach our own learning and how fathers and mothers teach and provide examples for their children. Before Jesus imposes any rules or imperatives for His disciples to follow, Jesus begins His moral teaching with the question of human happiness because happiness is the object of God’s creative design of our human nature. How we approach this question of what makes us happy sets the direction of how we choose to live our lives as individuals and as a society in accord with what values we really cherish as important.

Saint Augustine understood the Beatitudes to be ascending stages of growth in happiness with one level leading to the next level. The first level begins with humility and proceeds through teachability to the Word of God, self-knowledge and sorrow for sin, fortitude in those who thirst for justice, the practice of mercy, and purity of heart, culminating in prudence and full knowledge of the Truth in God Himself.

The Beatitudes are not simply proverbs or slogans that have a vague but not so consoling ring of truth about them like something that one might find in a fortune cookie. The Beatitudes correspond with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are actual grace in our lives: the Gift of Fear of the Lord pairs with Poverty of Spirit, the Gift of Piety couples with Docility to the Word of God, the Beatitude of those who mourn is joined with the gift of knowledge. It is the Gift of Knowledge that prompts us to repent for sin but not to despair of salvation. The Holy Spirit’s Gift of Fortitude emboldens those who hunger and thirst for justice. The Gift of Counsel informs the disciple that one must first be merciful to others in order to receive mercy from God. The Gift of Understanding corresponds with the Beatitude of those who are pure of heart because the humble transparency of their spirit purifies them to prefer the truth to their own opinions.

It is in this way that the Beatitudes, helped by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, form us but not all at once, because their operation fits neatly with our gradual learning and natural development as human beings. The New Law expressed in the Beatitudes is different from the Old Law of the Commandments because unlike the Old Law, the New Law does not first confront our free will with external imperatives. The New Law of the Beatitudes internally nurtures us in the action of the Holy Spirit with a confidence borne of humility and a desire to know God. It is in this way that the Beatitudes truly set the example and model for classical education in a healthy Catholic school.

Bishop Michael Olson blesses the new addition to Saint Andrew Catholic School on January 29, 2023. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Bishop Michael Olson blesses the new addition to Saint Andrew Catholic School on January 29, 2023. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)

Likewise, Saint Thomas Aquinas presented the Beatitudes as forming and educating us as full human beings by shaping each of the three levels of basic human desires to be in conformity with the full and perfect human character of Jesus Christ. He saw the first three beatitudes as addressing the human need of physical sensation: the First Beatitude corrects the concept that happiness results from the pursuit of material wealth for an opulent lifestyle. The Second Beatitude about those who mourn cancels out the approach to life that seeks happiness in pleasure and luxury. The Third Beatitude offers meekness to redeem the notion that happiness must be found in gratifying the human instinct to view other people as threats and enemies who are to be neutralized, dominated, or destroyed. The Fourth and Fifth Beatitudes address our behavior in which the virtue of justice, accompanied by mercy, is practiced for the benefit of other human beings in the family and in the broader community.

Obviously, one cannot practice these virtues by the Grace of these Beatitudes if one has not cultivated the first three beatitudes of humility, mourning, and meekness. One cannot learn something if one already knows everything. These lead to the next Sixth and Seventh beatitudes of purity of heart and peacemaking that develop our contemplative love for God in this world and prepares us for eternal life with Him in Heaven. The Eighth Beatitude integrates all the other Beatitudes, strengthens, and completes them because our souls are restless until they rest in God.

In hearing all of this, one might think: Poverty of spirit? Meekness? Mourning? You must be kidding. Why would one be so foolish to place a child in a school that espouses these principles when we all know that this world is a tough place, and one must be cunning to survive and strong to become successful? Yet, we know through our faith “that God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”

As the late Dominican priest and theologian Father Servais Pinckaers observed, “To satisfy our appetite for riches, the beatitudes suggest poverty. In place of our aggressiveness, they would have us be meek. They would slake our thirst for pleasure with patience and love of justice, and turn our hard-heartedness into mercy, our inclination to evil into purity of heart, and our touchiness to a peaceful spirit, while our vanity would be transformed into a carefree acceptance of insults and calumny. The Beatitudes seem to delight in promising us happiness in all that we loathe and fear.”

The contemporary state of our world is marked by many in leadership who have rejected any acknowledgement of God except as a mascot for their own ideology. As a result, the dominant philosophy of education and commerce has closed itself from grace and too frequently portrays happiness as a commodity that can be bought, sold, or even stolen through private transactions. The rejection of God began with indifferent agnosticism that made the practice of religion to be only a matter of private preference. Yet this agnosticism has now blistered upon the face of society as a formal atheism that exchanges God for the state and replaces education with a form of indoctrination void of reason or revelation reducing it to a type of initiation for an elite few into a crowd licensed to entitlement.

The rejection of God has brought us to the rejection of human nature, a nature fostered in authentic family life and anchored in the loving generativity of natural marriage between husband and wife. The rejection of faith has brought us to the rejection of reason, to the point where public figures of great responsibility are no longer willing to admit publicly the biological difference between men and women. The rejection of reason has brought us to the rejection of authentic freedom of thought and speech. The rejection of reason has brought us to overt racism with the deliberate inciting of suspicion and hatred among people of different races. The rejection of reason has brought us to the imposition of gender ideology masking itself as science. The rejection of reason has brought us to abortion promoted as an essential human right and a positive good. The rejection of reason has brought us to view the terminally ill and the elderly as enemies of our freedom to own what we demand to be entitled to own. The rejection of reason has brought us to a violent frenzy for social anarchy, and the disintegration of our institutions with the deconstruction of our society into crowds of demanding individuals.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach…” There are two groups depicted in today’s Gospel: the crowds and the disciples. Jesus teaches His disciples, and they listen because He has called them by name, and they belong to Him. A crowd is without identity. Crowds belong to nobody — they imperiously demand that individuals comply and fit in. Crowds are pieced together by individuals who out of fear or indifference have jettisoned the responsibility that accompanies belonging as a member of society in exchange for fitting in with the prevailing mood of the time. The disciples are governed by faith as Christ’s Church; the crowd is dominated by their passions and this dynamism compels them to violence against individuals and other crowds. The disciples belong to Jesus and are sent on mission by Him to convert the crowd into belonging through the teaching and witness of His Gospel by a fruitful life lived by the Beatitudes.

It is in this manner that the mission of our Catholic schools is to be lived out for the sake of others. This mission of Catholic education, which is always reforming and renewing itself in Christ, is intended to involve the conversion of each person engaged in the ministry to belong to Christ and to each other — the students, their mothers and fathers, the teachers, the staff, the administrators, the pastor, and even the bishop towards the meekness and poverty of spirit presented in the Beatitudes. The mission involves the transformation and conversion of the system itself. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ save us from reducing His mission to another ideology and from mistreating the Church as just another crowd.

Catholic schools cannot simply become a type of a private education that settles for fitting in with the crowd but that retains the cross as a commercial brand with Jesus Himself as a type of mascot for our own form of elite preferences. If we hide from our challenges for the sake of fitting in with the crowd, we hide from God. God’s grace is in the effort to address our challenges. God’s grace is in the embrace of His Son’s Cross. 

In a few moments, we will unworthily approach the altar of Christ’s sacrifice to be nourished again at His eternal banquet table. He will offer us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He will offer us, the poor in spirit, the gift of belonging that comes from Communion with Him which saves us from the deadly listlessness of fitting in with the crowd.

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