When I was little, we had this old family bible that I just loved. It was a huge King James, with the words of Jesus printed in red, and it had those gold-edged pages, which I loved to fan out and flip through as a child. The best thing about it was that it had been in our family for generations, and was filled with little painted feathers and pressed locks of hair from babies, and the front was full of recorded baptisms and weddings going back generations, all recorded in beautiful flowing script.
When she was a teenager, my great-grandmother Rebecca had written down on the title page where to find her favorite verses for her own personal prayers and devotions, and I remember reading through that list one day. I was learning to read cursive and my mother was coaching me through it at the kitchen table as she got dinner ready. I read out: Matthew 5:1 (today’s Gospel) and written there next to it, I read out “beauty-tides.” My mother laughed and came over to correct me, but she saw written there—in the beautiful cursive of my great-grandmother—it did indeed read: beauty-tides, not beatitudes! My mother found this so charming and sweet, that we began to lovingly refer to the beatitudes as the beauty-tides in our home, and we still do to this day.
The Sermon on the Mount is one of this Gospel’s most beautiful scenes, if not the most beautiful. We’re so familiar with it now that we might miss the meaning behind the imagery, one which the author was expecting us to note. The Matthean author was especially keen for us to see Jesus as the new Moses. He pointed out every similarity between Jesus and Moses that he could, throughout the Gospel. Some of these similarities are obvious. For example, both were in danger of being killed as infants by despotic rulers (Pharaoh and Herod) and they both narrowly escaped that fate. But, there are other similarities which easily go unnoticed, and today’s Gospel reveals out one of them.
The sermon on the mount is an echo of Moses’ own preaching and teaching. Remember, Moses climbed the mountain to confer with God and brought back for his people the Ten Commandments, which he taught them from the mountaintop. So, too, Jesus is here on the mount—the mountaintop—not merely as a prophet conferring with God but as himself both Man and God, and from the mountaintop he teaches the people. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t give us another set of commandments, here. These sayings don’t begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not,” they’re not commandments—they’re clues. Jesus is not telling us what we must do to curry favor with God, but that those who practice these things are happy—are blessed.
The Greek word the Matthean author uses, here, is “makarios.” You’ll notice that it’s translated a couple of different ways if you read different bibles, either “happy are those” or “blessed are those,” and this is because makarios means both happy and blessed. That’s why these groups of sayings are sometimes called the makarisms, or as we know them from the Latin translation, the beatitudes.
When I read the Gospel for this Sunday, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Navajo man at our church back in Phoenix, Arizona. Somehow, we began talking about what it meant to live a good life, and he shared with me a saying from the Navajo (or the Diné, as they call themselves). He recited, “With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk.” He explained it like this: “If you choose to walk a path of beauty throughout your life, when you come to the end of your life and look behind you, you will see the path of beauty you left behind. If you walk a path of selfishness, when you look behind you at the end of your life you will see a path of pain and destruction. Choose to walk the path of beauty.”
When I look behind me now, I do see some beauty. I see some pain and destruction, too. I’m sure that’s true for all of us who are not as just as Moses or as loving as Jesus.
There are some people, though, who really do walk a path of beauty. We know them. We marvel at them. I’m sure there are people in your lives, as there are in mine, whom you could name, people who just seemed to get it, somehow. These people walk a path of beauty, and leave beauty in their wake. We separate these people out. We know them to be holy. We call them saints.
There are two images from the early church that I think can help us live lives that are a little more saintly, a little more happy, blessed, and beautiful. The first is the that in its earliest days, Christianity was not called Christianity, but “The Way,” and Christians themselves were called “Companions on the Way.” Another image is one important to the church during the Age of Martyrs. During those days of persecution, they pictured themselves in a huge arena, a great coliseum, fighting against persecution and temptation, and in the stands all around them were not jeering crowds of Romans citizens, but thousands of saints, all those Christians who’d died before them, dressed in white robes and waving palm fronds; a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on.
So, during your week—and it might prove to be a very tough week—I hope you’ll take another look at the beatitudes, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. They are not commandments. They are guideposts for a happy life, a blessed life, a beautiful life. As we’ve learned from the saints, lives like that bless the lives of those around them, which bless the lives around them, and around them, and on and on, until a new season of happiness and blessing, and new season of beauty—a beauty-tide, if you will—might dawn upon us all. We’re not alone. We have our Companions on the Way, we have Moses and Jesus and the scripture, we have Jesus present in the communion we will share today, and we have the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog