The Beatitudes as imitatio Christi

By Sr Tamsin Mary Geach

The First of a series of talks given at the Studium Catholicum , Helsinki, Lent 2018

(Youtube version here with some extra material)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The chief difference between Christianity and other religions is that Christianity is not a system of thought, according to which you gradually perfect yourself.  Rather it is an invitation to relationship with God the Father in the God the Holy Spirit, through God the Son.

Yet here in chapter five of St. Matthew’s Gospel we do have what looks like a systematised programme for action.  And so indeed it is, but that is not all that it is.  As it says in the Catchism of the Catholic Church,paragraph 1717 ‘The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. 

Primarily the Beatitudes are an invitation to the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ.  It is He Who pre-eminently is the exemplar of the programme for action that is laid down before us here:  We see Him poor in spirit, who ‘though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form … humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’  This gains for Him the Kingship of ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ the name which is ‘above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2, 6-11)

We see Him as one who mourns:  He weeps at the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11.33-35)  He weeps for Jeusalem, ‘ And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation.”(Luke 19. 41-44), and He sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane, contemplating His coming death. (Luke 22.44)  He weeps and suffers, that is, for every kind of human sorrow both personal and universal.  It is in this last sorrow that we see the angel sent from God to comfort Him (Luke 22.43)

Jesus describes Himself as meek, when He says ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”, Mt11.28ff, and we see His meekness throughout the Passion narrative, when as Isaiah had prophesied, He ‘was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’ (Isa 53.7).  As a result He has inherited the earth, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given’ to Him (Matt. 28. 18)

Christ ‘Hungers and thirsts for righteousness’:  We see Christ twice in His earthy life express bodily thirst, and on both occasions there is an ambiguity:  In the Gospel of John He says to the woman of Samaria at the well: “Give me a drink.” (Jn. 4.7), but when His disciples come back with stores and beseech Him to eat He says: “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”, and explains that Hs food is “to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.’’ – He has received the conversion to righteousness of the Samaritan woman as food and drink. (cf John 4.31-4)  In the crucifixion narrative in the same Gospel this is echoed.  At the point of death Jesus says  ‘“I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is accomplished”(Jn 19 28ff).  The verbal echo in ‘it is accomplished’ is in the original Greek verb ‘teleutaw’ used in both places.  It is our redemption, our conversion and salvation that He thirsts for, and He is satisfied by the conversion of sinners.

Christ is merciful – His coming for our redemption shows that, but His earthly life is replete with examples – Zachaeus in his sycamore tree, the palsied cripple who was let down through the roof by his friends, the repentant Peter after the resurrection all experience His mercy.  Here there is a difficulty, how can Christ be shown mercy?  In His earthly life He experienced little of it, (though there are instances of it in the Passion narrative), but we can show Him mercy in His mystical Body here on earth, in the poor the lonely and the needy.

Jesus is pure in heart.  You sometimes get modern theologians who want Jesus to have struggled with concupiscence – with temptations precisely to sin that come from inward dispositions – though it is noticeable that they only want Him to be tempted to do ‘nice’ sins – they do not ascribe to him temptations to cruelty or the sort of impatience that makes one feel murderous towards the old lady in front of one in a queue.  Rather they like the idea of Jesus struggling with lust, for example. However, over against these more deconstructionalist theologians, theology within the tradition of the Church does not imagine Jesus struggling with sexual temptation or sinful anger.  Rather the temptations that He is seen overcoming are the primeval ones that we see in the account of the temptations in Eden – the temptation of bodily need, of power and of seeking some other source of authority than God, and these temptations coming from an outside source are readily dealt with by Christ both in the desert and then again and again in His earthly ministry, culminating in His repudiation of all three in His passion and death.  And so He sees God in His flesh as well as with His divine nature.

Christ is pre-eminently the Peacemaker.  He makes peace between God and Man since ‘in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’(Colossians 1. 19ff)  Elsewhere St Paul says ‘He is our Peace’ (Eph. 2.14).  In His peacemaking role as the Son of God, He is our foremost exemplar.

Christ suffers for righteousness sake - He is the proto-martyr, on the pattern of Whose death all those who suffer for righteousness whether before or since are modelled.  Throughout His life He suffered first for us, so that through Him and with Him and in Him we might be able to become possessors of the Kingdom of heaven.  He has been reviled and persecuted and had all kinds of evil uttered against Him falsely on our account, even until this day. 

This is the briefest account of the Beatitudes as being in the first place an invitation to imitate Christ, But much more could be said.  I invite you as part of your meditation during this retreat to focus on the Beatitudes in prayer and see how throughout the Gospels Jesus is the exemplar of each one, and how we in our turn are invited through the Beatitudes to receive Christ into our hearts and minds as the pattern or  the template of our lives.  For example as we walk the Way of the Cross this evening, consider the humility of Christ, the ‘poverty in Spirit’,    that has the One Who could summon legions of angels to defend Him, or Who could set the proceedings at nought by the thought of His mind allows a man, Pontius Pilate to pass  judgement upon Him; Consider how He suffers all of this – He ‘mourns’  for our salvation; Consider how meek He is in receiving the Cross to carry; How through His hunger and thirst for justice He stands in the place of sinful man and endures the Cross for our salvation so as to free us from the just penalty of our sins; Consider the super-abundant mercy of Him Who even on the road to Calvary comforts the women, and on the Cross forgives those who have crucified Him and prays the Father to forgive them in their ignorance; Consider the outrage against His purity when He is stripped of His garments, but the inward purity of heart of Him Who even in the face of the stripping, the nails and the Cross does not seek to use His divine power to prove His Divinity, though the mocking crowds tempt Him to do so; Consider  the Peace brokered through the Passion  and death, by this Christ Who is our Peace; Who endured persecution, reviling and calumny even for the unrighteous, even for us. 

This acceptance of Christ as our exemplar, ideally should emerge in spiritual growth, that growth in virtues, which comes about through grace. This ‘grace’ is the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to change our innermost dispositions, our hearts.  Individual virtuous-looking acts are not enough if there is no change of heart – we need to be changed in such a way that it will emerge in real action, and such action needs to become somehow ‘co-natural’ to us.  We need to become people who truly live the beatitudes. 

Why should we?  So as to be happy!  ‘Beatus’ is sometimes translated into English as ’happy’, and while I think the Gospel reading is impoverished by such a word, it is true for most of us that what we most desire is happiness and seeking it is an inevitable human trait, though the direction of that search may lead us to different conclusions – St Thomas Aquinas says that we may seek happiness in material or physical pleasures, in active charity, or in the contemplation of God.  However the real happiness for which we are made is the sight of God, and each of these other modes of happiness bears some relation to it, positive or negative.

Seeking physical happiness as an end in itself gets in the way of spiritual happiness, and in fact even physical happiness is impeded by simple self-indulgence.  To achieve real happiness we need to purify our desires and turn ourselves away from the things that obstruct us and prevent us from attaining social joy, and ultimately heaven. If we follow the logic of the Christian life we should grow, so that we shall no longer seek primarily external goods, such as honour and wealth, nor be swayed by the bodily passions of fear and desire.  The virtues and gifts which the beatitudes show to us bring us through a process of purification progressing to an active charity, firstly giving what is justly owed, then, for the love of God going beyond that to considering not so much what we owe, or whether we owe anything at all to this particular poor or sorrowful or otherwise needy person, but rather through reverence for God to consider only the other person’s needs.  Finally in contemplative prayer we are purified in our hearts and brought to the kind of peace that arising from within causes peace in others. [1]

During the next couple of days I will seek to unpick the three modes in which the Beatitudes give us a programme for action.  Departing slightly from St Thomas’ schema, I believe all of the Beatitudes lend themselves to a programme for each of the stages of the spiritual life,  the turning away from sin, the programme for action and the life of contemplation, and these will be the themes of the remaining three talks I shall be giving.

It would be nice if the progress in virtue were a seamless progress from strength to strength,  but the reality of a life lived towards God is that there are many new beginnings of belief or conversion, many re-commitments to active charity, and (to help us on our way, bending to our weakness) God does not leave it to the end of a life lived perfectly to begin to reveal Himself, but is Himself the beginning of our conversion in Christ, the motive for our life of virtue and the ultimate goal on which our lives should be fixed – the beginning, middle and end of the ‘Why?’ underlying all our belief, conversion, and lived experience.



[1] This whole section is loosely based on ST Thomas’ exposition on the Beatitudes, STIa IIaq.69

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