October 7, 2019
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.Matthew 5:1-2
The first time the world heard of the tenets of what would become Christianity was on the gentle slopes of Mount of Beatitudes. It was on this hill, overlooking the sparkling blue Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The actual name – Mount Eremos, Greek for solitary or uninhabited – suggested space and serenity conducive for a large gathering to feast on spiritual food along with five loaves and two fish. It was quite close to Jesus’ home in Capernaum too, only some three kilometers away.
Our tour group found that the hill still lent itself to deep contemplation, not overrun by commercialism. It was not hard to imagine sitting on the grass and taking in the Word of God. Stone blocks bearing each of the Beatitudes were laid out beside the cobbled path in the order that Jesus laid them out. Curiously, they mostly seemed too harsh to be blessings. How could spiritual poverty, pain, and powerlessness be considered blessedness at all?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.Matthew 5:3-4
How telling that Jesus prefaced the Sermon on the Mount with a list of virtues required of His followers. God’s compassion for the crushed in spirit and the brokenhearted was the core of His message. Jesus Himself was not a stranger to grief and mourning; He wept for His friend Lazurus who had died. The grace of salvation was not given for the exemption from suffering and despair, but rather in the midst of it. Empowerment and security were not premised but promised. It was in their absence that the kingdom of heaven could be gained.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:5-10
The footpath led to the Church of the Beatitudes built in the 1930s by the renowned Holy Land architect Antonio Barluzzi. He designed an octagonal layout representing the sayings in the Gospel of Matthew the church was named after. Its colonnaded cloisters let light and wind in, imbuing the church with the sense of openness, evoking the open field where the multitudes gathered. Perhaps some were simply out to score a meal ticket or a miracle, others truly spiritually lost and seeking. So it could be for anyone who would wander into the church in their individual search.
Concrete tablets, akin to headstones, inscribed with the Beatitudes in several languages were erected at the back of the church. Perhaps it was not so surprising to see Tagalog represented, the Philippines being the only Christian nation in Asia. But to be called Christian went beyond religious affiliation and morality. It was about following the profoundly radical way of life that the Christ led. To be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world,” as Jesus Himself said, would go against popular opinion and the religious establishment. It might even go against who you thought you were. The tranquility here was that of a cemetery, one that buried the old self to be reborn in the Spirit. The blessing was the rebirth, not the death.
I wondered how the multitudes on that tranquil hillside – then and now – received that message. How many had been blessed by mourning their spiritual emptiness without God?
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:12