Commentary on the ReadingsIntroduction
In the past, the Saints have enjoyed a tremendous popularity: the churches were full of their statues and recourse to them was perhaps more than to God. There was a saint for truck drivers, for students, for lost items, for eye diseases and even for a sore throat. They were considered a kind of intermediaries that had the function to “soften” the impact of a God considered too big and too far away, a little unapproachable and somewhat foreign to our problems.
Today the tendency to resort to the saint to ask him/her to present to God a request is fading. We turn to the Lord more and more, directly, with the confidence of children. The saints—Mary too—are rightly regarded as sisters and brothers who, with their lives indicate a path to follow Christ and invite us to pray all the time, along with them, to the one Father.
The word saint indicates the presence in certain people of a divine and beneficial force that allows one to stand out, to distance oneself from what is imperfect, weak, ephemeral. Among the people who appeared in this world, only Christ has possessed the fullness of this force of goodness and only he can be declared saint, as we sing in the Gloria: “You alone are holy.”
But we, too, can rise up to him and become partakers of his holiness. He came into the world to accompany us towards the holiness of God, towards the unattainable goal that he has shown us: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
His first disciples were identified by various names. They were called “Galileans,” “Nazarenes,” and in Antioch, “Christians.” It was about some derogatory designations: “Galileans” was synonymous with “insurgents;” “Nazarenes” referred to the despised village from where their Master came; “Christian” means “anointed,” that is, followers of a self-styled “Lord’s anointed” who ended up on the gallows.
These were not the titles that they employed between them. They qualified themselves as “brothers,” “believers,” “the disciples of the Lord,” “the perfect ones,” “people of the way,” and … “saints.”
Paul wrote his letters “to all the saints who live in the city of Philippi …” (Phil 1:1); “to the saints who are at Ephesus…” (Eph 1:1); “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Colossae…” (Col 1:2); “to all the saints in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor 1:1); “to all of God’s favorite in Rome and that you are called to be saints…” (Rom 1:7). He did not write to the saints in heaven, but to real people who lived in Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome. They were the saints.
A saint is every disciple, whether he or she is already in heaven with Christ or who still lives as a pilgrim on this earth.
In the Orthodox temples, the saints who are in heaven are painted along the walls at eye level, standing, as the resurrected ones mentioned by the seer of the Revelation (Rev 7:9). It is the way in which one wants to remind all participants in the celebration that the saints in heaven, although they may be contemplated only with the eyes of faith, they continue to live alongside the saints of the earth. They are part of the community called to give thanks to the Lord.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Holy is your family, O Lord, in heaven and on earth.”
First Reading: Revelation 7:2-4,9-14
How much suffering, tears, disappointments in the life of a person! Why so many abuses, violence, and injustice in the world? Four chapters of the Revelation are dedicated to this distressing problem (Rev 5–8). It is the section of the seven seals.
In the hands of the Lord seated on a throne—said the seer—is the book in which the history of humankind is registered, with all the dramas that always afflict. It also contains the answer to the disturbing riddles of evil and pain: but unfortunately, the book is “sealed with seven seals” that no one is able to break. Therefore, mysterious designs of God will always remain veiled.
To the seer of the Apocalypse who inconsolably cries, an old man comes up and says, “Stop crying, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has won. He will open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Behold, the slain Lamb breaks, one by one, the seals and unravels the puzzles. Our passage tells what happens after the breaking of the sixth seal. Four heavenly spirits, placed at the four corners of the world, are to release the winds that devastate the land and the sea. Then an angel, holding the seal of the living God, ascends from the orient and orders to stop. Not everyone has to perish. Those on whom he will have impressed the brand of the servants of the Lord will be saved. (Rev 7:1-4).
The elect, the saved ones are one hundred forty-four thousand. It is a symbolic number. It follows from 12x12x1000 and does not indicate—as someone mistakenly believes—the saints in heaven, but all the people of God living on this earth, Christians who, for the seal of baptism, are counted in the ranks of the elect.
They are not the privileged ones; they are not those spared from the trials and tribulations that afflict other people. They are, however, exempted from the power of the abyss; they belong to the Lord and are in a new condition, that of someone who is a partaker of God’s holiness. Having understood the designs of the Lord in the world, they contemplate, from a different perspective, what is happening on earth; they watch from above, from heaven, all the events and read them with the eyes of God.
They are upset, yes, like everyone, by the hardships through which they must pass but they are not disturbed. For them, diseases, pain, and betrayals are not defeats and absurdity but moments of maturation and growth. Death is not a joke but a birth that marks the beginning of the second part of life, the best life. It is the Lamb that was slain who, with his life cut short by hatred but given for love, has revealed to them that God does re-enter the most absurd events in his plan of salvation.
After this first vision that presents the community of saints who, on this earth, are a sign of the heavenly city, there appeared a great multitude that no one could count, people of every race, tongue, people, and nation. They stand before the throne of the Lamb, wearing white robes, and palms in their hands (v. 9).
The white dress is a symbol of joy and new life that is revealed in their fullness, without any stain of sin. The palms are the sign of victory they have achieved with their fidelity to Christ. Who are they? This is the community of saints in heaven, made up of those who have completed the pilgrimage on earth and entered into the condition of the blessed. They have endured tribulation and persecution and, as the Lamb gave their lives for love. People considered them defeated but God proclaimed them winners and presented them with the palm (v. 14).
The verses that follow, not reported in our reading, describe the fate that awaits them: Never again will they suffer hunger or thirst or be burned by the sun or any scorching wind. For the Lamb near the throne will be their Shepherd and he will bring them to springs of life-giving water (vv. 16-17). Christ—the slain Lamb—will recognize them as lambs of his flock because they trusted him; they followed him in the gift of life.
This page has been written to instill courage in the Christian communities of Asia Minor who, at the end of the first century, were tempted to deny their Master because of persecution. The prospect of sharing with him the bliss of heaven was to encourage them to hold fast to their faith and to continue to follow with patience and perseverance the slain Lamb.
The passage from the letter of John begins with an exclamation of joy: See what love the Father has given us to be called children of God, and so we are (v. 1)!
In the Semitic mind, the children not only gave continuity to the father’s biological life, but it was believed that they make him really present. For this, it was expected that the parent is recognizable in them: their physical appearance and facial features, of course, but above all for the moral integrity, loyalty to God and the most significant aspects of his character.
In the world, a true Christian possesses the presence of the divine and, like any child reproduces the appearance of the Father who is in heaven. The result—says John—is that those who do not know God cannot even recognize the children that were generated by him (v. 1). The children of God make choices in tune with the thoughts and feelings of the Father; they look alike, they are different from the others, they are “saints.” It is not surprising, then, that they are not understood by those who are focused only on the realities of the earth.
This truth is also recalled by Paul to the Christians of Corinth. The disciples of the Lord—he said—have a wisdom of assessing this world that is incompatible with the criteria of judgment of people. It is “a mysterious, divine wisdom that no ruler of this world ever knew.… The natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand” (1 Cor 2:6-14).
After reminding the Christians of the dignity of their divine sonship—even now, we are children of God—the author of the letter invites them to contemplate the radiant destiny that awaits them: What we shall be, has not yet been revealed (v. 2). The present condition is not final. A veil, made of our earthbound mortal reality, prevents us from realizing what we really are. One day this veil will be removed and then we will contemplate God as he is and understand what we already are today.
In the mother’s womb, the child receives food and life from the mother, and yet, although depending completely on her, is not able to see her face. Only after birth will he be able to look and tenderly embrace the one who generated him.
In this world, a person lives the gestation period in anticipation of the moment of delivery. It is located in the bosom of God who is father and mother. “In him, we live and move and have our being”—Paul reminds the Athenians (Acts 17:28), but we cannot see his face. Yet when he appears in glory, we know that we shall be like him, for then we shall see him as he is (v. 2).
Israel also shared this belief. Abraham, Moses, and Elijah had their strongest spiritual experiences on the mountains: Moria, Horeb, and Mount Carmel. Matthew places the first discourse of Jesus on the mountain. Christian devotion has identified this place with the hill overlooking Capernaum. The nuns who guard it have turned it into an oasis of peace, meditation, and prayer. Strolling under the majestic trees, greeted by the rustle of leaves blowing in the breeze coming down from the snowy peaks of Lebanon, contemplating from above the lake that Jesus and his disciples crossed so many times, one feels almost naturally induced to raise the eyes to the sky and the thought to God.
No matter how impressive this experience is, the mountain referred to by Matthew should not be understood in a geographical sense, but in its theological significance. More than a real place, “the mountain” in the Bible refers to any place or time when we dispose ourselves to meet the Lord and to accept his word. We can visualize the scene. Jesus detaches himself from the plain, a symbol of the society where—in the words of the Ecclesiastes—“all that is done, all that succeeds, results from rivalry with the neighbor: all is meaningless and chasing the wind” (Ecl 4:4). He climbs the mountain where the judging criteria and proposed models of life are radically different: those of God.
The scale of values established in the plains, in broad terms, are as follows: the first place goes to health, then family, professional success, bank account, and friends. Even God and the saints—of course—are placed in the ranking, but rather at the bottom, as useful supports of previous values that are really at heart. Will the person who lives his own life according to these ideals be successful? What does God think of it? To avoid the risk of focusing on disappointing goals and wasting one’s existence, it is necessary to confront his judgment. Which scale of values is proposed on the mountain?
Today’s liturgy invites us to reflect on the proposals of blessedness made by Jesus. They are the ones that the saints in heaven have put into practice and that the saints of earth, encouraged by their example, are inspired to follow.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
It is hard to say in how many ways this beatitude has been interpreted. Someone referred it to the miserable, the beggars, the exploited, as if they were the kind of people God is pleased with and therefore should be left in their state, indeed, and should be ensured that all become like them. It is, of course, an absurd, deviant interpretation. The humanity dreamed by God is not the one where his children are poor, but one where “no one is poor” (Acts 4:34).
Others believe that the “poor in spirit” are those who, while maintaining the possession of their property, are detached from them and are generous in bestowing offerings to the less fortunate. But alms—even recommended in some (rare) biblical texts—do not introduce “new justice” into the world; it does not solve the root problem of the equitable distribution of resources because the concept believes in the existence of the rich and poor on earth.
The principle of “to each his own” that underpins our justice seems wise and sensible, but it stems from a false premise, derived from the assumption that something belongs to a person, while, in fact, everything is of God: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the universe and its inhabitants” (Ps 24:1). A person is only an administrator of goods, and he or she will be called to render an account of this administration.
From the false relationship with the goods of this world, rise the evil instincts of possessing, accumulating and using goods only for oneself. All the evils: wars, violence, disagreements, jealousy ensue from there (1 Tim 6:10). The whole creation is, therefore “groaning in pain and begs to be renewed and redeemed” (Rom 8:19-25).
All possessive adjectives that we use express an erroneous conception of reality: if all is of God, it makes no sense to talk about mine, yours and not even of ours because everything is of the creator. The biblical image of the world is that of the banquet hall where the Lord invites each of his children from the moment he called them to life.
The person is a table companion who rejoices with the brothers and sisters of the gifts that the Father freely makes available to all. Whoever manages them as one’s own property commits a theft. Life itself does not belong to man; it is of God and is a gift that must be offered for love.
In respect to goods, Jesus never assumed the attitude of contempt that characterized the cynical philosophers. For him, the “dishonest wealth” also becomes good when it is distributed to the poor (Lk 16:19). However, although he never condemned it, he regarded it as a threat, “an obstacle—insurmountable for many—to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). The more a person is favored, the more goods one has, the more one is tempted to tie one’s heart with them, keep them for oneself and employ them selfishly.
To those who want to follow him—to those who want to be holy—Jesus asks for total detachment: “Everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33). The beatitude should be read in the context of this essential requirement to share all that is available to us from God.
Jesus does not exalt poverty as such. By adding the specification in spirit, he makes it clear that not all the poor are blessed. Only the ones who, by free choice, strip themselves of all and manage the assets according to God’s plan are blessed. The poor in spirit are those who decide not to possess anything for themselves and make available to others all that they receive.
Mind you: the poor according to the gospel is not the one who has nothing, but the one who does not keep anything for himself or herself. Whoever has had more is considered rich, if he becomes haughty, humiliates the less gifted, and employs one’s own ability to oppress others. If he spends himself for others and puts himself at the service of those who need him is poor in spirit.
Someone who is miserable need not be “poor in spirit.” He is not, if he curses himself and others; if he attempts to improve his own condition with violence and deceit; if he thinks for himself by losing interest in others, or if he cultivates the dream of one day winning the prestigious position of the rich.
Voluntary poverty, the renunciation of the selfish use of all property that one owns, is not something optional, not a counsel reserved to some who want to be heroes or more perfect than others. This is what distinguishes the saint, that is, the Christian. The promise that accompanies the beatitude does not refer to a distant future. It does not guarantee entry into heaven after death, but announces an immediate joy: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. From the moment one makes the choice to become and to remain poor, one enters the “kingdom of heaven,” and belongs to the family of saints.
This beatitude is not a message of resignation, but of hope: no one will be in need when all will become “poor in spirit,” when they will put the gifts they have received from God in the service of others, as God does, the Holy One who, while possessing everything, is infinitely poor: he holds nothing back, gives everything, even his Son.
Blessed are those who suffer.
For centuries in the church, asceticism, that which exalted pain as a means of uniting oneself more closely to the sufferings of Christ was preached. It attracted legions of saints and awakened precious spiritual energies but has also spread the mistaken belief that suffering is pleasing to God. It is not. Suffering dehumanizes and the Lord cannot be pleased with an offer that disfigures the face of his children. Jesus—quoting the prophet Hosea—said that God desires love, not sacrifice (Mt 9:13).
What does he mean then when he proclaims blessed are the “afflicted”? The term he uses is well known to those familiar with the Bible. The “afflicted” spoken of in the book of the prophet Isaiah are those who do not have a house to live in, no fields to cultivate because the legacy of their fathers has been usurped by strangers. They are those who have to put themselves at the service of unscrupulous landowners; suffer injustice, abuse of power, embezzlement, and humiliation (Is 61:7).
To these brokenhearted, who sit on ashes wearing mourning garments (Is 61:3) the prophet addresses a message of hope. God—he assures—is about to intervene, he will reverse the situation and eliminate the causes of mourning: “cheer up those who mourn in Zion, give them a garland instead of ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning, and festal clothes instead of despair” (Is 61:3). In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus applied to himself this oracle. He proclaimed that he had come to fulfill this promise of God (Lk 4:21).
The “afflicted” that Heaven regards blessed are those who are attentive and sensitive to the immense cry of pain that rises from the world. “They weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), but do not resign themselves in the face of evil and suffering. They expect salvation from God and his word. They will be comforted in the kingdom of God—of which Jesus, the Holy One, has laid the foundation and that the saints work together to build. There, all the situations that cause pain and tears, will be erased.
Blessed are the meek.
The adjective “meek” evokes the idea of a resigned person who does not react to provocations and passively accepts the injustices without complaint. Is this the person who shuns every conflict (but perhaps revealing a weak personality) who is beatified?
The term “meek” used by Jesus is taken from the Old Testament and, more precisely, from Psalm 37 where those deprived of their rights, liberty are called “the meek ones.” They are poor because the powerful have stolen their fields, houses, and even their sons and daughters. They are forced to suffer injustice without even being able to protest.
They do not give up but refuse to resort to violence to restore justice. They do not let themselves be guided by anger; they do not feed the resentment and the desire for revenge. They trust in God and await the coming of his kingdom. Theirs is not, however, a passive waiting as that of those waiting for the bus; it is active; it translates into concrete commitment.
Jesus is the model of true meekness (Mt 11:29; 21:5). He certainly was not a weak, timid, or shy person. He has experienced dramatic conflicts but confronted them with the provisions of the heart that characterize the “meek ones.” He repudiated violence, loved those who opposed it; by being patient, tolerant and becoming the servant of all.
Holy are those who cultivate the dreams of God on earth and, with Jesus—the Holy One—undertake to achieve them, giving evidence against those who oppose them, with the same “meekness” of the Master.
The Promise: they will inherit the earth. They will receive from God a new land; they will build with him a new world, truly human. A dream? Yes, of God and the saints, but do not allow themselves to be persuaded by the evil one who tries to convince them that God’s promises will never come true. They do not resign themselves to the often bleak reality in which they are called to operate, and maintain firmly that hope, which Paul qualifies with the Greek term ‘hupomone,’ the characteristic of semi-precious stones that resist any pressure (1 Thes 1:3).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Hunger and thirst are the most basic biological needs. It is with the same passion—Jesus recommends—that his disciples should hunger for “justice”. What is justice? Human justice states that all people are treated according to what they deserve: the good people are rewarded; the guilty are punished and the innocent released. “Executing justice” is actually synonymous to sending to the gallows. Is this the justice of which we must be hungry and thirsty? The adjective “just” can be applied to God, but with great caution, because one runs the risk of transforming the Lord into a performer of judgments and guarantor of morality with promises of rewards and threats of punishment.
The Bible often speaks of God’s justice, but always and only as a synonym of kindness, never in the sense of our distributive justice. God is just, not because he compensates according to merits, but because, with his love, he makes righteous those who are evil. He is just because “he desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
For us, justice is done when the culprit is punished. For God, justice is done when he manages to make a wicked righteous, or when he saves a sinner from the abyss of guilt. Nobody like Jesus has longed so much so that this justice would be established in the world. To the disciples who invited him to eat, he replied: “My food is to bring to completion the work of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34). Only the righteousness of God could satisfy his hunger. He announced the word that made people just and there were so many people who needed to hear it that he had no time even to eat (Mk 6:31).
Saints are those who share with Jesus his own hunger and thirst for the salvation of his brothers and sisters.
The promise: they shall be filled. They will experience—already here on earth—the joy of God and of the angels of heaven who have more joy over one sinner that is made just over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance (Lk 15:7).
Blessed are those who do works of mercy.
This beatitude seems to fit itself in the conflict between patience and desire to punish the culprits. It seems an invitation to let compassion and forgiveness prevail always. This is certainly one of the aspects of “mercy” and agrees well with the recommendation of Jesus: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Judge not lest you be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (Lk 6:36-37). But this does not exhaust the richness of the biblical term.
In the Bible “mercy” rather than a feeling of pity, is an action in favor of those who need help. The clearest example is that of the Samaritan—the Greek text says—he has made mercy towards the man attacked by bandits (Lk 10:37).
The rabbis of Jesus’ time taught that God is merciful because he does works of mercy and they specify: “God clothed the naked—when covered Adam and Eve with leaves; Genesis 3:21—so you have to clothe the naked. He visited the sick—In fact, he visited Abraham when he was suffering from circumcision and visited the barren Sarah, Genesis 18:1—so you have to visit the sick. He comforted those who were grieving—when he comforted Isaac after the death of his father, Genesis 25:11—so you have to comfort those who are grieving. He buried the dead—he was the one who buried Moses, Deuteronomy 34:6—so you have to bury the dead.”
Merciful are the saints who, faced with the needs of a person, feel the emotion of the heart of God and intervene, performing works of mercy, as God did.
The Promise: they will find mercy. In the new world, in the kingdom of God, they too, when they need help, will meet brothers and sisters always willing to reach out to them, indeed, to give their lives to help them.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Purity was one of the most marked characteristics of the Jewish religion. Any contact with the pagan cults, with something that might recall death and was unclean, had to be avoided. From this requirement of purity, there arose prohibitions, the detailed provisions of the rabbis obliging them to stay away from what was perceived as contrary to the holiness of God. Since transgressions were inevitable, it was necessary to obsessively resort to purification rites, ablutions, and sacrifices (Mk 7:3-4).
Jesus is not interested in these practices. He demands purity of heart. There is nothing external that makes a person unclean. It is only what comes from the heart that can make one unclean (Mt 15:17-20). The pure in heart are those who have an undivided heart, those who do not love both God and idols. A person, who serves two masters, whose conduct does not agree with the faith he professes, who loves God but keeps resentment toward a brother or a sister in his heart, who never commits bad actions but is adulterous in his heart, has an impure heart (Mt 5:28).
The promise: they shall see God. To them is given the blessed experience of trusting abandonment in the arms of God.
Blessed are those who are committed to peace.
Among the works of mercy recommended by the rabbis of Jesus’ time—to bring peace, to reconstruct harmony among persons—was the most meritorious. Every action that aims at restoring peace—it was said—attracts the blessings of God. Blessed is certainly the one who, without resorting to violence, commits all his energy to put an end to wars and conflicts. Blessed is he who comes between the contenders and tries to convince them to dialogue, harmony, and peace.
But in the Bible, the word “peace” (shalom) is not just the absence of war. It indicates the total wellbeing, implies harmony with God, with others and with themselves, prosperity, justice, health, and joy. “Peacemakers” are all those who are committed to making this life as good as possible for every person.
The most beautiful of the promises is given to these saints: God considers them his children.
Blessed are the persecuted for righteousness.
There are disasters that strike unexpectedly: fatality, illness and misfortune can happen to anyone. Other sufferings are the result of foolish or unethical behavior and these are our fault! There is a third kind of tribulations: those that we do not want, but we have to take into account—because they are an inevitable price to pay—if we choose to follow Christ.
Jesus did not delude his disciples; he has not promised honors and achievements, has not assured them of people’s approval and consent and insistently and clearly repeated that adhesion to him entails persecution: “If the head of the family has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of the family” (Mt 10:25). And again: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you; you will be delivered to the synagogues and put in prison, and for my sake, you will be brought before kings and governors” (Luke 21:12). “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Mt 10:23). The wisdom of God said: “I will send prophets and apostles and these people will kill and persecute some of them. But the present generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:49-50).
Persecution is the uniform that distinguishes the disciple. Paul is very explicit: “All who want to serve God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). How come? We would expect that a Christian—a messenger of peace and hope—is to be welcomed with open arms, with joy and gratitude. Instead, the proclamation of the gospel creates conflicts. The reason is that the old world order is incompatible with the kingdom of God and does not give up peacefully. It reacts by attacking those they want to disappear.
Christ paid with his life for the loyalty to his mission, and his disciples must not expect a different treatment: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you, too” (Jn 15:20).
The persecution of the righteous is often spoken of in the Old Testament. In the Psalms, the righteous ask God: “Deliver me from the grip of my persecutors” (Ps 7:2); “When will you judge my persecutors? When they persecute me, help me” (Ps 119:84,86). Jeremiah is opposed, slandered, and imprisoned in a cistern.
In the Old Testament, however, persecution is considered bad and the person who suffers it cannot be happy until God intervenes to end it. In the New Testament, the perspective changes. He who suffers for his faithfulness to the Lord is proclaimed blessed for the very fact of being persecuted.
Persecution is not a sign of failure, but of success. It is a cause of joy because it is the proof that one is pursuing the right choice, according to the “wisdom of God.” It is inevitable that those who propose a society based on the principles taught “on the mountain” are persecuted. They introduce into the world the antibodies of service that attack the viruses of power. They do not give a chance to these viruses, although camouflaged or hidden under sacred trappings.
Whoever feels his position and prestige threatened by the coming of the kingdom of God reacts with violence, if necessary. The saints never had an easy life: their fate has been sealed from the moment they agreed to act as lambs.
Subjected to persecution, they have not succumbed to the temptation to behave like wolves and have not strayed from the behavior suggested by the Master: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44) and by Paul: “Bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14).