We’re closing in on the end of the Church Year and the end of our journey through Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. When we pick up next week we will be in the home stretch. Today, we revisit these beatitudes, the opening lines of Jesus’ first sermon. Beatitudes abound in the Old and New Testament worlds. Most beatitudes either exalt things that are obviously good—like, blessed are those whose marriages are happy—or suggest obedience to the Torah will produce obviously good blessings here and now. Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew emphasize a reward at the End of Time AND a blessing in the present day. The resurrection is touching people now, and it isn’t because they follow certain rules or lucked into boring families; it’s because God says so.
Such blessings are often hard to discern. Blessed are the poor in spirit? Really? Happy are those who mourn? No! Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? I think you’re defining at least one of those words differently than the rest of us are. And that future fulfilment poses some problems. The merciful will receive mercy…eventually. The meek will inherit the earth…but not today. Those who mourn will be comforted…later. So that’s it, Jesus? Just wait? Yeah, right. This being All Saints Sunday, that beatitude about mourners being blessed now and comforted some other time can sting. Hearing it may elicit a “…yeah. The dead are dead, I don’t feel blessed, and ‘later’ isn’t getting here quickly enough.”
That can happen with grief, and grief is part of life. All Saints exists because we understand that. It took a while to get that way. The festival originated as the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs in Rome in 609, an occasion to haul out the bones that had once rested in the catacombs beneath the city. Meanwhile, local observances of a Day of the Dead arose, and finally the Church united the martyrs and the rest of the dead in a special festival on November 1. The Church realized we need a day for this. The temptation to turn grief to superstition was strong: Luther published his 95 Theses on October 31 in advance of the All Saints Reliquary and Indulgence Extravaganza being held in Wittenberg that weekend. Yet while some churches of the Reformation jettisoned the feast entirely, we’ve kept it, and in recent decades other churches have recovered it. Because people mourn their dead. That’s a thing we do. It’s not like we have “normal life,” and grief is an obstacle that we can scale or outflank and thus get on with normal life. Grief is part of normal life. It is important, healthy, and faithful to take some time as a community, and remember, “We still had these people with us last year, and now we don’t.”
In times of grief the Church would turn to the Book of Revelation, as we do this morning. This may seem odd, since today if Revelation gets talked about it’s usually by someone trying to predict the end of the world. But that’s not understanding Revelation the way it was meant to be understood. Revelation was written at a time when people understood the universe differently than we do. The boundary between what we call astronomy and astrology was not as clearly demarcated as it is today. Everyone believed the stars were divine beings, and that heavenly bodies exerted some sort of influence over their lives. Everyone looked heavenward for signs. The question was if your astrologer was a charlatan or a licensed professional. The Church went right along with this, from its earliest days through the middle ages; we merely insisted that it be understood in accord with what God had revealed in Christ. The Church only rejected what we call astrology when modern science arose and proved the universe was bigger than we’d thought and assembled differently.
This is not to say that we should break out our horoscopes; rather, it is to say that First Century Christians understood the heavens to be part of the fabric of the universe and to have God’s revelation written into them. God was “in” everything around us in a way we just don’t talk or think about today. Some Christians even believed God had shown them special complex celestial phenomena. One such Christian was John the Seer, who wrote Revelation. John is what Bruce Malina calls an “astral prophet.” Like Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel before him, John is shown things in the stars and sky.
The point of mentioning this is not to say we can reconstruct the night sky as John saw it in his private vision. Nor is it to distract us from grief with a brief excursus on First Century astronomy. It is rather to say that what John describes in Revelation 7 is something he sees as written into the very fabric of the universe. The great multitude who suffered on earth now stand in the presence of God and this is inscribed in the cosmos. The universe is designed, created, managed, and animated in such a way that this union between God and people is going to happen. In more contemporary Christian thought, one thinks of the words of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Christ…dresses himself with the whole reality of the universe,” and “the universe…is illumined with all the warmth and immortality of Christ.” Or, perhaps more familiar to us are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The final victory is not ours just yet, but God has written it into the universe.
Perhaps that understanding of Revelation 7 gives us the faith to read the beatitudes as comforting now, and not putting off comfort indefinitely. For while it is true that we have not yet reached the end of our days, if our eternal union with God is written into our universe, it is written in us, now. Union with God is written into the poor in spirit. The fullness of the universe is written into the meek. Righteousness is written into those who hunger and thirst for it. God is written into the thoughts and intentions of those trying to discern what God wants. Being a child of God and sibling of Christ is written into those working for peace. Eternal cosmic union with God is written into those who are persecuted and reviled. The comfort of God is written into those who mourn.
The resurrection is written into us. God is in us and in the world in a way that we don’t usually talk or think about. God is in us, in All Saints. In a world so obviously broken and a life marked by grief, we may ask, “Where is God?” With the beatitudes, Jesus announces that God is here, now. We see God in every broken-spirited person—for God himself cried out from the cross, feeling forsaken. We see God in the powerless—for God became powerless before the mob in Gethsemane. We see God in those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—for God challenged the experts in God’s law who had turned that law against righteousness. We see God in those who are pure in heart and thought, good intentioned—because God has written resurrection into the universe, no matter how broken it feels this morning. We see God in peacemakers—for God could have come to conquer the world but instead forgave it and made it right with God. We see God in the persecuted—for God was hunted down and tortured. And we see God in those who mourn—for Jesus mourned his city of Jerusalem, and his friends and followers who he knew would die.
We see God, whether we know it or not. As we remember today those who are asleep in Christ, take heart knowing that the same resurrection written in them is written in us who are awake. And it is written in us not because we follow certain rules, or feel the right emotions at the right time, or articulate the correct doctrines upon request. The resurrection is written in us because God writes it there, and everywhere.