It has been a woeful week – as fierce rain and snow storms battered much of the country, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day was diminished by the somber recollection of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago. The next day, a mass shooting in a plant in Aurora, Illinois, 40 miles west of Chicago, shocked the nation. Again. We also watched the President declare a National Emergency along the borderlands between the US and Mexico, to the consternation of anyone who knows the facts of the situation. We need some serious fixing.
When I was a boy, my grandfather used to sing me his favorite “aria” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Sorcerer:
… my name is John Wellington Wells,
I’m a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses,
And ever-filled purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells.
Today’s readings sound a bit like that. But despite the proliferation of scriptural weals and woes, the difference between Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeremiah, Luke,
and Paul could not be more complete. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah was a sorcerer. Both were true prophets, however, announcing the good news of salvation, which is sometimes bad news as well.
Today’s gospel contains three prophetic reversals of fortune, a hallmark of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary preaching and ministry, much like that foreshadowed in the Magnificat. For Jesus delights in turning things upside down as the world sees them and values them, in order to give them new meaning and new value. Here he restores the hope of the poor and oppressed in the form of the ancient Jewish custom of blessing.
In English, the word “bless” comes from the older word “blood.” Both animal and human blood were used from the dawn of humankind in ceremonies of consecration. To bless meant to mark with blood, to make holy, to sign, in Christian terms, with the cross. But “bless” also means to make happy. It is used to translate beatus, benedicere, and benedictus, where the Greek has makarios. All these words mean fortunate or happy in the sense of “blest,” but also and more importantly, they mean being close to God. Matthew’s gospel reflects the same usage in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pronounces eight or nine blessings rather than Luke’s four.
But in the gospels, being blest (or blessed) does not mean “follow your bliss.” The real and perplexing question behind blessing is not merely “what is happiness?” but “what is the character of our fundamental relationship with God?”
Hebrew, like Greek and other languages, uses several words to indicate what we translate as “blessing.” The most common are ashar, “to be straight, or level,” and especially barak, which means “to kneel,” and from which we get the word for “blessing,” berakah. (Yes, it is also a personal name of some standing!) The fundamental sense is to benefit someone, to praise, to prosper. For the Hebrews, from whom our spirituality has its first origins, blessing was a reciprocal act: we are blessed by God, and we bless God in return. But only God can truly bless: we bless when we extend God’s blessing to each other, and to the world of creation. When we bless God we acknowledge God as the source of our life and welfare and the origin of all goodness and gifts. It is thus an act of giving thanks and praise, ultimately, therefore, of eucharist. To experience woe is to lack and long for that intimacy and communion.
In the beginning, God blesses birds and fishes, and then blesses human beings (Gen.1:22,28; 5:2). All are told to increase and multiply as part of this blessing. God blesses the Sabbath (Gen 2:3) and makes it a day of blessing. God blesses Noah and his children, and tells Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and by you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:2-3).” God commands the Hebrews in Deut 8:10, “You shall bless the Lord,” and they are promised a few verses later, “The Lord will bless you (15:10).” Over a third of the Psalms sing of blessing God for all the favors and gifts showered abundantly on us. Under the New Covenant the cup of blessing is the blood Christ shed for the salvation of the world, and for this we praise and worship God.
In scripture, “woe” (‘oy in Hebrew and ouai in Greek, almost exactly the same sound) is an exclamation, a lament at being deprived of God’s blessing, or worse, cast out of God’s presence and grace. But woe is not the same as a curse or malediction, the pronouncement of a judgment against a person, a people, or the very land itself, as in Genesis 3, where God curses the serpent and then the earth because of sin. Jesus is not cursing the scribes and Pharisees. He is foretelling their future based on the way they conduct themselves in the present.
Thus both Beatitudes and Woes are declarations, even litanies of such blessings or their lack. Scripture is full of them. There are 26 beatitudes in the Psalms, 8 in Proverbs, and 23 in the other books of the Old Testament. There are lots of woes, as well. Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a whole catalogue of both. Luke gives us four of each. (Matthew later adds seven “woes” in chapter 23 which do not quite balance the beatitudes of the fifth chapter. But they still go together.)
The lists hardly summarize all the blessings that link us to God. Most translations reduce such statements to the banal: how happy, how fortunate, or, in one strange instance, how “lucky.” Luck means enjoying good fortune as the result of chance. Luck has nothing to do with it. We are celebrating grace, the most original of all blessings, which is poured out on us with gracious abundance in thousands of ways. And grace is not fortuitous. It is deliberate and prodigal.
In the end, all blessing is closeness to God. For Paul, blessedness flows from identification with Christ. Christ IS God’s blessing itself, God’s benediction on Creation and the divine presence made visible and tangible. To the extent that we draw closer to Christ, the happier we become. Not merely receptively, but — and this is more important — actively. We bear blessing, like a tree planted near water that continues producing foliage and fruit even in drought.
For Jesus, the drought comes in the form of persecution, attacks on reputation, and oppression: poverty, hunger, and grief. The Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke are linked by the word “poor.” Both point to the oppressed and dispirited classes of that world, those who lacked worldly wealth and enjoyed no esteem. Jesus, the master of paradox, locates their blessedness in their very lack of fortune and success. To the extent that we see in such events the hidden gift of God’s favor, it is possible to become happy. For true happiness is found only in the Kingdom of God, not the Empires of the World.
To be blessed means to remain joyful, to sing and dance, to celebrate beauty and goodness in circumstances of deprivation, oppression, infamy, and even senseless and brutal death. It means to be raised to new life, delivered from the power of sin and death. Jesus warns us not to look to those who are wealthy, overfed, and carefree to understand happiness. No, look to the lives of those whom the world counts worthless or worse, much as the rich and powerful look on the refugees from the south. For the seed of their bliss is hope, watered by faith in God’s promises and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, blossoming in justice and love.