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Lent and the Beatitudes

I have noticed a large number of search hits on 3 Minute Theologian for anything to do with the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount and Lent. As that time of the year is coming up, I thought I’d put in one handy place all the postings for last year’s series on the Beatitudes: Learning to Live Simply in Lent.

Beatitudes : Peace and Persecution

Life Attitudes

Consider these questions. (You don’t have to write an essay, but just think through what your answers might be.)

  • Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth?’ What answer would Jesus give if Pilate asked him ‘what is peace?’ What answer would you give? Pilate?

Bible Work Read through Matthew 5:9-10 (either alone or as a group). As you read, look at the notes you made when you read the Beatitudes during the first week:

  • !! for that which makes you think;
  • 🙂 those things you agree with, or approve of;
  • 🙁 those things you find difficult to believe or understand;
  • ?? those things which require you to go a little bit further.

Read this story of the Desert Fathers:

  • There were three friends who were eager workers, and one of them chose to devote himself to making peace between people who were fighting, in accordance with ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. The second chose to visit the sick. The third went off to live in tranquillity in the desert. The first toiled away at the quarrels of men, but could not resolve them all, and so, in discouragement, went to the one who was looking after the sick, and he found him flagging too, not succeeding in fulfilling the commandment. So the two of them agreed to go and visit the one who was living in the desert. They told him their difficulties and asked him to tell them what he had been able to do. He was silent for a time, then he poured water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water.’ It was all turbulent. A little later he told them to look at it again, and see how the water had settled down. When they looked at it, they saw their own faces as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘In the same way a man who is living in the midst of men does not see his own sins because of all the disturbance, but if he becomes tranquil, especially in the desert, then he can see his own shortcomings.’ (Retold by Simon Tugwell)

Can you answer these questions?

  • Why is peacemaking so important to God?
  • What do you make of the story of the Desert Fathers? Whose part would you take?
  • How and where could you ‘make peace’?
  • Look at Jesus’s ‘cleansing the temple’ in Matthew 21:10-16. Is Jesus a peacemaker here?

Read this passage:

  • Persecution is an embarrassment to Western Christians; or rather, the lack of it is. There is so much in the scriptures that prepares the disciples for a rough ride, for suffering and pain in this world, that when it does not happen we are thrown by the experience. Are we simply not worth persecuting, we wonder? (Robert Warren, Living Well, 1988))
  • Are we worth persecuting?
  • How do we discern when hostility is ‘persecution’ and when it is deserved censure?
  • What one thing might God be calling you to do that goes against the flow?
  • How can we respond to the sufferings of persecuted Christians elsewhere in the world?

Vangelis : A Way – from the album ‘Heaven and Hell’ (1975); Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (b.1943)

Vangelis, most famous in this country for his score for Chariots of Fire, is a Greek-born electronic and classical composer. Although recently working in an orchestral medium, his early characteristic albums consist of elaborately recorded layers of keyboards, treated synthesisers and “soundscapes” that, with a finely developed sense of melody and mood, work supremely well with applied visuals: hence his popularity with film makers. A Way is the final movement from his early concept album, Heaven and Hell (released in 1975) which resolves the conflict and turmoil of the earlier themes.

What music would you normally choose to listen to for a peaceful time? What other art forms bring you or others peace?

Beatitudes : Mercy and Purity

Life Attitudes

Consider these questions. (You don’t have to write an essay, but just think through what your answers might be.)

  • How do you like to be treated? Do you treat others in the same way?

Bible Work Read through Matthew 5:7-8 (either alone or as a group). As you read, look at the notes you made when you read the Beatitudes during the first week:

  • !! for that which makes you think;
  • 🙂 those things you agree with, or approve of;
  • 🙁 those things you find difficult to believe or understand;
  • ?? those things which require you to go a little bit further.

A note to help you:
For most modern readers ‘heart’ is the symbolic source of our emotions, and so “pure in heart” is to do with having the right feelings. In the ancient world ‘heart’ more often stood for ‘the inner person’, your mind and your will. “The heart is a symbol of what we are in ourselves, of the source of all our reactions and aspirations. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ will mean something like ‘Blessed are those who have a pure source of life in them.’ (Simon Tugwell).
Can you answer these questions?

  • Is pure the same as ‘nice’?
  • What is the connection between purity of heart and seeing clearly?
  • Is it naïve to see the best and the possible in people and situations?
  • Simon Tugwell has given his definition of ‘purity of heart’. What is yours?
  • What do you think of Shakespeare’s famous passage on mercy?

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene I

  • Does showing mercy encourage people to take advantage of you?
  • How and where have you experienced mercy?
  • Should governments demonstrate mercy? How?
  • Twice, in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, Jesus quotes Hosea’s cry that God desires ‘mercy not sacrifice’. Why is this so important to Jesus?

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Charlotte Margiono, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson, Anton Scharinger; Nicholas Harnoncourt (cond) : “Contessa, perdonno” (Finale) – The Marriage of Figaro (1786); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (1756-1791)

The Marriage of Figaro was a controversial choice for Mozart to turn into an opera. The play upon which is was based, by the French playwright Beaumarchais, had caused rioting when it was performed in Paris after being banned for six years by Louis XIV: the king had uttered the prophetic warning: “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first”. Five years after the play’s first performance in Paris that is exactly what happened. The play was also banned in Vienna, where the brother of Louis’s wife (Marie Antoinette) was Emperor, but the Emperor was persuaded by Mozart (and his librettist, da Ponte) that the vicious satire which characterised Beaumarchais’s play would be removed.

The first performance of The Marriage of Figaro was vividly recreated in Peter Schaffar’s play Amadeus, later filmed by Milos Forman. In it Mozart’s great rival Salieri is portrayed as the only person able to realise the genius of the opera, that God is speaking to the world through the music of Mozart. This is what Salieri says of the final scene of The Marriage of Figaro (our music clip):

The fourth [act] was astounding. l saw a woman disguised in her maid’s clothes, hear her husband speak the first tender words he’d offered her in years. Simply because he thinks she is someone else. l heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theatre conferring on all who sat there perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world. Unstoppable.

What is sung

Contessa, perdono!Più docile io sono, e dico di sì.Ah, tutti contenti saremo così.
Questo giorno di tormenti,
di capricci, e di follia,
in contenti e in allegria
solo amor può terminar.
Sposi, amici, al ballo, al gioco,
alle mine date foco!
Ed al suon di lieta marcia
corriam tutti a festeggiar!
My Countess, forgive me.I am kinder: I will say “Yes.”Then let us all be happy.
This day of torment,
Of caprices and folly,
Love can end
Only in contentment and joy.
Lovers and friends,
let’s round things off
In dancing and pleasure,
And to the sound of a gay march
Let’s hasten to the revelry.

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Has any other piece of music ever moved you to see God at work through its composer?

Beatitudes : The Meek, the Hungry, and the Thirsty

Life Attitudes

Consider this question. (You don’t have to write an essay, but just think through what your answer might be.)

  • What is the single most satisfying thing in your life?

Bible Work Read through Matthew 5:5-6 (either alone or as a group). As you read, look at the notes you made when you read the Beatitudes during the first week:

  • !! for that which makes you think;
  • 🙂 those things you agree with, or approve of;
  • 🙁 those things you find difficult to believe or understand;
  • ?? those things which require you to go a little bit further.

Can you answer these questions?

  • How would you define the quality of ‘meekness’?
  • Is Jesus encouraging us to be wimps?
  • How is meekness different from being amenable and undemanding?
  • What does it mean to ‘inherit the earth’?
  • Do you have any sympathy with the attitudes shown in this passage from Monty Python’s Life of Brian? It shows the group at the back of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount. They can’t hear Jesus’s speech very well:

MAN 2: You hear that? Blessed are the Greek.
GREGORY: The Greek?
MAN 2: Mmm. Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.
GREGORY: Did anyone catch his name?
MRS. BIG NOSE: You’re not going to thump anybody.
MR. BIG NOSE: I’ll thump him if he calls me ‘Big Nose’ again.
MR. CHEEKY: Oh, shut up, Big Nose.
MR. BIG NOSE: Ah! All right. I warned you. I really will slug you so hard–
MRS. BIG NOSE: Oh, it’s the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that’s nice, isn’t it? I’m glad they’re getting something, ‘cause they have a hell of a time.

  • What is the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness?
  • How does Isaiah 58:6-8 affect your understanding of ‘righteousness’?

What do you think of this quotation:

  • It is all too easy for us to treat the Pharisees as embodying all that is worst in humankind. But in fact they were most probably the best men of their time, the most religious, the most devoted to the will of God, the most eager to express their loyalty to him in obedience to his every word, the most determined never to compromise with the world around them. But as St Paul came to see it in retrospect, they were exposed to a fatal flaw: the trouble with their outstanding righteousness was that, all too easily, it could be viewed precisely as their righteousness. It was a righteousness that could be measured, so that, at a certain point, you could say that you had now achieved it. This meant it could all too easily come adrift from the original inspiration in devotion to God and become self-sufficient, an end in itself. Simon Tugwell : Reflections on the Beatitudes (1980)

Polyphony : The Beatitudes (1990); Arvo Pärt (b.1935)

Born in 1935, in Estonia, Arvo Pärt first won recognition as a composer in the late 1950s by writing a cantata for children’s choir and orchestra. In 1968 he wrote Credo for piano, mixed chorus, and orchestra; it was banned in the Soviet Union because of its religious text. While in a period of internal exile, Pärt immersed himself in the study of Gregorian chant and Orthodox liturgical music. He began to write using a tonal technique he called ‘tintinnabuli’, in which he surrounded a melodic phrase with triadic notes sounding like bells ringing. A number of large scale choral works were swiftly considered to be modern classics.
The Beatitudes was the first work Pärt composed to an English text, and it was written for the RIAS Chamber Choir in Berlin. Pärt has composed his music carefully, with an ear to the rhythms and syntax of the English version of the verses from Matthew’s Gospel: he uses note lengths to emphasise significant texts. The piece gradually builds in volume and intensity, climaxing in a sung ‘Amen’ (thus taking the piece from the concert hall and into the Church). Pärt begins to explore the consequences of the Beatitudes with an organ postlude, which, working on the themes of the sung passages gently fades away into eternity.
How does the organ playing affect the piece? How does the composer set the different Beatitudes? What difference does his choice of arrangement (melody, harmony, volume, voices) make to your appreciation of each Beatitude? The whole?

Beatitudes : The Poor and the Mournful

Life Attitudes

Consider this question. (You don’t have to write an essay, but just think through what your answer might be.)

  • What five things do human beings need most?

Bible WorkRead through Matthew 5:3-4 (either alone or as a group). As you read, look at the notes you made when you read the Beatitudes last week:

  • !! for that which makes you think;
  • 🙂 those things you agree with, or approve of;
  • 🙁 those things you find difficult to believe or understand;
  • ?? those things which require you to go a little bit further.

A note to help you:
In the Old Testament “the poor” has a complex meaning. Look at the way various English bible have translated Isaiah 61:1:

  • KJV : The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek
  • CEV : The Spirit of the LORD God has taken control of me! The LORD has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news
  • RSV : The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted
  • GNB : The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has chosen me and sent me to bring good news to the poor

The Hebrew word is ‘anav, and the King James Bible translates it ‘meek’ thirteen times, ‘humble’ and ‘poor’ both five times, lowly twice, and once as ‘meek’.
Can you answer these questions?

  • What does it mean to be ‘poor in spirit’? Write a definition.
  • Read Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-25). What light does it shed on the first Beatitude?
  • Is there any relationship between spiritual and material poverty? How does one illuminate the other?

What do you think of this quotation:

  • It is hard for us to say, ‘Yes, I am poor,’ and to say it simply, and it is even harder to say it and then leave it at that, without the rider, ‘And something has got be done about it.’ Simon Tugwell : Reflections on the Beatitudes (1980)
  • Why might Jesus’s disciples be mourning?
  • In what way would their mourning be comforted?
  • What things do you mourn over?
  • What is the effect on people and communities of refusing to mourn? Can you think of examples?
  • What is the connection between mourning and repentance?

What do you think of this quotation:

  • For the Christian, the starting point in… mourning is personal confession and repentance. We dare to face and own our wounds before attempting to help others, and take the beam out of our own eye first before helping to remove the speck in the other person’s eye. So mourning is the capacity to face the gap between present reality and perceived good. Robert Warren, Living Well (1998)

Simon and Garfunkel : Blessed – Sounds of Silence (1965); Paul Simon (b. 1941)
Simon and Garfunkel were, for many years, producers of the best selling record of all time with their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon’s work has suffered by being if anything too familiar: it is hard to hear the original recordings as if for the first time, with fresh ears. ‘Blessed’ is from their early break-through album, recorded after the unexpected success of The Sound of Silence. Written during his stay in England (hence the reference to Soho in the first verse).

Two versions are included here. The first is the original album version, complete with jarring electric guitars and drum backing, which add to the sense of alienation and dislocation Simon conveyed by his lyrics. If that is too loud for your ears the second version, recorded live, unaccompanied except for Simon’s acoustic guitar, at a concert given by the pair in the Lincoln Center, New York City in early 1967 shows a mastery of weaving harmony lines and the precision of their performance.

What do you think of the people Simon mentions in the song? Can they be ‘blessed’ too? Are you ever able to “bless the church service which makes me nervous?”

Beatitudes : Teaching from the Mountain

Life Attitudes

Consider these two questions. You don’t have to write an essay, but just think through what your reactions might be.

  • What makes you happy?
  • How do you best learn?

Bible Work Read the Beatitudes through (either alone or as a group). As you read, mark the text with:

  • !! for that which makes you think;
  • 🙂 those things you agree with, or approve of;
  • 🙁 those things you find difficult to believe or understand;
  • ?? those things which require you to go a little bit further.

Can you answer these questions?

  • What tense are the Beatitudes written in? (that is, are they saying something about the past, present or future?). What significance might these tenses have?
  • Can you see any pattern to the layout of the Beatitudes? (that is, what structure do the sayings have, is there a flow to the ideas they express?)
  • Are any words or ideas left undefined? Is there ambiguity? (that is, can a sentence mean more than one thing?)
  • Read again how St Matthew tops and tails the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:1-2; Mat 7:28-29). What does this add to your understanding of the Beatitudes?
  • Sum up the Beatitudes in one sentence.

What do you think of these two statements?

  • The Beatitudes are not laws— rather they are statements of grace. They overflow with affirmation, accepting love and reassurance.
  • The Beatitudes draw for us a very strange picture of the man who is blessed: he is poor and unimpressive, hungry and in mourning, trodden on, yet able to make peace. [Simon Tugwell : Reflections on the Beatitudes (1980)]

Noirin Ni Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey : The Beatitudes (1989); Kevin Healy OSB

Nóirín Ní Riain is an Irish singer, theologian and musicologist. Her doctorate in the theology of listening coined a new word ‘theosony’, a Greek/Latin neologism which means ‘God-sounding’. The composer, a Benedictine monk, has added a chorus: “Amen. Truly I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). What do Jesus’s words to the penitent thief add to the Beatitudes? Are they deepened? Changed? Spoilt? Improved?

Beatitudes : Learning to live simply in Lent

Life Attitudes

Each Sunday in Lent the preachers at the main Sunday service of the Holy Eucharist at St Stephen’s Church, Canterbury will be leading our thoughts through the beginning of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, through the verses known as “the Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:1-10). After each sermon I will post a series of questions and reflections for anyone who wishes to take the ideas in the sermon series, and the original Sermon on the Mount (!), further. The posts will provide suggestions for further thought, study or prayer. Some people may wish to use them in privacy. Others may wish to gather together in groups, over bible study or coffee, with friends or neighbours, to share your ideas and questions.1)

  • Session 1 / 10 February (Lent 1) Teaching from the MountainMatthew 5:1-2
  • Session 2 / 17 February (Lent 2) The Poor and the MournfulMatthew 5:3-4
  • Session 3 / 24 February (Lent 3) The Meek, the Hungry, and the ThirstyMatthew 5:5-6
  • Session 4 / 2 March (Mothering Sunday) Mercy and PurityMatthew 5:7-8
  • Session 5 / 9 March (Lent 5) Peace and PersecutionMatthew 5:9-10

This first post is a general introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.Sermon on the MountThe Beatitudes are the opening section of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. They are a collection of eight sayings, each beginning with “Happy (or blessed) are the…” —hence their name, for beatitudo is the Latin for ‘happiness’. However, we should all remember that the gospels were not originally written in Latin but in Greek, and the word that St Matthew used was makarios, which can mean happy, but also means much more. A rough approximation would be “possessing an inward contentedness and joy that is not affected by the physical circumstances”.

Furthermore, we should not think that the Sermon on the Mount is the transcript of a single sermon preached on a single occasion by Jesus: rather it is a compilation of some of his teaching (and certainly not all of it) collected and arranged by Matthew and placed by him at the beginning of his account of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. The Sermon on the Mount frames Jesus’s ministry and gives us what the scholars call a “hermeneutic lens”; that is, it gives us a means of interpreting and understanding the whole of Jesus’s teaching and actions. If you want to understand Jesus’s ministry, Matthew says, then read the Sermon on the Mount; if you want to understand the Sermon on the Mount, then look at Jesus.

This is an important point. Look at the way Matthew begins and ends the Sermon.

Matthew 5:1-2: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them… ”.

Matthew 7:28-29: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Matthew frames the whole Sermon by showing that Jesus is acting in the role of Rabbi, a scribe, a man learned in Scripture and the Law. Jesus assumes the traditional position of the teacher at the beginning of the Sermon: he teaches whilst sitting (in Jesus’s day, as in our own, the person who remains sitting in a social gathering, is the person with the greater authority— the Queen doesn’t stand up for anyone!). Some scholars have seen a connection between the structure of the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of the law by Moses. Just as the Law of the Old Testament, the Torah, was given to Israel in five books (Genesis, Exodus etc), the Sermon on the Mount can be divided into five sections, or discourses. In this way, the hill in Galilee becomes a new Sinai, and Jesus the new Moses, the Lawgiver. Certainly there is another Old Testament connection: Matthew has arranged the Beatitudes to reflect the promises made by God in Isaiah 61. Jesus is shown as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of all God’s promises to his people.

If the posture Jesus used in teaching is familiar, the reaction to his teaching is anything but. The crowds (not just the disciples, the in-crowd, but all the curious of Galilee who came to see what the rabbi had to say) were astonished at the authority with which he taught. It is not that what he had to say was anything desperately novel or unusual: scholars can find similar ideas in the teaching of other rabbis of the period. It is the way in which he taught. The crowds recognised the absolute identity between who Jesus was and what he taught. There was no difference between what he said and what he did. There is an authenticity to Jesus, teaching and man, and this surprises the crowd.

In other words, if you want to understand the Beatitudes then look at Jesus. If you want to understand Jesus then look at the Beatitudes. The whole of Jesus’s life and teaching was lived and spoken according to the kingdom values of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are an expression of what it means to be a child of God the Father, and Jesus was the particular and complete example.

  1. Some of this material, is taken from Robert Warren and Sue Mayfield, Life Attitudes: A 5 Session course on the Beatitudes for Lent, (Church House Publishing, 2004 []

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