Blessings and woes. “Blessed are you.” “Woe to you.” What do you make of all that?
I think it’s easy to hear the blessings and woes in today’s gospel (Luke 6:20-31) as rewards and punishments or as a categorization of saints and sinners, but I also think that would be a mistake and a misunderstanding of the gospel. There is nothing inherently virtuous or holy about poverty, hunger, or grief. God knows the world doesn’t need more pain or misery. And there is nothing inherently sinful or wrong about being rich, full, or laughing.
I don’t think Jesus is talking about what or how much we have or don’t have. It’s not about a bottomline calculation of our bank balance, the number of meals or calories we get each day, or whether we spend more time crying than laughing. Jesus is talking about a quality of life not a quantity of stuff. He is talking about how we are in the world, not what we have, but our way of being.
When I’m poor, hungry, weeping – whether materially, emotionally, or spiritually – I am usually more open and receptive. I am looking for something new and a different way of being in the world. I don’t want to keep doing life the same old way. I’m looking and working for change. Maybe that’s true for you as well.
But when I am rich, full, and laughing – whether materially, emotionally, or spiritually – I mostly want more of the same. I don’t want change. I am not looking for anything new or different. I’m doing just fine. I work to defend and keep the status quo. Maybe that’s also true for you.
What if blessings and woes are descriptive of two different ways of being in the world? One way is when our hearts, hopes, and aspirations are turned toward the coming of something new, something different. We are open to the future, to one another, to the possibility of what seems impossible. And where there is a future there is life, and more life. The other way of being in the world is when we are closed to the future, to others, to something new or different. We are self-enclosed and believe ourselves to be self-sufficient. We are bound to the world as it is, maybe even stuck.
What if we were to think of blessings and woes as guides to making the kingdom present?
Do you remember the hot and cold game? Maybe you played it as a kid or maybe you’ve played it with your children or grandchildren. Someone picks an object in the room but doesn’t identify it to the other players. The others players move about searching for the object and are told “You’re warm. Yes, you’re getting warmer. Oh, now you’re cold. You’re ice cold.” It’s a way of telling the players whether they are close to or far from the object. What if blessings and woes are Jesus saying we are either warm or cold toward the kingdom, getting close to or moving away from it?
You see, the kingdom is not a what. It is a how. It is not a place or a time or a thing, but a way of being in this world. You and I give existence to the kingdom by the how of our being in the world. The kingdom is God’s dream, hope, desire and longing for the world. It is God’s call to us. And it’s up to us to respond and make it present. And sometimes we do.
From time to time the kingdom actually happens through our way of being in the world. That’s what we remember and celebrate today on the Feast of All Saints. We remember our calling to give existence to the kingdom. Sometimes we’re warm and sometimes we’re cold. We remember and give thanks for those people whose how of life gave existence to God’s kingdom and life in this world in their time and place. They are witnesses that we too can give existence to the kingdom, to God’s how of being, in our life, time, place, and circumstances.
Some of those people are name brand saints, the ones who have a place on the calendar, people like Philip, Mary, Luke, Augustine, Theresa, Francis and Clare, King, Romero. Others are local and particular to us, known only to us. They may not have a place on the church’s calendar but they have a place in our hearts. I think of my grandmother Bum Bum, my great uncle WaWa, my wife Cyndy, my teacher Katie, my best friends John and David, my spiritual directors Fr. Kelly and Sr. Marie. My list could go on and on. I wonder whose on your list of saints.
Some have died. Others still live. But all stand with and companion us as teachers, examples, and guides. They have cared for and nurtured us, loved and guided us, taught and mentored us. They showed us a how of being that was vibrant and alive, holy and earthy. They invited us to take our place in the line of saints that has always been, is today, and always will be.
The kingdom comes locally, temporarily, intermittently, episodically in our particular circumstance through our how of being in the world. It mostly happens on the margins of power, at the edges, and rarely at the center. It is the reversal of all reversals. The kingdom comes, is actually here, is really real, whenever we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us, turn the other cheek, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive our offender, give to the beggar. Every time we do to others as we would have them do to us we give existence to the kingdom. Where and in what ways do you see that happening in your life today? Are you getting warmer or colder?
You and I have the privilege and responsibility of giving existence to God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” Have you ever considered that the coming of the kingdom might depend on you? Have you ever thought that God might need you as much as you need God? Have you ever thought of yourself as a saint, as one whose way of life matters and makes a difference to others and to the world?
What if we were to step into our own sainthood in our particular time and place, in the unique circumstances of our lives, in our daily relationships? What might that look like in your life today? And what would it take? You just might you change, benefit, or heal the life of another and a piece of the world.
Image Credit: Cyndy Marsh, Dia de los Muertos 2022, St. Philip’s – Uvalde.