The Advent season is a time to keep Christmas zombies at bay. It’s an opportunity to appreciate the limitation of time, and actively live in the present moment. With these efforts in mind, Advent can become a graced opportunity to deepen in the ways of God.
But what exactly does that mean? How does a person discern and know the ways of God?
People of good will can distinguish the various ways of God within the vast array of human activity by seeing the affirmation they give to humanity’s higher nature, the flourishing they bring about within the human person, and the building up of the common good. In summary, the ways of God are good and bring about goodness. They’re civil and civilizing.
And so, what are these ways? Listed quickly, they include possessing a poor spirit, sorrow over loss or evil, meekness, a keen desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, working for peace, and a willingness to suffer persecution for what is right and just.
This series can be found in religious traditions throughout human history. In particular, they are present in piecemeal fashion throughout Judaism’s TaNaK and Islam’s Quran. The New Testament, however, contains an almost creedal summary of these divine ways in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Commonly called the Beatitudes in the Christian tradition, the eight dimensioned paths of God are an ensured way to receive blessings and live a life of happiness. They form what Saint Paul later calls “the more excellent way of love.”
In the preaching of the Lord Jesus, he begins with a reference to “the kingdom of heaven.” He indicates that only the poor in spirit will receive it. In the line up, this initial reference is highly significant since the following beatitudes do not mention it. The kingdom is only addressed again in the eighth and final beatitude, namely, a willingness to accept persecution for the sake of righteousness. And so, the two shout-outs to the kingdom are approached pedagogically and are viewed as book ends to the life, ways, and the reign of God in this life and into eternal life.
As book ends, poverty of spirit and persecution for the sake of righteousness are the foundation and purpose of the Beatitudes. One is the key and the other is the mission. The others – grievance over loss or evil, meekness, a hunger and thirst for holiness, mercy, cleanliness of heart, and laboring for peace – all compose the internal dynamics of the ways of the kingdom of God.
For example, by living mercy, one is called to purity of heart. By laboring for peace, one is led to sorrow over the evil of our world. And the exchange and interaction continue. No one Beatitude stands alone. Each one of them points to the others and needs them in order to manifest and spread the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of love, light, and grace.
Pope Francis stressed the universality and essential role of the Beatitudes in human life when he taught: “The Beatitudes are the path that God indicates as an answer to the desire of happiness inherent in man…”.
To the Christian believer, the pontiff was even more direct about the importance of the Beatitudes: “In fact, the Beatitudes are Jesus’ portrait, his way of life, and they are the way of true happiness, which we also can live with the grace that Jesus gives us… This is one of the fundamental criteria to verify our Christian life, against which Jesus invites us to measure ourselves every day.”
And so, we have these eight markers as both guides and principles of discernment. Each of them individually, and all of them together, help us to see the presence of God and the work of his kingdom in our world.
Advent is a time, therefore, to reread these cherished Beatitudes and recommit ourselves to this way of life. It dispels the zombies and calls us into the present moment. And in this seasonal moment, alert and alive, we are called to see and welcome the abundant life offered to us by God. We are invited to live and let others live within this kingdom of happiness.
Portions of this column were borrowed from my new book, Kingdom of Happiness: Living the Beatitudes in Everyday Life. Charlotte: Saint Benedict Press.