When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” [Matt 5:1-12a]
The Beatitudes form the bedrock of and a prologue to the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus recalls the promises made to the Chosen People from the time of Abraham onwards, but he gives them a new character; the promise of possession of a land is transformed into that of belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven: “The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. They express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1717).
The wording of blessing found in the Beatitudes belongs to traditional biblical language: the book of Psalms, for example, begins in the same way: “Blessed is …” (Ps 1:1).
The Beatitudes proclaim how to be fortunate, blessed. In this sense, they are at the heart of human desires, for “we all want to be happy. No one in the whole human race would deny that he wants to be happy, even if he is not sure what to be happy means” (St Augustine, De moribus ecclesiae, 1, 3, 4).
But Christ gives them an eschatological meaning, that is, one leading to eternal salvation: if people live in the way he describes, they will find the door of heaven open to them.
God is not indifferent to us; he is active in our interest: he will console his followers, will meet their needs, will call them his sons and daughters, etc.
The Beatitudes are a map of the route to human happiness, and one reason they are such a good one is that they express the dual desire that God has written on the human heart – to attain true happiness on earth and eternal bliss.
Saint Matthew records nine beatitudes: the first eight deal with the attitudes of the Christian towards the world (vv. 3-10); but the ninth, which begins “Blessed are,” not “Blessed are those,” refers to those who suffer on Christ’s account.
This last beatitude is followed by a call to joy: suffering for Christ is a sign that a person has chosen the right road. In Saint Luke’s text (see Lk 6:20-26 and note), this aspect is given even more emphasis.
Two Beatitudes, the second and the fourth (vv. 4, 6), promise the reward in the passive voice: it is God who will comfort and satisfy them. “Those who mourn” are people who suffer some sort of affliction, and especially those who grieve over offenses committed against God by themselves or by others.
Those who “hunger and thirst” are people who sincerely try to do the will of God, which they can discern from the commandments, from the duties that their state in life involves, and from their inner union with God: They are, in other words, those who seek holiness. Significantly, the reward comes from God, for only he can truly console us and only he can make us saints.
“The meek” (v. 5) are those who, imitating Christ, remain not give in to bitterness or discouragement: “Adopted as true sons of God, we are made in the likeness of our Creator. We do not reflect the power of his image, because that power of his image, because that power is his alone; we are like him in innocence, simplicity, meekness, patience, mercy and peace, in the virtues for which our Lord deigned to become one of us and to be like us” (Saint Peter Chrysologus, Sermones, 117).
“The merciful” are those who show understanding of the defects and needs of others, overlooking faults and rendering what help they can.
The parable of the unforgiving servant, particularly the words of the king, is the best commentary on this Beatitude.
“They shall see God” refers not just ultimate happiness in heaven. In the language of the Old Testament it means, rather, having a close relationship with God, sharing in his decisions, the way a king’s counselors help him to govern.
This is what the virtue of purity enables us to do: [It] is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as ‘neighbors’; it lets us perceive the human body – ours and our neighbors – as temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty” (Catechism of Catholic Church, 2519).
The “peacemakers” are those who foster peace in themselves and among others, and, as a basis for that, try to be reconciled with God and to help others to be so: “Peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority. But this is not enough. […] Peace is likewise the fruit of love, which goes beyond what justice can provide” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 78).