St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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November 1 : Fr Tony Hogg

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 St Seraphim of Sarov lived in Russia in the eighteenth century. He spent much of his life as a hermit in the forest, where people would come to visit him, hoping for help, advice and healing. One day a disciple of Seraphim’s came to him, much troubled by the question of how we can be sure that we have the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nothing that Seraphim could say, whether teaching from the Bible or from the lives of the saints, could reassure the man.
 
Finally, Seraphim said, “Look at me.” When the man looked at Seraphim’s face, he saw it so brightly illuminated that he could hardly keep his eyes on it. But Seraphim said, “And that is how you look to me, too. That is how we know that we have the grace of the Holy Spirit, because we see each other with God’s eyes.”
 
 
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus does not explicitly talk about saints, but the people he commends are those who see the world under a different light from most of us.
 
This passage is called “the Beatitudes”, or blessings. “Blessed” is probably best translated as “Congratulations are due to”, or something rather less obviously religious than the term “blessed” has become in general usage. Jesus is commending people for a choice they have already made, a way of life that they are already following, not offering them some vague spiritual commendation.
 
Interestingly, Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is much longer than Luke’s. Luke has only four Beatitudes to Matthew’s nine, and Luke’s are very clearly connected to Jesus’ own ministry to the poor and the marginalised of society, whereas Matthew’s seem to be a reflection on a whole new way of seeing the world. These two are not incompatible, because Matthew’s Beatitudes do seem to be born out of Jesus’ own reading of the prophets, and his own teaching about what God wills.
 
So, for example, “the poor in spirit” are certainly those who face material poverty, but they do so knowing that wealth is not a sign of God’s favour, and that possessions can dull love for God. Likewise, “those who mourn” may well be those who face actual suffering and bereavement, but who also hurt for the gap between the world that God made and desires, and the world that human sin has created.
 
The meek and the people who hunger for righteousness, like the merciful and the peacemakers and the pure in heart, are people who actively seek to change their own lives and the lives of those they meet so as to bring it more and more in line with their vision of God’s world. “Meekness” does not equal weakness here, but gentleness and kindness towards others, and purity of heart is no abstract quality but a strong trust in God’s just commandments.
 
All of these are qualities that any good teacher of the law would recognise as praiseworthy. But in the last Beatitudes, Jesus ties all of these qualities in with his own mission and the lives of his disciples. Those who follow Jesus and try to live out God’s call on the world and on their lives will undoubtedly suffer for it, just as all those who challenge the structures of selfish materialism do. But they are not for one moment to doubt that they are doing God’s will, and helping to make God’s light shine through them into the world.
 
 
Our understanding of sanctity can often be a bit wishy-washy, as though goodness is almost an absence of something, rather than this almost fierce resistance that we see in the Beatitudes to standards that are not God’s.
 
The Beatitudes urge Jesus’ disciples to share Jesus’ own longing, the longing so vividly expressed by the Old Testament prophets, for a new heaven and a new earth. But we are not just to yearn for it, we are also to begin to live it now, in our care for those who are poor, in our desire for justice, in our willingness to turn away from violence and selfishness.
 
We have all met people who, like Seraphim of Sarov, seem to shine with the brightness of God’s own light, but perhaps we do not realise how easily that could be us, as we demonstrate God’s love to others by our prayer and by our action.
 
So may you all this week be enabled and strengthened ‘to shine as lights in the world to the Glory of God the Father’ as we recognise each other from that light.
 
Amen
 
 

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