January 29, 2023

Dear parish family,

The Gospel of this Sunday begins with Jesus going up the mountain, where he sits down and began teaching the crowd about the Beatitudes. Have you ever had a mountain top experience? When was that time? What was going on? I think we all feel like we spend most of our lives in the valleys of life, going from one point to another, or in circles as the case may be. However, we all have at least one or two mountain top experiences when God gives us a glimpse of the world around us, where we receive clarity about God’s will for us and direction on where we need to be going in life. In spiritual language we call this a “peak experience”.

The word “beautiful” is related to the word “beatitude” because the Beatitudes are Jesus’ recipe for how to live a beautiful life. However, it is fascinating how the Gospel reading begins with Jesus situating himself on a mountain to give his famous sermon. If you visit the location of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you will discover that it is only a good-sized hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. However, the evangelist Matthew’s designation of this little hill as a mountain carries a certain significance. Mountains are places where you cannot climb higher. It is the place where the earth touches heaven. It is from such a place that Jesus teaches his followers the spirit and perfection of the law of Moses rather than the letter and details of that law. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses. Just as Moses received the law from God on a mountain, Jesus is going to give us the perfection of the law from a mountain. Instead of a long list of “thou shalt not,” Jesus is going to give us a long list of “thou shalt”. He is inviting us to have a mountain top look at what is truly important in life.

It is also fascinating to note that the word for “blessed” in Greek is makarios, which is perhaps better translated as “fortunate” or even “lucky”. It is as if Jesus is saying “lucky are the poor in spirit”, “lucky” are you when you are mourning, and “lucky” are you when you are insulted and persecuted. The incongruity in these statements is meant to catch our attention and intrigue us to a deeper understanding. How could a poor person, a person in mourning, or those in suffering, be considered “lucky”? My recent visit to Vietnam, my homeland, helped me to put these Beatitudes into a meaningful perspective. My mother and I made that trip mainly for the purpose of celebrating a Memorial Mass for my Dad on the second anniversary of his death, so that our extended family, including his siblings, can properly mourn him together. I was initially afraid of reuniting with everyone in such a sad occasion. Yet it turned out to be an extraordinary blessing that brought not only healing and closure to all participants, but also joy and peace as many relationships were renewed and long lost connections were restored. My Dad was remembered in two solemn Masses in North and South Vietnam, each attended by many bishops, priests and numerous people who knew him personally. These prayerful experiences renewed our faith in Christ’s victory over death, and in his promise of eternal life. As a mourner, I felt lucky because I knew that my Dad was loved enough to be mourned by many people. Sometimes I felt caught into the trap of closing my heart to others because I wanted avoid the pain of loss. Yet mourning my Dad has helped me to open my heart again to others. I will never celebrate another funeral in the same way as before. As my mother and I were united with others in faith, we were strengthened by the hope of being reunited with our beloved in heaven. We felt very comforted.

You can perhaps relate to an experience in your own life in which a certain Beatitude touches you just as powerfully. Jesus continually leads you and me again up a mountain to give us a fresh look at where we are at in our lives, where we should be going, what is important and what isn’t. Today he is inviting us to embrace the value of being poor in spirit, to embrace a simpler way of living, where our wealth isn’t measured by the things we accumulate but rather on our fidelity to God. He is inviting us to embrace the value of mourning which reflects our hearts’ willingness to love and be loved with a deeper sincerity. He is inviting us to embrace the value of being persecuted for the Gospel so that we recognize clearly that our lives are not about us and nothing else in this world has the power to save us but God. If we reorient our lives to the Beatitudes, we can then better appreciate his promises: “Theirs is the kingdom of God”, “They will be comforted”, “They will inherit the land”, “They will be satisfied”, “They will be shown mercy”, “They will see God”, “They will be called children of God”, and “Your reward will be great in heaven.”

May meditating on the Gospel today be a mountain top experience for you the way it has been for me. Jesus has laid out a clear path to a beautiful life, the choice to follow it is ours to make.

With prayerful blessings,

Msgr. Cuong M. Pham