Friday, May 29, 2009

2-3-2008: 4th Ordinary Time (A)

Zephaniah 2:3;3:12-13/Psalm 146/1 Corinthians 1:26-31/Matthew 5:1-12
If you were a skeptic you might say the readings today can be summed up with that old adage: misery loves company. Or you just might label it a theology of inversion – a take on happiness expressed in Paul’s reduction to nothing those who were something and Jesus’ formula for joy found in the Beatitudes. Blessed, Jesus says, are the poor and the meek and the sorrowful.

There’s a danger, of course, that many a religiously-minded soul has fallen into again and again: namely, that one should desire poverty, humiliation, suffering or sorrow as goods in themselves. The theology of inversion is more subtle: it suggests that such conditions in life, though at times desperate and despairing, need not preclude joy. In fact such conditions might help us discover joy all the sooner because we are stripped of expectation and open to surprise. And surprise, perhaps more than anything else, is the best evidence of grace.

James Joyce conveyed this idea better than most in his short story Clay from Dubliners, about an Irish servant-girl, Maria, working for an upper class Anglo-Irish family in Dublin. Joyce follows Maria on her one day off as she rises early to buy biscuits and spend hours commuting across Dublin to the modest home of her brother and his family. One assumes Maria will never marry; her small salary is spent on perishable gifts for her brother’s family; her life a monotony of repeated chores. But Joyce leaves us with Maria sitting in front of the fire, a portrait framed in a burning humility that warms better than peat. We see hints of hidden majesty here in Maria’s soul, a noble dignity which is especially attractive, not in spite of her classed-servitude but, in Pauline paradox, because of it. And not only is the person of Maria raised in stature, but her accent, her religion, and the lower class she embodies are ennobled as well.

The gospel of beatitude, that theology of inversion, is Christianity’s revolutionary manifesto, turning things topsy-turvy, making surprise possible, inviting grace to make an appearance in our mundane lives. Poverty, humiliation, sorrow, in some form or other, are inevitable in every life. How we choose to engage them will make all the difference -- framing our lives in misery or majesty.

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