Happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven: You already have it!
The funny thing about being an amateur or hobbyist is that there is no clear distinction between learning the art and practicing it; you are a painter, musician, golfer, or knitter as soon as you begin to paint, play, swing, or knit.
You may be inexpert, awkward, or struggling at the beginning, but practice is the only remedy for the unpracticed. Do anything enough, and that action eventually becomes natural, as easy as walking and talking. Most people who have a hobby are somewhere between absolute beginner and practiced expert, and that is something like the kingdom of heaven that Jesus announces in the Gospel: already, and not yet.
Last week, the Gospel included his proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). But what exactly was he announcing? What does it mean that the kingdom of heaven has arrived? This Sunday’s Gospel is the beginning of a long discourse that explains this. This Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:12) contains teachings on the moral life – how to understand God’s law and put it into action. St. Augustine called it the charter of the Christian life, and heaven’s charter, or constitution if you will, begins with the Beatitudes. This itself is instructive: “beatitude” means happiness, and this is the first thing Jesus says about heaven. But what he says about happiness is counterintuitive, and even confounding – happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who are persecuted… clearly, heavenly happiness is not the same as earthly comfort!
What God deems happy circumstances tells us a lot. What is important to God? What does he want from us and for us as members of his heavenly society? Well, the Beatitudes do not celebrate success, power, wealth, or influence. In fact, they go directly contrary to these worldly aspirations, instead declaring that happiness belongs to the humble, meek, and suffering. God is nearer for those who do not have the luxury of self-reliance, and to them he promises a rich inheritance, consolation, and the satisfaction of justice. What God wants from us is “a broken spirit, a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17), and what he wants for us is the happiness only he can give.
The Beatitudes teach what true happiness is for us: reliance on our heavenly Father. In the life of heaven to come, none of us will have independent wealth, or self-reliance of any kind; there will be no more injustice to redress, no more merciless rebuffs, no obstacles to beholding God in his glory. And that life to come is already present, but not fully realized. Like amateurs beginning to learn shuffleboard or sewing, we don’t start out good at embracing poverty, meekness, injustice, and dependency, but the only way to be experts at happiness in heaven is to start practicing now.
By Fr. Nathan Marzonie