The Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




OUR Lord's great catechetical discourses naturally follow the selection of the twelve Apostles. The first effort toward the official organization of the youthful Church was to be succeeded by the promulgation of the law which was to rule her members, and of the dogmas which were to be the object of her faith. A society is not founded simply by the exterior act which brings individuals into a single whole, nor by any special adoption of a name which distinguishes them from the rest of mankind. It must be cast in an intellectual mold which will give it uniqueness and furnish it, at the same time, with a definite formative principle of being. Its members must needs live by the same breath, in virtue of a common inspiration and of common hopes. What the soul is to the body their own common doctrine will be to this society. Hence Jesus' very first thought, in His desire to form the Church according to His own likeness, must have been to bestow upon her His own thought, as the indispensable element of her life, embracing, at once, both the realm of dogma and the realm of morals, which constitute the speculative and the practical sides of the new faith.

Doubtless He had not waited until now to begin this difficult task. From the outset of His public life He had divided the long days of His Apostolate between healing the sick and instructing the ignorant. But the importunities of the multitude, who demanded miracles above everything else, made continuous and welldeveloped teaching almost an impossibility. There had been prodigies enough to inspire belief, but faith must now be quickened by doctrine. The future of the Church depends, in part, on the religious knowledge of the Apostles. Therefore, though miraculous works are still to go on, they shall henceforth be relegated to a secondary place in the Gospel history. The discourses are now to become the essential part.

The first which we have to study, and which according to St. Luke immediately follows the selection of the Twelve, is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is of capital importance, inasmuch as it exposes the Master's ideas of the three questions that concern our moral life, namely, happiness, justice, and wisdom.1 We may rightly say that this was in a way the charter of the New Law. St. Luke has preserved for us only an abridgment of it. St. Matthew, who, as Papias says, took special pains to gather Our Lord's sayings, presents this discourse with a wealth of development. Owing to the analogous nature of the subjects, and through the force of a simple association of ideas, he has even inserted some fragments, which on St. Luke's authority we shall place where they more naturally belong.2 Even without these fragments, the discourse remains comparatively of such length that some have advanced the opinion that it was not a single instruction but a summary of successive teachings which Jesus gave to the people during His sojourn upon the mount. This hypothesis is not improbable, if we admit that the Savior detained the multitude for some time in the solitary places where He seemed temporarily to have established Himself.3

If KorounHattin is really identical with the Mount of the Beatitudes they were, at the time, not far from the road that led to Capharnaum, in sight of those wild and rocky defiles of Arbela where Herod, in his pursuit of the Zealots, had caused movable cages to be suspended from the almost inaccessible precipices, thus enabling his soldiers to reach the champions of national independence in their solitary retreats. The Mount of the Beatitudes rises, in fact, to the southwest of Arbela, at the eastern extremity of the beautiful plain of Sephoris, at about two hours' distance from Tiberias and three from Magdala. Because of its peculiar formation and the small village located upon its northern slope the Arabs have named it the Horns of Hattin. A broad plateau spreads out about one hundred and fifty feet above the level of the highway which runs along it to the south, and between two peaks of irregular height, in which, on the east and on the west, the mountain terminates. Sections of rock, which bear traces as of a circle of picturesque seats, seem to attest that here in former times some august assembly had convened. Upon the peak to the east is a small and perfectly level space, quite uniform, and measuring, perhaps, three hundred paces in circumference. In this spot Jesus passed a whole night in prayer before He made His selection of Apostles. From here He descended into the second plateau, which St. Luke calls "a level place,"4 and there rejoined the people who were awaiting Him.

The gathering was made up of people from all parts. First, Galilee, and then Judea and Jerusalem, Decapolis, the lands beyond the Jordan, even the heathen countries, such as Idumæa, Tyre, and Sidon, were represented by pilgrims, some of whom were in search of instruction, while others sought to be cured or wished only to see through curiosity.

The multitude was grouped around Jesus quite naturally in hierarchical order. Like an immense crown, the nameless crowd enclosed the disciples in a circle of honor, and the latter in their turn respectfully surrounded the group of newly chosen Apostles. The Master presided. And here we find the first integral representation of the Church united about her Head, with her ministers of the first and second orders and the people. The Savior, thus contemplating His work, must have experienced a serene joy. At last there was the Israel of the second alliance, living and awaiting the bread of the Word. St. Matthew says: "Jesus, opening His mouth, taught them."

Of the many questions which He might have made the theme of His Instruction, He deemed it best to begin with that of happiness. The philosophy of all ages had been occupied with it, but had never dreamed of solving it in the sense in which the new religion would expound it. Jesus is to make relative happiness identical with humility in the present life, and absolute happiness with the joys of the life to come.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!" With these words He first declares happy those souls who, in their detachment from the goods of earth, are great enough to despise them, though they possess them, or not to desire them when they have them not. The Kingdom of Heaven is their right, their assured possession. One's flight toward the higher world is never loftier than when one is free from entanglement in the snares of matter. To despise earth is to purchase heaven.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land!" Meekness, the flower of charity whose sweet fragrance checks the hand that is about to pluck it, receives the promise of ruling the land. Violence is not durable; it is condemned to devour itself; and, in any case, it can produce only victims or malcontents. Those who employ it leave behind them naught but hateful memories. Meekness, which is yet a force, but a restrained force, is at all times unchanging and beneficent. Its power is the greater the more directly it is exercised on hearts. If it conquers, it conceals its triumphs beneath the honest assertions of most tender kindness. He who has received it as his portion, or who has acquired it by labor, may esteem himself blessed. His influence in the world will be great; but greater yet will be his merit before God. His certain recompense is in particular the promised land of God's kingdom, triumph in eternity.

"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." Tears, however bitter, are still a blessing. If they are caused by deception, they may be likened to a veil that falls from our eyes and discloses to us life in its sad reality. If they are caused by repentance, they are a cleansing sacrament; if by love, they are a cry that does violence to heaven itself. God resists not; He gives Himself to the loving heart that calls Him. The Messiah's coming is the best argument to prove that. He comes to tell those who love God, I am the proof that God loves you; to those who repent of their sins, they are forgiven you; to those who weep for their follies, henceforth I shall be your light; and all are greatly Comforted.

"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be filled." This ardent desire of justice is the characteristic mark of great spirits. It makes itself felt in the soul with a violence like that of the most imperative needs of our material nature, hunger and thirst. And nothing is more natural; justice is the true, the beautiful, and the good, for which our souls have been created; the spirit in us demands this divine nourishment, just as our bodies must have food and drink. Unfortunately the majority of men stifle this, the soul's natural cry; but blessed is he who asks for God and His justice. He shall have them and shall be filled with their delights; Jesus brings them both.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Kindness begets kindness. If the heart readily turns toward all who suffer, in order to sympathize with them in their pain, to assuage it, to check it, it is not possible that God, in Whose sight we are all beggars in various stages of misery, should fail to turn toward us to touch, to heal, and to lift us up. Nothing more surely reaches Our Heavenly Father's heart than the sight of our own heart's charity for our earthly brethren. His mercy is the reward of ours.

"Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God." The soul's eye, like the body's eye, may see only when it is undimmed. If it is in any way tarnished, it discerns only imperfectly the objects upon which it looks. If it is absolutely defiled, it sees absolutely nothing. Hence we know how it is that impurity, injustice, and pride are commonly associated with infidelity, and that an evil life leads to atheism. Whatever name we give it, uncleanness introduced into the soul intercepts the visual ray. The power of insight fails; belief ceases; and faith is even declared to be impossible. The unsullied heart, or even the heart to which repentance has given back its life, finds, on the other hand, that faith is easy and, as it were, quite natural. All things speak to it of God, and invite it to familiar intercourse with Him. In all creatures it beholds His image, and at the close of its meditations it hears His voice. Yet this earthly vision, however consoling, is merely the prelude and the guarantee of the clear vision in heaven.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." The Heavenly Father has in the depth of His divine being a peace that nothing can disturb, and He is forever pouring it abroad for the happiness of His creatures. Thus His true children are those whom nothing can move, since they are at peace with themselves; and the testimony of their conscience sets them above all life's agitations. This calmness, this serenity, this quiet of mind spreads around them a sweet and peaceful atmosphere that charms and transforms those who come near them. The children of God, having peace themselves, communicate it to others.

"Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake5 for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are ye when they shall revile you and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My sake; be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you."

Such are the various classes of men to whom blessedness is promised! Such the Church in her fullness as her Founder conceives her! Such the story of the elect! Whoever is humble, patient, afflicted, devoted, detached from the goods of earth, in love with virtue and with duty, and this without noise or violence, is inscribed a citizen of the new kingdom. The Church will receive no others, and if it happened that, at times, the spirit of men should give her any strength other than that of her patience, her charity, her sorrow, her poverty, her mercy, her sanctity, it would be always to the detriment of her true good and future influence.

No doubt these assertions read like a series of paradoxes, but not one of them is as strange as that of the Cross. Yet there is no doubt that the folly of the Cross has saved the world. By the theory of happiness, as Jesus expounds it, the Church is to be forever young, flourishing, and respected. They love her not who seek to guide her to her triumph by any other path.

As if He feared that His thought might not have been understood, or that His hearers might not have been disposed to receive it, the Savior repeats it under another form, stronger and more emphatic.6

"Woe to you that are rich, for you have your consolation!"7 They have the wealth of this present life, and it suffices for them. Their souls feed upon it, find in it their joy, their happiness, their last end. Gold thus, takes the place of God. Hence it is a great misfortune. And as worldly success always makes vice easy, it turns out as by a kind of fate that man without God to fear and puffed up with vices to gratify, buries himself in the degrading life of the senses, and, rejoicing in time, laughs at eternity.

"Woe to you that are filled, for you shall hunger!" The license that fills a man with pleasure during this life, procures for him a most awful famine after death.

"Woe to you that now laugh, for you shall mourn and weep!" The eternal deception, the terrible awakening in the future life, await the senseless revelers, who now are deafened by their own laughter, and spend their lives in selfcontentment, without giving a moment to selfexamination or to the knowledge of their own unworthiness.

"Woe to you when men shall bless you, for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets!" When a man accepts such approbation from the world, it is a sign that he flatters human passion instead of checking it.

To the guilty the Apostle must be unhesitatingly like his conscience, which is severe; like the voice of justice, which binds and holds in chains; like the sting of remorse, which rouses, persecutes, and tortures; otherwise he would betray the sacred duties of his ministry. Though men should rise in anger against him, though they curse him, though they persecute him, all this is natural. It is for him not to waver.

"Ye are the salt of the earth," exclaims Jesus; "but if the salt lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing any more, but to be cast out and to be trodden on by men." As salt preserves food from final decomposition, so religious truth, if it endure, is to guard the world against the principles of dissolution which it naturally has within itself, and to save it from barbarism. If truth be belittled, disfigured, obliterated, the salt without its savor will be but a false and impotent wisdom; it will differ not from the mass it was destined to preserve and to transform. Men will trample under foot this truth, corrupted like all the rest, and there shall be only universal death.

"Ye are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house." The Apostles have not received the dignity of Apostleship to remain unknown; the disciples who are drawn from every rank and walk of life have not received the light of the Gospel to conceal it. What has been conferred on them is not for themselves, it is also and especially for others. The truth they possess must shine and enlighten those that sit in darkness. Jesus enthusiastically hails this glorious city, the Church, which He beholds already raised to the summit of the mountain and giving light, as a beacon, to mankind seated at her feet. "So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven." The virtuous man gains credence for virtue, and thereby for the moral law and for the lawgiver; the disciple by his life is his master's pride; the son by his resemblance ought to make his father known and admired. Jesus intends that the sanctity of His faithful shall be itself an eloquent sermon.

Such are the thoughts that serve as a transition to the principal part or body of the discourse: Why is sanctity or justice the fundamental duty of every citizen in the new kingdom?

(To be continued)


1 M. Godet, in his Commentary on St. Luke, 3d edit., proposes another division of Jesus' discourse which deserves notice: 1st, the call of those who were to constitute the new society; 2d, the fundamental principles of that society; 3d, the responsibilities of its members. We think it can be connected with our own. Jesus promises happiness to those whom He calls, He prescribes justice to those who come, and He recommends wisdom to those who remain with Him.

2 It is certainly not impossible that Our Lord should have more than once repeated the same instructions, yet it is not probable that His rich nature, in expounding the same thoughts, always had servile recourse to the same figures and often to the same expressions. Inasmuch as it is evident that St. Matthew did not seek to maintain the strictest order in his narrative, we may reasonably suppose that he was not much more concerned about adhering to it in his discourses. As he groups together, simply because they have an analogous meaning (ch. xiii), parables separated from each other by several incidents, so he may have united in one great moral thesis diverse fragments that refer to the development of the spiritual life.

3 By explaining the terms kaqisantos autou as establishing Himself instead of seating Himself, we more easily do away with all difficulties arising from the apparent divergences of St. Luke. But this translation, which moreover, is not the most natural, is not absolutely necessary to harmonize the accounts of the two Evangelists. For it is enough to remember that here as in the calling of the four on the shore of the lake, St. Matthew abridges, while St. Luke gives the details. Thus, the first Synoptic simply says that Jesus climbed the mountain and preached there; the third tells us that He passed the night on the mountain top, and that then, having chosen the Twelve, He descended into a plain upon its slope. There He halted (esth) according to St. Luke, whereas He sat dawn according to St. Matthew. What contradiction is there between the two Evangelists?

4 This is the meaning of epi topou pedinou. If he meant to designate the plain, he would have said epi pediou. The author passed through these places in the spring of 1899. They agree well with the terrible memories that Josephus (Antiq., xiv, 15, 4, 5; B. J., i, 16, 24) has associated with their name.

5 St. Augustine, in Ps. xxxiv, 13, says very wisely: "Martyres non facit poena, sect causa. Nam si poena faceret martyres, omnia metalla martyribus Plena essent; omnes catenæ martyres traherent; omnes qui gladio feriuntur coronarentur. Nemo ergo dicat: Quia patior, justus sum," etc.

6 We find this in St. Luke. He gives an abridgment of the exposition of the Beatitudes, preserving only four of the eight; and yet he depicts the Saviour uttering four maledictions parallel with the four benedictions He had pronounced. So, in ancient days Israel had been invited to observe the law of God, according to the prescriptions of Moses (Deut. xxvii, 11), in a series of blessings and maledictions, which came down alternately from Garizim and from Ebal.

7 This is a proof that the first Beatitude really speaks of poverty, properly so called, or at least of the liberty of the soul so far as the goods of this life are concerned, and not of humility, or of ignorance, or of simplicity of spirit.

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