A Catholic Franciscan chapel rests peacefully on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee not far from the ancient city of Capernaum, the place where Jesus performed many of His miracles and based His ministry headquarters. Located on the traditional site where we believe Jesus also delivered His famous Sermon on the Mount, the chapel was built in 1938, ironically with the support of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass there in 2000. Even President George W. Bush visited the Church of the Beatitudes, as it is known, in the last year of his presidency.
The chapel’s unique architecture reflects the opening remarks found in Jesus’s longer discourse recorded in chapters five, six, and seven of Matthew’s gospel. The octagonal shape reminds us of the eight simple but sublime beatitudes, beloved by the Savior’s followers in every generation. Rays of sunshine burst through eight stained glass windows located high on the walls of the acoustically pleasing chapel, illuminating Jesus’s eternal words that are etched into the colorful glass. Most would agree that it’s a strange place to find the secret to happiness. But it was there that Jesus turned upside down the usual notions of happiness as He began a discourse on the kingdom of God.
Some say the rare geography of the hillside provided the perfect amphitheater for Jesus to deliver His Sermon on the Mount to a large and curious crowd. Without the aid of modern amplification, the Savior’s voice carried quickly over the sloped terrain and landed on their itching ears. Jesus introduced His followers to something better than fickle and fleeting happiness; He shared eight secrets of the blessed life with them.
Are you a happy person? Do you consider yourself blessed? A young woman that attended the first church I served as lead pastor in Katy, Texas, answered me “blessed” every time I asked her, “How are you doing today?” At first I thought her response was strange and a bit sanctimonious. In time, though, I came to appreciate the deeper meaning in her kind reply. As her pastor, I noticed that when life was falling apart all around her, when what was happening to her could not in any way yield happiness, as most people understand the state of being, she exuded a peaceful calm knowing that she was blessed of God.
The words “blessed of God” possess a healing sound all their own, don’t they? Say them out loud right now. Don’t be shy. Who wouldn’t want “blessed of God” to describe their life? Perhaps this is why the beatitudes of Jesus are so beloved. Eight times the rabbi from Nazareth punctuates His teaching with the words blessed are.The words rivet our attention to the One who holds the secrets of the kind of life that is really worth pursuing.
The beatitudes of Jesus are as refreshing as they are countercultural. You won’t find empty clichés or safe, sentimental platitudes in the beatitudes. Though short and to the point (the length of a mere tweet before Twitter was ever a thought), they are neither feel-good sermons nor sermonettes, nor do they contain simple behavior modification tips. Jesus delivered be-attitudes not do-attitudes, even though the word “beatitude” never appears in the text of Scripture. And, don’t underestimate the brevity of the beatitudes. Some of the most powerful and memorable words ever spoken are concise and pithy. For example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains only 272 words, and it takes only 300 words to deliver the Ten Commandments. Jesus distilled the essence of true happiness into 141 words.
So why do we call them beatitudes? The dictionary defines “beatitude” as “supreme blessedness” and “exalted happiness.” Thus, the beatitudes have been called be-happy attitudes, beautiful attitudes, a road to recovery, the secret to happiness, the applause of heaven, and a staircase ascending toward God.
All of it points to the real pursuit of happiness.