by Father Mike Stubbs
During the 19th century, some metallic gold leaves were discovered in Asia Minor through an archaeological dig.
They date back to the time of Christ. Each leaf had a saying in Greek inscribed on it. For example, one read: “Happy and blessed are you, you will become god rather than human.”
Evidently, the leaves were placed in the hand or near the mouth of a corpse when it was prepared for burial. The dead so favored had been initiated into the Orphic mystery cult. The inscriptions on the leaves were intended to serve as a password for the deceased into the afterlife. The words themselves, and the fact that they were inscribed upon imperishable gold, gave the initiates hope in the face of death: that they would not perish, but instead enjoy eternal happiness.
Hans Dieter Benz mentions these golden leaves in his book, “The Sermon on the Mount,” to provide some background on those sayings of Jesus called the beatitudes. He is not suggesting that Jesus was directly influenced by the inscriptions on the golden leaves. Benz offers many other examples of sayings from the Mediterranean world, from both pagan and Jewish sources, which begin with the words, “Blessed are you,” to show that this was a very common way of speaking at the time of Jesus. It was natural for Jesus to avail himself of that expression.
We hear those beatitudes of Jesus proclaimed to us in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 5:1-12a. Hopefully, we can find ourselves in at least some of those beatitudes. In that way, we also can feel encouraged by them. Perhaps we should inscribe their words upon our hearts, so that we can take them with us as a password into the next life, much as those buried with the golden leaves had intended with them.
On Sunday, we celebrate the solemnity of All Saints. We honor those fellow Christians who were outstanding in their holiness. At the same time, we recognize that we also have been called to holiness. That call becomes explicit in the beatitudes of Jesus. They are meant as an encouragement, but also a challenge. They promise future glory and happiness, while at the same time give us strength to follow Jesus and to take up our cross.
We should note that the beatitudes of Jesus, unlike the golden leaves, do not rely upon initiation into a cult as a guarantee of future happiness. The beatitudes of Jesus do not require membership in any group or organization. Instead, they open up the blessings of Jesus to broad categories of humanity: the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Those categories can include all kinds of people, from different backgrounds.
The beatitudes challenge us to examine ourselves, to see if we fit into any of those categories. Only then can we feel any comfort from the beatitudes. Only then can we expect to be blessed.