The Beatitudes represent the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, which St. Matthew places as Jesus' first major speech within his ministry. Each of the Beatitudes begins with the word "Blessed", as in "Blessed are the poor in spirit" or "Blessed are the meek". The word "blessed" does not quite capture the ancient Greek word, however, which is the word "makarios". "Makarios" is often translated as "happy", but it does not mean a simple human contentment, but a happiness that is rock-solid and overflowing. In French, the word we use to translate "makarious" is not hereux, but bienheureux, i.e. "really and truly happy".
Interestingly, Jesus taught the Beatitudes while on a mountain. This is not an accident, and is meant to evoke the image of Moses, who descended from Mount Sinai holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Beatitudes are often considered to be the completion of the Law of God. Curiously, however, the Beatitudes are not written like your typical commandments. The Ten Commandments are written as a set of do's and don'ts, as in "Do not kill" or "Do keep holy the Lord's day". The Beatitudes, instead, are written like simple statements of fact. In reality, however, the two kinds of statements go together. For example, imagine I were to say "Don't eat the mushroom. It is poisonous." I have made two statements: the first is a commandment, and the second is an explanation of the commandment. Each statement, however, completes the other. In some ways, the second statement is the more important. If all I say is "that mushroom is poisonous," it implies that it should not be eaten. The explanation completes the commandment by giving its reason, while the commandment makes explicit the "do" or "don't" in the statement. So it is with the Beatitudes. They do not replace the Ten Commandments, but they point out the real goal of the Ten Commandments, and provide a set of statements that have implicit within them a code of behaviour for all of life.
When we look at the Beatitudes, however, we sometimes see a contradiction. "Happy are those who mourn"...does the make sense? By definition, isn't a person who is mourning unhappy? To understand these statements, then, we need to grasp them within their cultural context. In the original language and cultural mindset of Jesus' time, to make a strong statement in one sense automatically implied its opposite. This is true even today in some things: the statement "it is hot" automatically implies it is not cold. A good way to understand the Beatitudes, then, is to pay attention to their opposites:
"Happy are the poor in spirit" becomes "Miserable are those attached to earthly possessions". Isn't it true that an inordinate attachment to material things brings all kinds of misery, such as jealousy, workoholism, and even fear of loss?
"Happy are those who mourn" becomes "Miserable are those who can never let go". Mourning is a natural and healthy process, by which we achieve closure when we experience loss. If a person is unable to let go, however, it means they can never stop living in the past to start looking forward again.
"Happy are the meek" becomes "Miserable are the arrogant". The meek will inherit the earth, but those who bully others can only take: they are not *given* anything.
"Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" becomes "Miserable are those who hunger and thirst for evil things". People can try and fill themselves up with all sorts of stuff — food, drugs, money, fame — but in the end these just leave emptier. A fulfilled life does not get filled from the outside, but has a fullness that comes from the inside.
"Happy are the merciful" becomes "Miserable are the merciless". People who bear grudges, who refuse to forgive, and who take revenge, are the real prisoners. They are prisoners of their own hate, and it eventually poisons all their relationships.
"Happy are the pure in heart" becomes "Miserable are those who take things for granted". Purity of heart is often interpreted to mean sexual purity, and it can mean that, but is a broader sense it means the ability to focus on what is really important in the present moment. How many of us put off until later even the good things that are being presented to us right now? How many of us miss out on the beauty of the present moment, or taint it with selfishness?
"Happy are the peacemakers" becomes "Miserable are the warmongers". There are people in this world who have a deep need to feel offended, or to offend others. Peacemakers get to be part of the grand family of the "children of God". Warmongers, on the other hand, end up alone.
"Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" becomes "Miserable are those who have no spine". It isn't always easy to stand up for what is right — yes, we can wind up persecuted. But who will ever trust us with what is truly important if we don't have the inner strength to hold on to it in the first place?
Perhaps you see other forms of "beatitude-opposites" that help bring some or all of the actual Beatitudes into greater clarity. If so, please share them! The Beatitudes represent the goal of all real morality: the inner strength to do what is right in all circumstances, and the inner freedom to love unconditionally. Yes, the Beatitudes are a new Law, but the best law of all: a law that sets us free!