Today I’m speaking to the three out of four Americans who believe Jesus is the son of God, preached the gospel in his short thirty-three years on this earth, and died for us on the cross. I’m also speaking to those who don’t believe. Jews, the lovable lugs that you are, might normally sit this one out but I think this topic is worth consideration.
All I can think about in the coming days before the onslaught of family, gifts, and good food and drink is the word “blessed” — for my wife, my children, family, friends, and country. But I heard an examination of this word the other day I think you’ll find interesting. Have we been using it incorrectly (emphasis mine)?
When used as a form of the verb “to bless,” blessed has one syllable, is pronounced blest, and means treated with great kindness
When used as an adjective, however, the word blessed has two syllables, is pronounced bless-ed, and means holy. Thus, Catholics speak of the Bless-ed Virgin Mary. The problem is that most Catholics and other Christians also use two syllables in quoting the Beatitudes. They say “Bless-ed” are the poor in spirit, the meek, mourners, seekers of justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution.
In this case, the use of two syllables suggests that Jesus was declaring that the poor, the meek, and the others are already holy.
Most New Testament translations use the word blessed in stating the beatitudes but give no indication how the word is to be pronounced. Thus they leave the pronunciation, and therefore the meaning of Jesus’ words, open to very different interpretations.
Some translators, in the interest of greater clarity, have substituted happy for blessed. In other words, they say, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” the meek, and so on. Their justification for doing this is that the Greek word used by Matthew and Luke, makarios, means happy. However, that substitution is problematic: for example, being poor in spirit suggests being the very opposite of happy.
But makarios can also mean fortunate, and that would be a better choice than happy. Saying “Fortunate are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven” suggests that God looks kindly on them in their misfortune. It also reminds us of the Christian idea that suffering can bring us closer to Christ.
But before you pick up a pen and change the words in your family Bible, consider that Jesus did not express the Beatitudes in English or in Greek but, instead, in Aramaic, and it is therefore possible that neither definition of makarios captures the full meaning conveyed in Aramaic.
That is the conclusion of Melkite Catholic Archbishop Abuna Chacour, a scholar of biblical Hebrew, New Testament Greek, and Aramaic:
. . . When I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the original word was ashray, from the verb yashar. Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means, “to let yourself on the right way for the right goal, to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous.”
In other words, Chacour believes that Jesus was not encouraging acceptance of our present condition in anticipation of a better condition in the hereafter. Rather, He was motivating the poor and disenfranchised to “wake up” to the challenge of being His followers and work for a better society in this life. At the same time He was assuring them support in their efforts.
Here are examples of what Chacour believes are more accurate renderings of two of the Beatitudes:
Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied. Get up, go ahead, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.
To me, “blessed” was a nice way of saying, “I’m lucky.” If you’re reading this, in all likelihood, you are very lucky. If this translation is accurate, however, it could mean we’ve been operating with only half the meaning. So as we raise our glasses and toast our families and friends during the holidays, let’s add to this meaning and say, “Though I have bad things in my life, I’m grateful for what I have. But I can’t sit idle and gaze upon my blessings like Smaug upon his gold. I am required to get up and do good in the world.”
Merry Christmas, everyone. Be blessed.