2020 Feb 9: Beatitudes
In Nomine J. Taverner (1490-1575) [ORGAN]
"All Who Love and Server Your City"
Last week our assigned Gospel text was the Beatitudes, but my zeal to share the story of Rengetsu the Japanese Buddhist nun preempted me from commenting on it. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the Beatitudes this week. The Greek word for "blessed" means "well off". The Sermon on the Mount opens with "blessed are the poor in spirit" but the parallel "Sermon on the Plain" in Luke 6 begins "blessed are the poor" — period, "blessed are the hungry" — period. In what way can one be physically/literally poor and hungry and be "blessed"? I find it helpful to think about being blessed from a physical/material point of view, versus being blessed from a spiritual/heavenly point of view. For example, it is not uncommon for someone’s health crisis to give them an opportunity to reassess and reprioritize their life. From one point of view that health crisis is anything BUT a blessing, but from another it IS.
Next, the word "poor". To us, ’poor’ can mean someone who is less well off than we, but they still have the means to feed and house themselves. However, the word here for poor describes someone who is dependent on the generosity of others for the basics of life. The Romans, after all, had no welfare or social assistance programs --- especially not for non-Roman citizens in a troublesome backwater of their empire! (They did, however have 'welfare' in Rome itself: a starving mob in the capitol would have been a bad idea! Hence their 'bread and circuses'.) So if you were ’laid off’, so to speak, you could find yourself on the street with no welfare system to feed you — you begged for food or you starved. As hard as it is to be poor in America, imagine what it means to be poor in Somalia or Bangladesh. Consequently one might translate this phrase "Blessed are the beggars / destitute / homeless in spirit..."
Finally, the word "righteousness’ in "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness". It’s from the word group DIKĒ, variously translated "righteousness" and "justice" in the New Testament. And it encompasses those concepts, but my reading is that it encompasses much more. DIKĒ is a particularly important word in Greek thinking, going back to the time of the Greek city-states. In essence the city-states were really large tribes – you could survive if you belonged to a city-state, but if you were banished you would die of starvation and exposure. So DIKĒ, near as I can tell, encompasses the idea of taking care of your community — because your life depends on it! Therefore you are Just to your fellow citizens, and do the Right Thing by your neighbor, and behave uprightly as a member of your community, because the well-being of all — including YOU! — depends on it.
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Almost nothing is known of John Taverner’s activities before age 34 when he became the first Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford, appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. At age 38 he was reprimanded for his involvement with Lutherans, but escaped punishment because he was "only a musician". Wolsey fell from favor in 1529 (for failing to obtain an annulment for Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon), and shortly thereafter Taverner left the college (age 39). As far as we can tell, Taverner had no further musical appointments, nor can any of his surviving works be dated after his departure, so he may have ceased composing altogether. He is known to have settled eventually in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was a small landowner and reasonably well-off.