Today we are looking at the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2020. Perhaps you’re observing the Presentation of Our Lord on that day. I’ll be looking at readings from both. The gospel appointed for Epiphany IV is Matthew 5:1-12, a section of the Sermon on the Mount usually called the Beatitudes. The gospel appointed for Presentation is Luke 2:22-40, the story of – well, the story of the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple when he was an infant. Each of these passages has an image that can serve as a way to discuss mental illness.
First, the Beatitudes. The first Beatitude, in Matthew 5:3, reads like this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or sometimes, depending on your translation, “Happy are the poor in spirit.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase. “The poor in spirit.” People in affluent American churches tend to prefer Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes to Luke’s, because in Luke Jesus says instead, “Blessed are the poor.” Luke puts the focus on the indigent, the impoverished, those in material need. Matthew has this softer-sounding version. “Poor in spirit.” I have often heard it described as meaning those who are unsure of their faith, those who are not the “spiritual superheroes” like pastors (as if) and people who tithe and the memories of our own grandparents. This interpretation is easy for many people in the pews to connect with. And perhaps that’s indeed what Matthew meant when writing this. But I think it’s also fair to see a connection with mental illness.
The Greek word ptōchoi, which is translated “poor,” is associated with begging. Perhaps a good translation would be “Blessed are those who beg in their spirit” or “Blessed are the spirit-beggars.” Those whose spirits are begging, begging for something they don’t have. That’s kind of what it’s like when I’m in a depression. It’s like there’s a hole in my spirit. An emptiness, a rawness, something missing or broken. I imagine that people with other mental health problems experience something like this as well. A broken, misshapen, aching spirit that calls out, begs for help. And so Jesus is proclaiming good news here for those who suffer these aches: you are blessed! You are happy! It sounds crazy to someone who lives with this, but that’s the point of the Beatitudes, turning the world upside-down, proclaiming that what is painful will be redeemed, proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven belongs to people such as you! This can be great news for parishioners who suffer, often in silence, with mental illness. They can hear that this good news is indeed for them, that God does intend to turn their pain upside-down, that they are not beyond hope.
Then there’s the reading from Luke, assigned for the Presentation of Our Lord. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus into the temple for presentation, they are met by Simeon and Anna, who are given the wisdom to know who Jesus is and what he’s destined for. Simeon sings one of Luke’s beautiful canticles, the Nunc dimittis, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace.” After finishing his song, he says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – an a sword will pierce your own soul too.” A sword will pierce your own soul. Now, more than likely the intended reference here is Jesus’ death, that Mary will still be alive wen that happens, and the grief will be as though a sword had pierced her. But there it is again, a soul with a hole cut in it. The death of a child, in any age and in any circumstance, certainly leaves an unfillable hole, but that is not the only way someone can receive a wound like that. A sermon on this gospel reading could focus on what that pain feels like that Mary will experience, and connect it to other sorts of pain. And then connect with hope again – hope that illness and grief are not your identity, and that there is healing for any of us.
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