Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8
What does it mean to be clean of heart, or pure of heart in other translations, and why do they get to see God? I think some passages from the Old Testament can help us to see how people at the time would have understood the Lord’s words, then we’ll see how Christians have understood them.
God said to Moses, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Therefore, Moses has to hide his face while the Lord passes by. Similarly, no one is allowed to touch the Ark of the Covenant. While the Ark was being moved to Jerusalem, the Oxen stumbled and the Ark was in danger of tipping, so Uzzah steadied the Ark with his hand, and he was struck dead on the spot. The Ark of the Covenant, which represented God’s presence with His people, was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The only person who was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies was the High Priest, and he only entered it once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Before entering the Holy of Holies he has to offer atonement for his own sins. The Lord told Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat…And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house” (Lev 16:2 & 6).
Seeing the Lord face to face, touching the Ark of the Covenant, or entering the Holy Place meant death. The only way for the High Priest to enter the Holy Place safely was to make atonement for his own sins first. It is only through the forgiveness of sins that someone can safely approach the Lord. So, cleanness of heart has to do with forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ, our High Priest, has entered the true Holy Place, heaven, and offered His own blood for the forgiveness of our sins. St. Jerome says, “The pure is known by purity of heart, for the temple of God cannot be impure.” Nothing that is impure can approach God, and Jesus Christ is the only one who is pure. He is the only one who is fully committed to God, because He is the Son of God. We can only be pure by uniting ourselves to Him. Therefore, we must be “cleansed” by the waters of baptism.
The grace of Christ allows us to have a clean heart and to seek God in purity of heart, without any ulterior motives. St. Ambrose said, “The merciful loses the benefit of his mercy, unless he shows it from a pure heart; for if he seeks to have whereof he boast, he loses the fruit of his deeds.” When we do something good, like be merciful, for an impure motive, we don’t benefit from it. If I’m merciful in order to boast of my mercy, or humble to brag of my humility, or generous to benefit from my generosity, then the words of Christ apply to me, “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do… that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Mt 6:2).
Of course, that is the goal of the spiritual life, but we don’t start there. We start off by avoiding sin because we fear punishment, as a child dreads to hear, “Wait ‘till you father gets home.” Soon, however, children do what is right not out of fear of punishment, but out of love and respect for their parents. So, through prayer, the sacraments, and discipline we also grow in faith and love for God. Those who are clean of heart shall see God and seeing is possessing. The clean of heart shall see God because He is already present in the hearts. As St. Paul writes, “ When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:11-13).
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.