At the end of every year I attend the St. Hilda's prizegiving service and the leavers' service and see a string of young women cross the stage. All of them are big fishes in this particular small pond of the school where they have spent the last five or seven years of their lives. They are making the journey we must all repeat a hundred times, that of becoming a small fish in the next pond, whatever it may be. And at every service the school hymn is sung: Blest Are The Pure In Heart.
Whoever, back in the day, chose that hymn to be the one that defines the school and its relationship to the almighty had a particular idea of the what a girls' school should aspire to be, and what a girl should aspire to be. I'm guessing, of course, but I think that vision would have to do with all the characteristics we attribute to the heart: feelings, loyalty, relationship, emotion. With that vision in mind, the aspiration is one of pure and chaste behaviour springing from undefiled and clear feelings, which is, of course, a laudable goal. But it's not what Jesus meant in the saying upon which the song is based.
For first Century people, of which Jesus was one, the heart was not the seat of feelings. Feelings originated, so they thought back then, in the liver, not in the heart. If we had persisted with this idea we would not be saying,
The heart, so Jesus and his contemporaries thought, was the place where the will resided. It was the seat of intention and purpose. Which brings a whole different set of meanings to Jesus' saying Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. It doesn't mean, as we usually suppose, blessed are those who have got their emotional life sorted out, but rather, blessed are those whose intentions and purposes are clear.
And it brings some light to a phrase whose poetry has intrigued me for years: Mary's words to her cousin Elizabeth as the two women incredulously enthuse over God's seeming predilection for those who are not doing as well as other people think they should. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, says Mary. Which when you think about it, is a rephrasing of the saying her son would later include in the Sermon on the Mount. The proud chase every which way, following the dictates of a will which is informed not by reality but by their own imaginings. The poor and excluded, with nothing to protect and no pipe dreams to follow, are free to see things clearly; to be pure in heart.
They are the ones who are most likely to see what is really at the heart of the universe.
And here is the meaning of Christmas: this universal heart is given to us in a living breathing metaphor. An unmarried peasant girl and her fiance. Pain and sweat in the night. An umbilical cord and placenta and damp shining helplessness and a tiny mouth crying for the breast.