Living the Beautitudes

St. John of Georgia

St. John of Georgia

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

LIVING THE BEATITUDES
By Father John Chryssavgis

"Hunger and thirst lead to dependence on God. And God promises that there will always be enough for all. That is justice; that is fairness; that is righteousness. However, like Israel in the Old Testament, we want more than enough, more than our share, more than what is just and fair. We lose our conviction and confidence that God will "give us our daily bread." God responds to our need, and asks in return that we do not store up treasure on earth, that we do not live in excess, so that others too may have enough. We are to seek to have only just enough, in order to be more and more."

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The root of the English word "beatitude" is "beauty." The Greek term kalos implies attractiveness--literally, an attraction toward divine beauty.

In the first book of the Holy Bible, beauty is central. We learn how God made the world as a "very good" creation (Genesis 1:31)-a beautiful cosmos. And in the first Gospel, the protoevangelion of the Christian scripture canon. St. Matthew opens his very first verse by description the message that he wishes to convey as 'a book of genesis'. By so doing, St. Matthew is being faithful to Genesis as an archetype of God's message or purpose for the world.

In his gospel account, St. Matthew is not offering a biography of Jesus, but a way of living for a new Israel, the Christian Community, the Church; he is presenting an ecclesiology, not a history. He is addressing a people in community, confirming a way of life. He is telling us that the beauty for which God created the world must become part of our own life style and world view.

Saint Matthew is addressing a people in crisis. After the resurrection, an apocalyptic attitude sustained the Christian community. The early Christians believed Jesus would soon return. Yet St. Matthew believed and proclaimed otherwise: that the Kingdom of heaven is already at hand, even now in our hands. God is already present in those who live a life of restoration and resurrection in Christ.

To help you appreciate how it is that St. Matthew could have an alternative vision, let me take an example from daily life. When we look at buildings, the untamed eye will observe bricks and mortar, wood and glass. An architect, however, will perceive beyond the surface appearance, an architect discerns harmony or pressure points. Yet another person will discern the beauty of the spiritual world, the presence or absence of God.

Saint Matthew too is able to reveal a new understanding of our world, new--and at the same time ever deepening--perceptions of the presence of God in our lives. In the beginning, in the book and the event of Genesis, God saw chaos and darkness, and God cared for and loved the world. The phrase "in the beginning"--whether in the first book of the Old Testament or the first book of the New Testament--is a symbol for whenever, signifying always. The term 'whenever' implies the phrase 'in the beginning.' It also includes 'every beginning.' This reality teaches us to respond accordingly. Whenever we see any form of deviation, any deformation in nature, in life, or in the world, we too must care enough to respond, we too must love sufficiently to restore, to heal.

How does St. Matthew propose that we achieve this? Instead of searching for God in empty places, St. Matthew asked his community to return to and re-examine its roots. He begins his Gospel with three periods, three series of fourteen generations, in order to show God's presence in this world, in history, has both roots and continuity. As Orthodox, we would adopt the term 'tradition.'

In the genealogy that is offered, St. Matthew is in fact very critical, hardly traditional--he includes women, non-Jews and a foreigner. He could quite easily have included each of us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

God's Kingdom is never reduced simply to a matter of rules and regulations. It is certainly not a reinforcement of worldly positions and secular institutions. God's Kingdom is a reversal of attitude, a metanoia, a conversion and reordering of values and behavior. It means becoming more and more a person who shares in the holiness, the beauty, and the perfection of God. It implies coming under the authority of God, rather than under the authority of this world. Living the Beatitudes signifies our acceptance of this new authority.

St. Matthew often uses the word 'perfect.' The Greek word for perfect (teleios) reaching for a goal (telos). For Christians, this 'end' is the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, St. Matthew is telling us that perfection is a process, a series of stages of progress. It is less a condition, than it is a potential or possibility. Think of the emphasis in Saint Gregory of Nyssa on 'never-ending perfection' (epektasis).

And in order to become perfect, St. Matthew tells us we must become poor. To become complete, he tells us we must surrender, we must be incomplete, if you want, 'go sell all your possessions and give to the poor.'

There is a cost involved here. The question is: How much have we sold? How much have I sold? And are we in fact willing to give up and to give up everything? Are we prepared to sacrifice our preconception, our prestige, our positions, our possessions, our power?

St. Matthew is not romanticizing poverty. Sharing in the Kingdom in fact depends on our effort to alleviate the various forms of poverty in the world. Poverty is not good; it is not blessed; it is not a virtue. Poverty is miserable; poverty is a clear indication that the Kingdom of God has not yet come.

However, poverty can be voluntary, as with monastics. Voluntary poverty becomes a way of sharing with the poor, a means of giving up whatever gives us security. Indeed, such poverty is more than merely giving up. It is a way of giving! But so long as we justify our ways and our behavior, we shall not appreciate the need to change. We will not understand that everyone has a right to enough of the earth's resources: to sufficient water, food, clothing, health, a safe environment, and peace.

If God's purpose is for us to be more and more, then we must admit that to have more than enough is to be less than human. It is to bear a lighter 'footprint' on the world that we inhabit. In the Beatitudes, we learn that we must choose our gods, we cannot serve two masters. Remember, where your treasure is, there your heart is also. And our world offers us numerous temptations to find security in consumer goods.

Blessed are those who

  • know that they are poor in spirit:
  • recognizing the need for healing
  • admit the wasting of goods
  • work to remove conditions that contribute to world poverty
  • are ready to change their lifestyles
  • reflect on their ways and their attitudes
  • work with others to overcome the fears and controls of society
  • recognize they will not change (either themselves or the world) by themselves or indeed overnight
  • trust that 'our heavenly Father knows all that we need. Therefore, seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to [us] besides.'

Blessed are those who mourn: they shall be comforted

When we think of Jesus Christ, we imagine the healer, the one who overcomes brokenness and death, the Lord that assumed the scarred flesh and touched the shattered world. There is softness of touch, almost a sense of joy, to this Beatitude. When Isaiah speaks of comfort, he says: "Give them oil of gladness in place of mourning" (61:3). There is an entire literature and theology of tears in early ascetic writers.

Mourning and tears continually touch every level of our life. And Jesus brings healing to all levels of life. Yet comfort is not tantamount to relaxation; it is again a form of restoration. It is in fact a challenge.

How is healing brought to those who suffer, or comfort to those who mourn? First, Jesus notices the brokenness, cares for the broken, and responds to the broken. Second, all the healing miracles of Christ have to do with overcoming individualism, with breaking open the closedness within us and around us: the deaf person is shut off; the dumb person cannot communicate, the paralytic cannot step beyond himself; the leper is isolated, ostracized from the community; the demonized man is possessed, imprisoned.

And how does Jesus heal these people? To the deaf, he says: 'effatha' (be opened). To the dumb person, he says: 'speak.' To the paralytic, he says: 'take up your bed, and walk.' To the leper, he says: 'be blessed.' To the demonized man, he says: 'be healed, go to the rest of the community, and show yourself.'

These miracles offer us an insight into the healing and wholeness of the Kingdom. Henceforth, if we wish to live by the Beatitudes, we can no longer remain deaf to the cry of those who suffer, or to an environment that groans.

And so we mourn. We mourn because we have betrayed our call to be faithful to God's plan and authority. We grieve and admit our sins--sins of envy, greed, gluttony, jealousy and aggression--against our neighbor and against the earth. We recognize that such external 'sins' are only symptoms of our inner disease. However, by recognizing our own brokenness, we are forgiven and comforted. Then, and only then, are we given the power to heal.

It is significant that St. Matthew's Gospel shows that Christ's disciples were given the power to heal as early as in chapter 10. It is not until much later, in the final chapter 28--an in the very last verse of that chapter--that they were also given the power to teach! The message is simple: when we are in pain, we do not easily receive or give teaching. When our community or our environment is broken, mere words about the beauty of nature will not go a long way in restoring the suffering that we have inflicted upon it.

There is a further dimension to our mourning. Mourning is a condition, not just a singular event. Standing before society's unwillingness to change, even Jesus is brought to tears. Sometimes even our wrongful ideologies, our misguided values are reinforced by established religion and the institutional church. One of the shortest and most powerful verses in the Holy Bible is: "Jesus wept." Yet this verse is also a symbol of comfort and sweetness to a broken people.

Finally, in reflection to the natural environment, the Book of Hosea tells us that even 'the land itself mourns, and everything that dwells in it languishes [i.e., sheds tears]' (Hosea 4:1).

Saint Matthew wrote of birds in the sky, today, oil slicks wash them ashore. Grass in the fields brought joy in the times of Christ's disciples, toxic chemicals and warfare leave the land barren. Jesus assumed that foxes had homes; today, we cannot assume that foxes will survive. Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, today, 800 million are severely undernourished.

Extending our care and concern to people and to inanimate creation brings good news to the whole world. One teardrop of mourning for our way of life can water the whole world.

(To be continued: Next: Blessed are the meek: they shall inherit the land)

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MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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Glory Be To GOD For All Things!

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George