Living the Beatitudes

by Fr. John Chryssavgis

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 Bible, beauty is central. We learn how God made the world as a “very good” creation (Gen. 1: 31) — a beautiful cosmos. And in the first Gospel, the protoevange­lion of the Christian scriptural canon, Matthew opens his very first verse by describing the message that he wishes to convey as “a book of genesis.” By so doing, Matthew is being faithful to Genesis as an archetype of God’s message or purpose for the world.

In his gospel account, 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 and intended the world must become part of our own life style and worldview.

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 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 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.

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 enough about the world to place things in order, to render things beautiful. He created the cosmos. In Matthew’s Genesis, God once again 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 Matthew propose that we achieve this? Instead of searching for God in empty places, 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 how 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, Matthew is in fact very radical, 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 attitudes, 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.

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

And in order to become perfect, 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 you sold? How much have I sold? And are we in fact willing to give up and to give up everything? Are we prepared to sacrifices our preconceptions, our prestige, our positions, our possessions, our power?

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, energy, 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, then, are the poor in spirit.” Blessed are those who submit to God, who put their trust in God, who have confidence in God, who are not controlled by their needs or by the demands of this world.

Blessed are those who

- know that they are poor in spirit:

- recognize 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 a 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 cleaned.” 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 of course 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 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 — and 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 Bible is: “Jesus wept.” Yet this verse is also a symbol of comfort and sweetness to a broken people.

Finally, in relation 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]” (Hos. 4: 1).

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; today, 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.

Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the land

As the King of heaven and earth, Christ comes not with violence but in meekness. He will inherit the earth and all its power, all its positions, all its prestige. Matthew reassures us that God is found at the very center of the world, with us in all generations. And this King comes to assume authority over all of creation, to reorder all creation from chaos into cosmos — an allusion to the events recorded in the first Genesis.

The average Jew during the life of Christ, and the average Christian disciple of Christ, had one of two ways of responding to Jesus: either with meekness or violence; either through peace or indignation. The way in which we receive Christ is reflected in the way in which we regard the earth or the land.

God and land, divine Word and created world must be integrated. The spiritual life brings God, the land, and the people together in a balance and integrated order.

This means that the land or the earth must never become an end in itself. God is always the source of all worldly resources. Israel laid aside a weekly day of rest in order to remember this, to reflect on where our treasure is. Worshiping the created land, venerating any false god, is a form of idolatry. Yet on the other hand, Worshiping God without assuming responsibility for the land is a dangerous and misleading form of spiritualism.

We may, for instance, pray for the environment, imploring God to do something about the crisis that we confront, yet never changing our lifestyle, which may well be reinforcing the problem. Matthew’s Christ warns us: “None of those who cry out: ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom but only the one who does the will of my Father” (7: 21).

Or else we may be activists who leave little or no room for prayer. Our lamps should not go out because of our failure to wait for God (25:1-3) in silence. Prayer is not a pretext for the evasion of responsibility. Prayer and action are equal dimensions of spirituality. We must understand how Jesus was as authentic when He healed the sick, as when He withdrew to be alone with God.

Our society, however, promotes a mentality that exalts the acquisition of material possessions. Once we are in “the land,” it is difficult to “seek first the kingdom of God.” It is easy to forget that this earth is inherited — it is received; it is not taken, or snatched. It is never ours to own, but only God’s to give.

Therefore, the land and its wealth must be oriented to others in order to promote God’s kingdom, reordering the priorities of this world. Meekness is the blessed way of dealing justly with the land. The meek person reflects a reversal of attitudes toward power, possessions and positions. Other­wise, the land becomes a territory of violence, a domain of division, a realm of mistrust.

Meekness is a way of caring. It should touch every aspect of our lives. It should teach us that God is God, that we are God’s, and that the land is God’s. Thus, the land is ours only to use and share responsibly. Meekness is a blessed correction, a heavenly contrast to the violence which we have wrought upon the earth, a stark opposition to the desecration of God’s plan for creation.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [or justice]; they shall be filled

This Beatitude introduces the fundamental theme of justice in relation to the environment and the spiritual life. “The Lord is our justice,” says the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 23: 5-6). And when we thirst for justice, we know that we shall be filled. “As the earth brings forth its plants … so will the Lord God make justice” (Is. 61: 3-4, 10-11).

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.

When Matthew speaks of the kingdom, he speaks of justice (dikaiosyne). Matthew uses this word seven times in his Gospel. The opposite of justice, for Matthew, is not injustice; it is hypocrisy. Justice creates community; hypocrisy destroys commonality. Justice creates cosmos (beauty); hypocrisy creates chaos. Justice means sharing; hypocrisy signifies concealing and keeping. The ultimate test of our justice is to ask ourselves whether we continue our acts of piety when no one is watching.

For the Jew and the early Christians, there were three practical ways of materializing justice:

  1. Almsgiving: Almsgiving is not simply a matter of feeling. Almsgiving means responsibility. And almsgiving is not an optional virtue. Giving all that is in excess is naturally expected of everyone.
  2. Prayer: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us that when we pray we must (a) not talk too much; and (b) learn to forgive. Yet when we look honestly at our life of prayer, we have to admit that we do tend to talk too much. Prayer must heal divisions, not harbor anger or resentment. “Forgive us … as we forgive others,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we are not striving to create heaven on earth, then perhaps we should stop praying the Lord’s Prayer. Our actions and our lifestyle will show whether we mean what we pray (“your kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven”), or whether we are merely talking too much.
  3. Fasting: We fast in order to remember the kingdom. We fast in order to commit ourselves to the priorities and the ways of the kingdom. We fast in order to practice offering our resources to the poor and sharing our possessions with our neighbor. Fasting helps shape a vision whereby we can view the world with God’s eyes. It clarifies the purpose and sharpens the focus, so that our view and our worldview is larger than ourselves.

“This is the fasting that I desire: releasing those bound unjustly … setting free the oppressed …. sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked … satisfying the afflicted …. Then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty …. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails …. ‘Repairer of the breach,’ they shall call you” (Isaiah 58: 6-12).

Fasting reminds us of the hunger in the world. The degree to which we resist fasting may reflect the degree to which we contribute to hunger.

Blessed are the merciful; they shall receive mercy

An essential aspect of justice and righteousness is mercy. Mercy is the personal experience and practical expression of God’s love. To be blessed by God is to show compassion, to have concern, to care for every living person and every living thing. We remember in this regard Abba Isaac the Syrian describing the merciful heart:

[The merciful heart] is a heart that burns out of compassion for birds, beasts, human beings, even demons. … Such a heart cannot bear to hear of the slightest pain suffered anywhere in creation.

Blessedness, then, means showing mercy. Indeed, the perfection of God and the kingdom of God are almost synonymous with the quality of mercy. Mercy is a sign of God’s kingdom. This is why we repeat “Lord, have mercy” in our liturgy. We are asking God to be who He is in spite of who we are. We may think here of the parable of the king who forgave the large debt. When the official refused to show a similar compassion to the servant, the forgiving king was angered. Sadly, while the mercy of the master changes the situation of the official, it does not convert his heart.

A Christian cannot win God’s mercy. But a Christian can lose God’s mercy by not extending it to others and to the environment.

At the same time, God’s mercy is also passionate, full of “pathos” (or pas­sion). If we do not show mercy, if we are a-pathetic, if we do not care, if we are indifferent to the cry of the earth, if we remain neutral in the face of injustice: then we do not reflect God’s image, we are not revealing God’s kingdom.

There are no excuses for our un-involvement. We have the information. Anyway, we are deeply — innately and inevitably — involved in one way or another. We must choose to care. Otherwise, we are not being fair; we are not acting in a just manner. Otherwise, we are being hypocritical, self-righteous, and certainly not righteous.

Let us consider one example of such mercy from the life of Christ. In the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes, the Lord encourages the disciples to act for their environment: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.” (Mt 14: 16) “Use your own resources” is what He is telling them. The disciples response reflects ours: “We have nothing here.”

What they are saying is that we have only limited resources. Yet it is the willingness to share that transforms what looks like very little in the eyes of the world into what is more than sufficient. We shall never give people enough to eat. But we must give them from our table.

How many people sit at our table? What kind of people do we invite to sit with us at our table? How many issues do we ignore at the table of our life? How significant — or just how subtle — is our attitude of prejudice?

Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God

Seeing God’s face depends on purity of heart, a purity requiring total commitment to God’s kingdom, an inner attitude of wholeheartedness. Our external actions indicate our internal priorities. “Where our treasure is, there our heart is also.”

Purity of heart is achieved through purification, through asceticism. By asceticism, I mean learning what really matters, not being controlled by the cares of this world, not remaining on the surface level of life, not seeking instant results, not avoiding painful struggle. Asceticism is learning what to care for, and when not to care; when to be involved, and when not to interfere; it is taking the time and making the space to be still in order to “hear” God. Then our heart becomes pure; then we become better disposed to “see” God.

So purity of heart implies a process of stripping the surface. It is an invitation to greater depth. It is making choices about things, about people, about God. Then we value and desire not what we want, but what we need; and gradually we come to value and desire only what God wants. We begin to understand what blocks our vision of God, what separates us from God. We learn to see the world with new eyes. We hear God’s silent words in creation. The very same things appear renewed, “a new heaven and a new earth.”

At this point, it is very much like being in a guest-room by ourselves only to sense that we are in another person’s presence. There, in our heart, we discover ourselves in relation to God; but there too we discover ourselves in communion with the entire world. Then we see Christ everywhere. And therefore — as Fr. Alexander Schmemann liked to say — we can only rejoice. For we have direct and intimate access to the face of God, to the ear of God, to the word of God.

And because we live — or at least strive, desire to live — in purity of heart, we can actually see God. And our prayer for purity becomes simply: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and on your world.

Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God

To understand how it is that we can work for peace in a way that God will call us His children, it may be helpful to remember what it means for Christ to be called God’s Son. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ is called “Son” twice, and the call comes from a voice from heaven. The first time was at His baptism; the second was on the mount of transfiguration. On both occasions it is said: “This is my beloved Son; in Him I am well pleas­ed.” (3: 17, and 17: 5)

Christ is the Son of God because He is in full communion with the nature of God; because He is fully committed to the will of God.

Full communion means sharing in all His resources. Full commitment to the Beatitudes signifies a reflection of God’s unity, of divine peace, life, and justice. Even though Christ’s communion and commitment lead Him to the cross and to death, nevertheless He remained surrendered to God’s purpose, irrespective of whether this meant standing in direct contrast, indeed in contradiction to the way society understood peace and justice.

So perhaps it is important to stop measuring progress or success in the way society regards these. The criterion for success cannot be defined in quantitative terms. For Christ, the end was the cross; for John the Baptist, the end was his beheading.

Now, the emphasis on becoming children underlines another point. Peace­making means building community; and community begins by realizing and respecting the dignity of each person. Each member of the community is precious in the eyes of God. Therefore, when Christ was asked about greatness, He called a young child over, stood it in the midst of those who were gathered, and said: “I assure you, unless you change [literally, repent] and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God” (18: 2-3).

This was a radical, not a sentimental gesture. At the time of Jesus, children were denied human rights. They had no access to necessary resources for basic survival. By their age, as well as by law, they were segregated from the rest of society. In order then to be a “peacemaker,” in order to be called a “child of God,” we are to give way — to defer — to others, out of reverence for the rights of others. We must recognize that all people require the resources of this world.

It is in this light that we are invited to become peacemakers. This also means that making peace is work. It is in fact very difficult work. Yet it is our only hope for the restoration of a broken world. By working for peace, by working to heal the environment, by removing obstacles for peace, by avoiding what harms the environment, we may — at least, this is what we are assured — hear a voice in our heart that says: “This is my beloved. In my beloved — and him, in her, in you — I am well pleased.” What greater joy, what richer blessing, what more abundant grace can there be than this?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice [or righteousness]; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you for great is your reward in heaven

Matthew wished to reassure his community about two things: first, if they lived by the Beatitudes, according to His name, then they should expect rejection; ­and second, if they were persecuted, this would be a sign that they were truly faithful.

This last Beatitude, like the first, is a reassurance that the kingdom of God can be immediately expected.

Christ did not come to spread peace, but the sword, that is division (10:34). Persecution must be expected. Some people will not under­stand the language about justice and healing the environment. Society will not understand; much less will society be “converted.” Even the Church may not understand. What Christ calls a “blessing” is for others a “scandal.” Living the Beatitudes means resisting, sometimes even reversing, the ways of the world. Society will reject both message and messenger, our theology and actions alike. People have too much at stake. As the Prophet Isaiah says: “They look, but they choose not to see; they listen, but they choose not to hear.” (Mt 13:13; Is 6: 9-10)

In response, the Christians become a “remnant” community, a small flock, the leaven. They can begin a new process of hope in a world unwilling to receive the kingdom. Yet they are not afraid; they are not alone. They may rejoice, for He has overcome the world. Fear gives way to faith in God’s promise: “the kingdom of God is theirs.” Indeed, it is ours.

Yet Matthew placed this Beatitude last in order to indicate something more powerful than this. This Beatitude is more than a mere conclusion. It is a clear commission, an explicit command for the disciples to enter the world of their day, to assume the problems of their time, to bring God’s care into the world — no matter what the cost, irrespective of the risk or the pain. That’s why the Lord continues the Beatitude by changing to the second person: “Blessed are those who are persecuted…. Bless­ed are you when … they persecute you …. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven.”

The Beatitude now becomes a direct invitation, a personal blessing, a definite assurance and promise. And Christ later continues: “You are the salt of the earth …. You are the light of the world” (5: 13-15).

We must persist in responding to the poor, in striving to share the resources of the world, in trying to heal our broken community and environment. This is the way in which we shall inherit the heavenly kingdom and this earth. In fact, this is the way that we shall understand how the kingdom relates to this earth. For by living the Beatitudes, we shall hear Christ’s voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you from the creation of the world.” (Mt 25: 34)

Matthew’s new Genesis returns to an echo of the creation story, closing with a reminder about the first Genesis when God created the world; “and behold it was good,” indeed “very good.”

Fr. John Chryssavgis studied theology in Athens and Oxford. He has been professor of theology at St. Andrew’s Theological College in Sydney and at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston. He serves as theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues. His recent books include Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Cosmic Grace, Humble prayer: eco­logical initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholo­mew. His text on the Beatitudes was the keynote address at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in June.

Reprinted from In Communion, Quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring-Summer 2003 / issue 30. Copyright by the author.