Sorry folks, but time is short and I must move on. Ever since I became an Orthodox Christian, the Word of God Blog, and its sister site, the Praise God Blog, continued, but still they had the an “Protevangelfundamental” flavor. I have been considering stopping my work on those blogs and concentrating my efforts on something new, something more Orthodox, something consistent with my beliefs. The new website is this: http://doorkeep.wordpress.com. I leave you with this note of thanks for reading this blog over the years… I will still leave it up for archival and historiological purposes. I will also take pieces from it and post them to the new website. Thanks and…, oh yeah, it’s still Christmas, so: Christ is born — Glorify Him!
from the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church website. A short piece about the Nativity of Christ, from the Church’s perspective, and why this most holy feast day occurs on December 25. (As an Old Calendar Christian, I am celebrating this festivity today, January 7.)
DISCOURSE ON THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
Commemorated on December 25
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, was born of the MostHoly Virgin Mary in the city of Bethlehem during the reign of the emperor Augustus (Octavian). Caesar Augustus decreed that an universal census be made throughout all his empire, which then also included Palestinian Israel. The Jews were accustomed to carry out the nation’s census-taking according to ancestral-origins, tribes and family-relations. Every ancestral-origin and family-relation had its own designated city as its place of ancestry. The MostBlessed Virgin Mary and Righteous Joseph, descended from the family line of King David, had to go to Bethlehem (the city of David), to register their names on the census-list of Caesar’s subjects. At Bethlehem they did not find a single place vacant at any of the city’s inns. In the celebrated cave, used as a stable, amidst the hay and the straw, strewn about as food and bedding for the cattle, far from the hearth of home, amidst people that were total strangers, on the cold winter night, and in a setting deprived not only of worldly grandeur but even of the basic amenities – was born the God-Man, the Saviour of the world. “I behold a strange and most glorious mystery, – with awe sings Holy Church, – Heaven – the Cave; the Throne of the Cherubim – the Virgin; the Manger – the Crib, in which lay the placeless Christ God” (Irmos in 9th Ode of the Festal Canon). Without defilement having given birth to the Divine Infant the MostHoly Virgin, Herself without help from strangers, “wraps Him in swaddling cloths and places Him in the manger” (Lk. 2). But amidst the midnight stillness, when all mankind was shrouded in its deepest sinful sleep, the proclaiming of the Birth of the Saviour of the world was heard by shepherds, watching their flocks by night. And the Angel of the Lord came before them and said: “Fear not, for lo I proclaim ye tidings of great joy, which shalt be for all people, for this day is born unto you the Saviour, Which be Christ the Lord in the city of David”. The humble shepherds were the first deemed worthy to offer worship for the salvation of mankind unto He That hath condescended to “the image of an humble servant”. Besides the Angelic glad tidings to the Bethlehem shepherds, the Nativity of Christ by means of a wondrous star was made known to Magi “knowing the stars”, and in the person of these Eastern wise-men all the pagan world, imperceptibly – bent down upon its knees before the true Saviour of the world, the God-Man. Entering wherein the Infant lay, the wise-men Magi – “falling down they worshipped Him, and opening their treasure they presented Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrh” (Mt. 2: 11).
In remembrance of the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, the feastday was established by the Church. Its very origin is related to the times of the Apostles. In the Apostolic Constitutions it says: “Brethren, observe the feastdays, and among the chief such the day of the Birth of Christ, which make ye celebration of on the 25th day of the tenth month” (from March, which in those days began the year). There also in another place it said: “Celebrate ye the day of the Nativity of Christ, in the which unseen grace is given man by the birth of the Word of God from the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world”.
In the II Century also Sainted Clement of Alexandria indicates that the day of the Nativity of Christ is 25 December. In the III Century as before Saint Hypolitus of Rome makes mention concerning the feastday of the Nativity of Christ, and designates the Gospel readings for this day from the beginning chapters of Saint Matthew. It is known also, that during the time of persecution of Christians by Maximian in the year 302, Nicomedia Christians numbering 20,000 were burned in church on the very feastday of the Nativity of Christ (Comm. 28 December). In that same century, but later on after the persecution when the Church had received freedom of religion and had become the official religion in the Roman empire, we find the feastday of the Nativity of Christ observed throughout all the Universal Church. And this is evidenced from the works of saint Ephrem the Syrian, Sainted Basil the great, Sainted Gregory the Theologian, Sainted Gregory of Nyssa, Sainted Ambrose of Milan, Sainted John Chrysostom and other fathers of the Church of the IV Century concerning this feastday. Saint John Chrysostom, in his sermon which he gave in the year 385, points out that the feast of the Nativity of Christ is ancient and indeed very ancient. In this same century also at the place of the Bethlehem Cave, made famous by the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Equal-to-the-Apostles empress Helen erected a church, which her mighty son Constantine strove after her to make resplendid. In the Codex of the emperor Theodosius from 438, and of the emperor Justinian – in 535, is promulgated as law the universal celebration of the day of the Nativity of Christ. It is in this sense, truly, that Nicephoros Kallistos, a writer of the XIV Century, says in his history that the emperor Justinian in the VI Century established the celebration of the Nativity of Christ throughout all the world.
In the V Century the Patriarch of Constantinople Anatolios, in the VII – Sophronios and Andrew of Jerusalem, in the VIII – Saints John of Damascus, Cosma of Maium and the Patriarch of Tsar’grad Germanos, in the IX – the Nun Cassia and others of names unknown, all these wrote for the feast of the Nativity of Christ many sacred hymns, used at present by the Church to the glory of this radiant festal event.
However, during the first three centuries, when persecutions hindered the freedom of Christian Divine-services, in certain places in the East – in the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Cyprus – the feastday of the Nativity of Christ was combined together with the feastday of the Baptism of Christ on 6 January, under the in-common term “Theophany” [“Bogoyavlenie” – which both in the Greek and the Slavonic means “Manifestation of God”]. The reason for this, actually, was from the view, that Christ was baptised at a later time on His birthday, as might be inferred concerning this from the discourse of Saint John Chrysostom who, in one of his sermons on the Nativity of Christ, says: “it is not that day on which Christ was born which is called Theophany, but rather that day on which He was baptised”. Towards suchlike a viewpoint also it is possible to consider a nuance in the words of the Evangelist Luke who, speaking about the Baptism of Jesus Christ, testifies, that then “Jesus being incipient [incipiens, arkhomenos] upon His thirtieth year” (Lk. 3:23). The celebration of the Nativity of Christ conjointly with Theophany in certain of the Eastern Churches continued to the end of the IV Century, and in some – until the V or even the VI Century. Remembrance of the ancient conjoining of the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and Theophany at present enters into the making of the order of services in the celebration of these feasts. For both – on the eve-day preceding the feast, there is a similar tradition among the people, that on the festal eve-days the fast ought to be kept until the stars appear. The order of Divine-services on the eve of both feastdays and the feastdays themselves is done the same.
The day of the Nativity of Christ from of old was numbered by the Church among the Twelve Great Feasts, – in accord with the Divine witness of the Gospel in depicting these festal events as the greatest, most all-joyful and wondrous. “Behold, I proclaim unto you glad tidings, – said the Angel to the Bethlehem shepherds, – of great joy, for all mankind. For unto you this day is born the Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this for ye is the sign: ye will find the Infant wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Then suddenly with the Angel was a multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God and saying: Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good-will to mankind. Those hearing of this were awestruck at the sayings of the shepherds concerning this Child. And the shepherds themselves returned back, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2: 10-20). Thus the Nativity of Christ, as an event most profound and extraordinary, was accompanied by the wondrous tidings to the shepherds and the Magi about the universal rejoicing for all mankind, – “for the Saviour is Born!”, by the Angelic proclamation of glory to the new-born Saviour, by the worship to him by shepherds and wise-men, by the reverent awe of many, hearkening to the words of the shepherds about the new-born Child, amidst glory and praise of Him by the Shepherds.
In accord with the Divine witness of the Gospel, the fathers of the Church in their God-imbued writings also depict the feast of the Nativity of Christ as most profound, universal and all-joyous, which serves as a basis and foundation for all the other feastdays.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. (Matthew 5:13)
First, a confession: When I was an evangelical, I wrote a tract about the “salt of the earth.” I aimed it at less evangelical churches, and held that a church did not fulfill the Great Commission it had lost its salt and was useless to God, and was destined to be cast under foot of men. Now I realize, how judgmental. There is a lot more to this proverbial saltiness than a few lines from the Gospels that are usually taken way out of context by modernist bible scholars.
As an Orthodox Christian, I understand that this verse tells us about the behavior of the Christian, and not necessarily his fealty to a “protofundiecharismangelistic” interpretation of the Great Commission.
Context, as the Holy Church Fathers tell us, is crucial for one’s understanding of these passages. Matthew 5:13 happens upon the heels of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc), thus the Beatitudes serve as a backdrop for the salt and light analogies coming up in 5:13-14. The Beatitudes establish the qualities that God wants us to adapt in order to be proven salty. “For first, the meek, and yielding, and merciful, and righteous, shuts not up his good deeds unto himself only, but also provides that these good fountains should run over for the benefit of others,” wrote St. John Chrysostom. “And he again who is pure in heart, and a peacemaker, and is persecuted for the truth’s sake; he again orders his way of life for the common good.”
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was raising the bar in terms of the Virtues. They, His disciples, were going to be the foundation of the Church, visible to a sick and rotten world, and thus were charged with “salting” it. Salt is not sweet but is stinging, bitter, and necessary in small quantities for our survival. Think of it in a Christian context and one can see how much more valuable it is to be salty than sweet. The disciples of Christ would have to sprinkle their salt on the wounds of sin, often painfully, to cauterize such corruption. “It is not for you then to flatter and deal smoothly with men, but, on the contrary, to be rough and biting as salt is. When for thus offending men by reproving them ye are reviled, rejoice; for this is the proper effect of salt to be harsh and grating to the depraved palate. Thus the evil-speaking of others will bring you no inconvenience, but will rather be a testimony of your firmness,” St. John Chrysostom wrote.
The Explanation of the Blessed Theophylact adds that Christ’s disciples must transfer their virtue to others around them just as salt seasons the food on which it is sprinkled. “The disciple of Christ ought to be like salt, that is, first he ought to be good himself and have no part in wickedness, and then he ought to transmit that goodness to others,” he writes. We are charged to be an influence of goodness in the world. “The Church is the salt that salts the whole world, preserving it from putridity,” said St. Ephraim of Syria.
This passage serves as a warning to the world: Christ and His disciples came to bring a spiritual astringent to a world oozing with evil. “This is the very use of salt, to sting the corrupt, and make them smart,” writes St. John Chrysostom.
Looking back, I was not so far off base when I wrote my “Salt of the Earth” tract back then. Because in fact this statement by Christ serves as a warning to the Church too. The Church must remain salty: When we cease doing that, it’s under foot we go! But so far, so good – the Holy Orthodox Church remains salty, still, after 1,976 years.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
As an Orthodox Christian, I understand that the Lord’s blesses those facing persecution (for the sake of righteousness). And the greater the persecution, the greater the blessing. That’s simply bass-ackwards from the way of the world in which I was taught. In many churches, they seem to look at outward prosperity and success as a sign that God has blessed you. That is absolute rubbish. People like that generally refer to the Old Testament for justification and then only tell part of the story. They tell of the blessings on King Solomon for his early wisdom, but not of his downfall when decades of power and wealth had gotten to him. Indeed, many of the prophets and heroes and heroines of the O.T. suffered much at the hands of the wicked, many of whom were superficially “blessed” with wealth and other worldly prizes. And then, what about Jesus? His blessing was purely spiritual! I would add this indictment: The many churches of the rich world who look to Old Testament stories of worldly blessings for righteousness are simply using the Bible as a justification for pride, greed, and power.
The fact is that the blessings of Christ call for the facing of persecutions, many of them severe. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. (Matthew 5:11) A great many of our Saints attained their sainthood through martyrdom; but this is not something that someone should outwardly seek, but should receive gladly if God has chosen one for this trial. So don’t strap a bomb vest across your chest and explode yourself as a political statement in order to make headway for yourself when the Last Judgment arrives. You’ll just start burning a little bit earlier. But if someone strafes you because you believe in Christ, accept it as a blessing, don’t retaliate, and God will indeed bless you later.
Indeed, the rest of this Beatitude says: Rejoice and be ye exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:12)
St. John Chrysostom wrote that the actions from which we would be persecuted included any act of righteousness – helping another, demonstrating moral purity, speaking out for Christ. He defined righteousness in this instance as “the whole practical wisdom of the soul.”
St. Augustine took this a step further, saying that this Beatitude, the eighth, manifests the perfection of the previous seven – humility, mournfulness, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercifulness, purity, and peacefulness – and enables the bearer of these to endure the persecutions which are sure to follow. Interesting to note that persecution carries the same blessing – entrance into the kingdom of heaven – as the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” The Beatitudes come full circle at Persecution, which represents the completion of the spiritual perfections and the commencement of a new phase of one’s spiritual progress towards ultimate salvation.
This eighth sentence, which goes back to the starting-point, and makes manifest the perfect man, is perhaps set forth in its meaning both by the circumcision on the eighth day in the Old Testament, and by the resurrection of the Lord after the Sabbath, the day which is certainly the eighth, and at the same time the first day; and by the celebration of the eight festival days which we celebrate in the case of the regeneration of the new man; and by the very number of Pentecost. For to the number seven, seven times multiplied, by which we make forty-nine, as it were an eighth is added, so that fifty may be made up, and we, as it were, return to the starting-point: on which day the Holy Spirit was sent, by whom we are led into the kingdom of heaven, and receive the inheritance, and are comforted; and are fed, and obtain mercy, and are purified, and are made peacemakers; and being thus perfect, we bear all troubles brought upon us from without for the sake of truth and righteousness.[italics mine]
Now, as I close out my study on these Beatitudes, I must review my own relation to them. As a measure of compliance, I would rank very, very poorly. In fact, I have done the opposite of what the Beatitudes have instructed me to do: I have not been poor in spirit, but proud. I have not been one to mourn my own sins, but exulted in them. I have not been meek, but overbearing. I have not been one to hunger and thirst after righteousness, but been gluttonous, acquisitive, worldly. I have not been merciful, but selfish. I have not been pure in heart, but full of lust and carnality. I have not been a peacemaker, but a troublemaker. I have not been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but indeed have done most of the persecuting myself, especially of those people who demonstrated the kind of righteousness that I lacked.
This last Beatitude tells me that I have long way to go. It is a lighthouse beaming from a sea that I have not yet entered, but other seafarers have told me shines brightly for all who make it to that shore. I am not one who can face persecution easily. I am still rather thin-skinned. The Lord, I sense, wants us to be thick-skinned, but then again, to state the obvious is to set the path before us.
But the Beatitudes in general tell us that we must not be prideful, ego-driven materialists who keep religion in our back pockets for special occasions like funerals, weddings, Christmas and Easter. They call for humility, modesty, and meekness. And as an American, I must say, those traits are anathema to my cultural upbringing. Writes the Blessed Theophylact, “Simply put, all the Beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach.” He was commenting on the Beatitudes in Luke – which also deal with the flipside to this: what happens when we ignore God and lay all our chips on the world’s table:
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:23-27)
Perhaps the Christian life, then, runs against the grain of the worldly life. We are not to seek riches and fame, but to humbly accept our hardships, our penury, our degradation under the foot of those who believe only in themselves. This is quite easy to preach, impossible to do – without the hand of God on our hearts.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Before you read this missive about peacemakers, read this disclaimer: I am probably not the most eligible candidate to write a piece on peacemaking, but, I do know what an intense relief that bringing two warring parties to the table brings to the soul.
St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Here [Christ] not only responds that they (His disciples) should not feud and become hateful to one another, but He is also looking for something more, that we bring together others who are feuding. And again he promises a spiritual reward. What kind of reward is it? ‘That they themselves shall be called children of God.’ For in fact this was the crucial work of the Only Begotten: to bring together things divided and to reconcile the alienated.” Like many other of these concepts of the Beatitudes like humility, and mercy, and righteousness, peace is both a reason why God will bless you and a gift of that blessing.
And now, some terminology: The word “peacemakers” stems from Greek εἰρηνοποιός (pronounced ei-ray-no-poi-os) and means “one who makes peace; one who cultivates peace and concord.” The root of this term is εἰρήνη (eirene – ei-ray-nay), which means: peace, tranquility, concord, unity, love of peace. The Hebrew term for peace is shalom (שלום), which means all of the above things as well as “whole and entire,” and that brings an interesting angle to this discussion. Unless one is at peace one cannot be truly healthy. They say that mental or emotional anguish (in other words, being at war with oneself) brings physical disease. That’s considered a modern concept, but I believe that Bronze Age Man too had that notion pegged.
Peace is a terribly important word in the Christian language: It occurs over 100 times in the New Testament. Peacemakers, then, are those who are peaceable inwardly and outwardly; who are peace with themselves and who make peace between warring parties. With great irony, the word “peace” often breeds conflict. Massive overuse by many, often mercenary, parties, have caused the word to be devalued over time. The word has become somewhat of a misnomer. “’Peace’ is a word that has been covered with a lot of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism,” writes Jim Forest, editor of the In Communion e-zine and co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. “In more recent years we had a nuclear missile christened the ‘Peacemaker.’ Such abuse of words is what George Orwell called Newspeak in his novel 1984. But ‘peace’ is a word that has also been at times abused by peace movements. Anti-war groups often reveal less about peace than about anger, alienation and even hatred.”
I would hypothesize that Jim, like many of us Orthodox, would at this juncture aim his proverbial ICBMs at the Western, modernist concept of peace. The West seems to define peace as a political process that often requires appeasing evil and accepting heterodoxy at its most compromised worst. It awards great prizes to luminaries for damnable political reasons and demystifies the notion of peace to the point that people like me end up running the other way – to belligerence or warmonger-ism – because the peace crowd has become so bellicose and hypocritical.
This leads to a larger question: What does Christ’s concept of peace truly mean? The Church Fathers draw us closer to true peace in their discussions of the contest between worldly peace (the fulfillment of selfish desires) and spiritual peace (communion with God). The writer known as Ambrosiaster wrote this: “The peace of God is one thing, but the peace of the world is another. People in the world have peace, but it works to their damnation. The peace of Christ is free from sins, and there it is pleasing to God. A person who has peace will also have love, and the God of both will protect him forever.” Perhaps, though, the peace of God is something that we on this side of eternity are not made to understand fully. Recall St. Paul’s rendering of it: “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7). God’s indescribable peace shall keep (or defend our minds from demonic attack) through Christ Jesus (our faith in the Living God and His Savior of our Souls).
St. John Chrysostom puts that this way: “This peace then, i.e. the reconciliation, the love of God, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts.” And of course, one of Jesus’ departing gifts was His peace. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” (John 14:27) He made this statement to His disciples to reassure them after they realized that He was preparing to leave them for the next world. The Blessed Theophylact paraphrases Jesus’ words like this: “Find your peace in Me and you will not be harmed by the turmoil of this world. Oftentimes the peace of this world is forged by evil means and is mere foolishness. I give you peace that will enable you to have peace among yourselves. It will make you all one Body, and thus stronger than any adversary.”
In this sense, what at first seems like an interior kind of peace is actually something that occurs when we are part of a body, which is the Church. Only in Christ’s Church can we know true peace. We must be part of this Church to receive His protection. Then and only then can we understand His words, His Scripture, His Tradition. Thus, Christ’s peace is really a unity on the Church that transfers to the interior. When we have been received into the Church, and partake of its Sacraments, and believe in Christ thoroughly and with a childlike faith, then we will begin to receive peace. Did not St. Paul write, “…live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.” (II Cor 13:11)
And I would also offer this, that peace is one of the greatest ideals of our Christian faith. And, as one who has fought and continues to fight spiritual battles, I know what a highly coveted prize peace is. Perhaps it is the highest rung of the ladder leading to heaven. about the coming Civil War, but I am also the type to play dead if someone hits me. But just as I am one of the last people who should be writing about peace, I am writing about it because it is so important that I understand it. I do know what it is like to bring two disparate parties to the table; I know the sense of relief that brings to the soul. And I would also offer this, that peace is the greatest ideal for mankind and one of the great gifts of our Christian faith.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
This rather relentless study of the Sermon of Sermons presses on into this doozy of a Beatitude that is sure to separate the monks from the flunkies.
There is a sense in this, the sixth Beatitude, that each rung up the proverbial ladder towards salvation tends to be getting harder to grasp, albeit impossible without the Lord’s help. In the first Beatitude, we learned that the humble (poor in spirit) received the blessings from the Lord. Then comes honesty (those who acknowledge their sinfulness and mourn it). Then meekness, righteousness, charity (mercy), but then comes this test: How is your thinking? Noble qualities upheld in the previous Beatitudes help, but for the next step, the Lord requires of us a clean heart. We must focus on the inner demons of our thoughts – especially those pertaining to lust, anger, bitterness, etc. And trust me, I am the last person that should ever be writing a word about this!
The Blessed Theophylact wrote in his Explanation of the Gospel of St. Matthew, “There are many who are not rapacious and greedy, but are generous in almsgiving, yet they fornicate and commit other uncleanliness (sic). Christ commands, therefore, that along with the other virtues we should also be pure, that is, chaste and temperate, not only in the body, but in the heart as well. Without holiness, namely, chastity, no one will see the Lord.”
Let us consider chastity. In his seminal Christian Dictionary of 1612, Thomas Wilson defined this word as, “An abstinence and forbearing, not from marriage, but from all strange and roving lusts, about the desire of Sex.” So to be “pure in heart,” we could assume, requires us not to be lustful in our thoughts. We also know that Jesus would later, in this same homily, challenge His disciples not only to forego fornication, but also mental fornication. i.e., fantasizing about members of the opposite gender. “Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28).
But I sense that Jesus wants His disciples to be chaste from more than sexual lusts but from all temptations as well. “By the pure are here meant those who possess a perfect goodness, conscious to themselves of no evil thoughts, or again those who live in such temperance as is mostly necessary to seeing God,” said St. John Chrysostom. He alluded to Hebrews, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see God” (12:14). That wraps in the second part of this axiom, that for us to see, or be able to perceive God without distortion or imagination, but purely, we must have pure eyes. Added St. John, “For as there are many merciful, yet unchaste, to shew that mercy alone is not enough, he adds this concerning purity.” I also sense that God wanted to see His saints too – the ones that us nutty Orthodox put on icons and kiss and cross ourselves in front of… He wants us to acknowledge and to know their testimonies of holiness in a sinful world. And by bearing witness to His saints, we would be offered the opportunity to perceive Him too, once we began to become more like them. God wants us also to see reflections of Him in other people — yes, other ordinary folk, created in His own image.
This brings to mind the Transfiguration: Why were Peter, James & John only brought up on Mount Tabor to see the Lord Transfigured and bathed in the uncreated light? For one, perhaps they were the only ones spiritually mature enough to do it. They were pure – as compared to at least one of the disciples below who still had a massive imperfection in his heart. Their eyes were holy enough to perceive holiness and thus, to see God.
OK — not bad for a flunky, but I better stop here before I go way above my pay level.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
In the last installment of this series, we saw that Jesus the Christ, in his brief words about thirsting after righteousness, had actually been preparing us for a discussion about giving to those in need. Recall the Lord had said, “Blessed are those which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (v. 6). But in the next verse about mercy, the word “merciful” was transliterated from the Greek word ἐλεήμων (ele-eimon). This is close to the Greek root for the word for almsgiving, ele-emosyne, which literally means “mercifulness,” the Blessed Theophylact tells us. Thus we could substitute almsgiving, or charitable giving, for mercy.
In dissecting this verse, we get this statement: By giving to others, God would give us a reward too. That’s a no-brainer, but wait – “giving” as a concept can get a bit twisted here in the West. We know that the Lord was speaking of all types of giving: spiritual as well as material, but once a spiritual ideal gets placed into an American and a Western idiom, the material aspects of it tend to get over-emphasized.
Now let’s go off the deep end. A thoroughly Americanized interpretation of Matthew 5:7 would be: Give and ye shall get. Give ($) and ye shall get ($$$). That seems to be the modus operandi of those purveyors of the Prosperity Gospel these days. If you tithe, expect your income to increase. Put your faith in the Lord (i.e., your cash in the offering plate), and you will get PAID. To those who think that capitalism has already failed, perhaps we can morph this concept into a political context and say, “Vote for O, and he’ll pay your mortgage.” But it all goes down the same pipe; it does not matter whether we are talking about money, votes, sexual favors, or drugs. We are projecting our own “you scratch my back, I’ll get yours” mores on to the Almighty. Basically: Get in good with God, and He will bless you.
It is really disgusting what has happened to the word “blessed” after it hit American shores. When a man is “blessed” by God, the implication is that he received a lot of material bonuses, cash, property or otherwise, that are interpreted as kudos from On High. When you receive an unexpected dividend in the mail, you have been “blessed.” When you find a disproportionately beautiful wife, you have been “blessed.” When your drug dealer gives you a bigger chunk that what you paid for, you have been summarily “blessed” (I am not being facetious). The word “blessed,” which meant “happy” and “tapped by God” when the Lord gave to us His immaculate Sermon on the Mount, has been hijacked by the secular and materialist and sometimes overtly evil forces in this world to arrive not at the Mount of Tabor and Transfiguration, but to plummet us to unspeakable depths somewhere near Gehenna.
My priest said recently in a homily that if one read the Gospels closely, he would see that following Christ does not lead to riches and material blessings, but to persecution and hardship. Jesus said: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you… If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15: 18, 20) That, friends, implies precisely the opposite of the Mammonite Creed of “give and ye shall get!” Jesus also said, “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own…” (v. 19a). Thus, we see that worldly blessings – money, power, prestige — flow not from God, but from the world (likely from the devil himself) to those practitioners of worldly devices. That is not to say that the Lord can bless any of us with material blessings – He has, He can, and He will if it be in His plans — but let us not base our faith on such aspirations! In truth, I believe that many Christians (including this one) focus on the material aspects of their faith a bit too much, and I sense that the Lord wants us to move the other way as much as we can.
Let us instead look at what the Orthodox Master of Scriptural Interpretation, St John Chrysostom (the Golden-Tongued), says about this: “Here (Jesus) seems to me to speak not of those only who show mercy in giving of money, but those likewise who are merciful in their actions.” The Blessed Theophylact adds, “Not only with money does one show mercy in almsgiving, but also with words. And should you have nothing at all to give, show mercy with tears of compassion.” Show mercy and you will experience the Lord’s mercy. Give charity (love) and you will receive charity. Be compassionate, and you will receive the Lord’s most wonderful compassion.
Lastly, the reward from God is going to be beyond our wildest imaginations. “For whereas they themselves show mercy as men, they obtain mercy from the God of all; and it is not the same thing, man’s mercy, and God’s; but as wide as is the interval between wickedness and goodness, so far is the one of these removed from the other,” says Chrysostom. Indeed, there is a great gulf fixed between the way a man could reward another man, and the way God could reward him. So let us seek the spiritual side of this gulf, lest we fall into the chasm.