Ancient Faith Radio

As I reflect on the fourth beatitude as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,” it occurs to me that there’s a significance difference between a sermon that Jesus gives on the mount in Matthew and the sermon he gives on the plain in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, he says simply, blessed are you who hunger now for you shall be filled. It’s direct and to the point. It’s not at all spiritualized. In the same way that he says, blessed are you poor rather than appending the words “in spirit”. Here he speaks to hunger: the raw, direct, human experience. On the plain, Jesus is more personal as well, blessed are you poor, blessed are you who hunger now, blessed are you who weep now. It’s almost as if he’s addressing the real importance visceral, tangible, fleshly needs of the body on the plain and promising that these critical human needs, needs that are found to be lacking fulfillment will be satisfied. And then on the mount, these unmet needs, the obstacles, the suffering, the poverty, the grief, the weakness, the fear, the hunger and thirst, are all elevated in reference to Christ, assumed into spiritual life. And need itself becomes the catalyst for its own fulfillment. Poverty is transformed into the childlike quality of being poor in spirit, filled with humility and divine grace. Grief cleanses the soul through tears and transforms into spiritual discernment. Meekness reconciles the spirit with the body, the human being with the earth. Hunger becomes the act of living desire to empty oneself so that that which has been made crooked by sin or distorted through the alienating and corrupted influence of the presence of death is made straight and resurrected with divine life, made holy and offered back to God. So we see the next step on the ladder from poverty of spirit to mourning to meekness, is to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

There seems to be a difference in me, a proactive energy implied by hungering and thirsting, whereas the first three beatitudes seem to speak more to what is lacking. To hunger and thirst is a sign of life. We grow hungry for food and water, and without them, we’ll die, but Jesus speaks of hunger and thirst for something that transcends mere food and water for righteousness. Or somebody speaking on another level for human drives, desires, passions and appetites, that might otherwise be symbolized or mysteriously signified and translated through our eating and drinking itself cannot be reduced to mere bodily consumption. I think that at the bottom layer of human need, lies the most basic and authentic hunger, which is for the life of God and to be in communion with the Holy Trinity. It’s a hunger for divine light, divine fire, divine love, all of which are ways of talking about the same person, the same personal and holy divine being who’s not limited by necessities that he cannot give each and every single one of us his constant attention and care.

In a fallen, distorted, corrupt and really messed-up world, we thirst for things to be made right, for those who hate us not to hate us, for those we dislike to grow on us, for reconciliation, the end of poverty and greed, the end of division and grief. To no longer feel compelled to compare ourselves with others which fosters both pride and shame. The disillusion of fear and the resolution of all conflict. We hunger for the righteousness of God which the Gospel tells us we cannot attain ourselves. Righteousness and justice are finally in the same reality, both compatible with mercy. So it isn’t revenge or retribution or punishment that we are hungry for, as if after caring for the wounded man by the roadside who had been beaten by robbers, the Good Samaritan played by Clint Eastwood got on a horse chased them down to wreak some havoc. That really doesn’t come into the equation. Retribution is a sad finality for some who resist God to the very end, but retribution is not a necessity for justice to become a present reality in our hearts and in our lives.

Contrary to popular opinion, closure doesn’t take place when a murderer is captured and imprisoned and murdered by the state. I know victims who will back me up on that. Closure takes place when the victim or the victims who are left living are able to extricate all soul-poisoning hungers from their hearts, minds, and bodies, and forgive the person who has deeply wounded and poisoned them. In the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul writes “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” A little later, after describing in detail the inability of anyone to attain righteousness through the works of the law, Paul writes, “now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore, by the deeds of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now, the righteousness of God, apart from the law, is revealed being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference, for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace, to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood through faith to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance, God had passed over the sins that were previously committed to demonstrate at the present time his righteousness that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” I’m getting too doctrinally loaded here. The basic point is that it is in Christ that our righteousness is revealed and through faith in him which unites us with him that it is experienced. He is our mercy seat, expiating or propitiating our sins because he is just, not because retributive justice is expressed against him, via the wrath of an angry God. Rather, he covers our sins through his own righteous humanity, and he breaks the bonds of death reconciling us to God.

Christ is therefore just and the justifier of those who have faith in him. Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and to some degree, it is this righteousness, the justice of God revealed in the person of Christ himself that I think he’s referring to because it is a righteousness that not only reveals God to be just, but which justifies those who are united to Christ in his humanity and which also gradually makes them righteous. And when they are righteous, the goodness and peace and justice of God spreads throughout the world like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. Being made righteous according to Paul in Romans is therefore the fruit of conversion, a real and living change in one’s heart and behaviors that results from being united to Christ, from being in Christ. It doesn’t really seem to have much to do with legal status.

We often, however, allow our basic human need for the grace of God, the presence of divine love and his righteousness revealed in Jesus Christ to be fragmented through resistance and rebellion against God. We try like our first parents, Adam and Eve, to fill the need without God, to eat the forbidden fruit, to be made wise through our own energy and effort without grace or the presence of divine love. Because of the condition of death in which we live in the fallen world, a fragmented need for God transmutes into a multitude of small hungers, miniscule thirsts which inform the body’s natural appetites beyond their legitimate use. A hunger for the love of God might then be transmuted into, for instance, sexual lust, the desire to posses another person, as if that will fulfill one’s most basic human need, or in the insatiable thirst for success or fame, or recognition. All symptoms of the desire for God and for love but turned into insatiable appetites which may finally lead to numbing habits, addictions, and in enslavement to one’s own body.

Hunger is twisted into avarice. Our bellies become our gods, and thirst turns into a type of vampirism, whereby we destroy rather than commune with those whom we seek to possess and control or coerce in the name of love or in the name of success, or the name of profit, or the name of self-gratification, or any other number of contemporary ambitions, fueled by fragmented needs that have turned into passionate desires which can never be satisfied and that seems to adhere in the flesh itself.

St. John Chrysostom, in elucidating this beatitude, says that the opposite of the virtue of righteousness is covetousness. This is a driving force in many of our lives: the desire to have something that we do not have which we see that others have. It isn’t necessarily limited to material possessions. It can be many other things as well: coveting privileges or fame or power or control or even to be someone we are not, another person. The call to celebrity is rooted in envy. It isn’t that we really respect those who have all the things we do not have, including fame. We want to be those whom we put up on the pedestal and because we’re not we indulge in that prideful sort of self-righteous superiority when they prove themselves to be human, when they fall prey to scandal or show themselves to actually be just like us.

The person who hungers and thirsts after righteousness, however, recognizes his poverty, and through poverty of spirit, has the humility to submit himself to God and not seek to possess a multitude of things or to control other people, but instead possesses the Kingdom of God. And mourning the condition of death and all the consequent separations, he repents and is cleansed of bodily defilement through his own tears. In meekness, he does not compete or compare himself with others in a struggle for what is not really needful, and he begins to hunger and thirst not to satisfy various lusts for pleasure or to numb fear through comforting habits or through pride and shame, but he hungers for the righteousness of God to be manifest in him and through him as he participates in divine life through faith in Jesus Christ. In his book, “The Ladder of the Beatitudes” the writer Jim Forest remarks “hunger and thirsting for righteousness is the beatitude of fire, the over-whelming longing that life should be on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Orthodox nun Mother Maria Skobtsova is one of those who became all flame. She was born in 1891 into an aristocratic family in Rega, Latvia, in those days, part of Russia. In her youth, she wrote poetry. One of her works “Scythian Shards” was well known in St. Petersburg’s literary circles. In the period of impending revolution, she joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but when the Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic government in 1917, she left for Anapa on the Black Sea coast. There she married an anti-Bolshevik officer, bore two children, and also served as mayor, in the process, facing abuse from both the left and the right. Then in 1923, threatened with assassination, she joined the throng of refugees uprooted by revolution and civil war and made her way to France. In Paris, her second child soon died of meningitis, a tragedy that initiated a profound conversion. She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek a more authentic and purified life. She felt she saw a new road before her and a new meaning in life: to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection.

Immersing herself in efforts to assist destitute Russian refugees, she sought them out in prisons, hospitals, mental asylums, and in the slums. Increasingly, she emphasized the religious dimension of this work, the insight that each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world. With this recognition came the need to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in her brothers and sisters. Her bishop urged her to become a nun after her marriage ended, but she took the step only with his assurance that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier that might separate the heart from the world and its wounds. In 1932, she made her monastic profession and became Mother Maria. Rejecting monastic enclosures, she leased a house in Paris with space enough for a chapel, a soup kitchen, and a shelter for destitute refugees. Giving herself the least, her cell was a cot in the basement besides the boiler. Her house became a center not only for the works of mercy but for dialogue. While her kitchen was crowded with the down and out, the drawing room and in the summer, the back yard became a place where leading intellectuals of Paris debated the relation between faith and the social questions of the day.

Out of their discussions, a new movement was born: Orthodox action, committed to realizing the social implications of the Gospel. The meaning of the liturgy must be translated into life said Mother Maria. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our liturgy. The final act of Mother Maria’s life began with the German Occupation of Paris in 1940. In the context of Nazi racism, her commitment to seek out and revere each person as an icon of God assumed a deliberately subversive significance. Aside from normal hospitality to the poor, she, her chaplain Father Dmitri Klepinin, and her son Uri did all that was in their power to assist Jews and others being sought by the Nazis. During the fearful days of July 1942, when thousands of Jews were rounded up, Mother Maria succeeded in penetrating the sports stadium and assisted by garbage collectors smuggled out Jewish children in garbage bins. Though aware she was under Gestapo surveillance, Mother Maria continued her work on behalf of the Jews. To give up was out of the question, she told friends. A diary entry from that period of her life reveals the fidelity God had given her. “There was one moment when you start burning with love and you have the inner desire to throw yourself at the feet of some other human being. This one moment is enough. Immediately you know that instead of losing your life, it is being given back to you, two-fold.”

On February 9th, 1943, she and Father Dmitri were arrested. She readily admitted the charge of helping Jews elude police roundups. It was nothing more than her Christian duty. Sent to the notorious Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp north of Berlin, Mother Maria managed to survive almost until the war’s end, all the while caring for the bodies and souls of her fellow prisoners. She occasionally traded bread for needle and thread in order to embroider images that gave her strength. Her last work of art was an embroidered icon of Mary the Mother of God, holding the child of Jesus, his hands and feet already bearing the wounds of the cross. On Good Friday, March 31st, 1945, with the gunfire of approaching Russian troops audible in the distance, Mother Maria took the place of a Jewish prisoner who was to be sent to the gas chamber and died in her place. “At the last judgment, I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetics exercises nor how many bows and prostrations I made,” she had explained earlier in her life. “Instead, I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. I’m reminded by this other short story by the late contemporary writer Raymond Carver, entitled “A Small Good Thing.” In this story on the day of his birthday, a nine-year-old boy is knocked down by a car on his way to school. The previous day, his mother ordered him a birthday cake from a local baker, but on this day, his birthday, he walks home silently after being knocked down by the car and while telling his mother what has happened, he falls limp and goes to sleep. The story revolves around the agony the parents go through at the hospital while the boy continues to sleep and doesn’t waken. The false hope offered by their doctor. They’re thrown into a whirlwind of fear and hope and both resort to prayer, and in praying together, they begin to feel close to one another and grateful for each other. Their anguish is heightened in a time before cell phones when they go home and continue to receive threatening calls from someone who mentions their son by name, asking if they had forgotten him. It is the baker. He still has the cake which has not been picked up, and he’s angry that they seem to be eluding him.

In an inevitable climax of grief, their son wakens and then breathes his last, and both are stricken into intense mourning. And after midnight, they go home in a cloud of spiritual poverty and defeat. The phone rings which is always portentous in a Raymond Carver story. It’s the baker again. As they’re taunting him, he hangs up when they answer. The mother realizes who it is and they both go out under the stars to the bakery where he is at work, and they’re angry with grief and brokenness and pain, and they want to confront him. When the baker realizes his error, he sincerely asks for their forgiveness. You probably need to eat something, the baker said. I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small good thing in a time like this. He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. It’s good to eat something, he said, watching them. There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want, there’s all the rolls in the world in here. They ate rolls and drank coffee.

Ann was suddenly hungry and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years, to repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty.  The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over, icing knuckle-deep, the tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes, hundreds of them, no thousands by now. Birthdays: just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers. Smell this the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. It’s a heavy bread, but rich. They smelled it. And then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows and they did not think of leaving.

To hunger and thirst for righteousness even amid the difficulties of life is a sign of life, of recovering. And like the baker’s bread, connotes the Eucharistic life of the sacrament, the body and the blood of Christ, which illumines and changes us so that we can become like St. Maria Skobtsova righteous through faith and cooperation through Jesus Christ. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled. Physical poverty, death in its multitudinous manifestations, grief, and every other obstacle and every cross becomes the catalyst to our transformation and salvation.