We cannot understand the Sermon on the Mount… and the Beatitudes in particular… apart from the cross. This comes into special focus tonight as we meditate on the 8th blessing, the teaching of which is extended into the 9th:
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Now we are all aware of that perverse condition, a persecution complex. This of course is when someone is paranoid or when someone without a mental illness enjoys playing the victim. There is nothing of this neurosis or even psychosis, however, in Christ’s teaching on persecution. He is dealing with a simple fact, the consequence of being a true believer, you will be persecuted.
Evil hates goodness but it is not our own “goodness” that evil hates but rather God and His goodness in us, for the Devil is the implacable enemy of both God and humankind. Those who wish to be the true servants and followers of Christ had better reckon with this now. Christianity is salvation and life eternal but it is no “bed of roses.”
A faith that accommodates itself to this world and to its priorities is salt that has lost its savour, leaven that is flat and fit for nothing other than to be thrown out, fruitless branches of a vine destined for the fire, a light hidden and extinguished, water that is neither cold nor hot… all biblical allusions for comfortable religiosity – no threat to worldliness or Satan of course and, therefore, not persecuted.
This is not to say of course that we should go out looking for persecution. That would be perverse! The martyrs never rushed headlong to their deaths. They made their sacrificial offering calmly when the time came as yet another opportunity for the Kingdom to advance. This the Devil will never understand even if a billion martyrs were to die, anymore than he can understand what it is that has overthrown him in the death of Christ, which is both the root and branch of every fruitful Christian life, martyred or not, the inexhaustible and infinite Love of God.
This then is why our persecution can be an occasion of great blessedness… because we are reproducing in our lives the pattern of sacrifice that participates in the power of Christ’s own life-giving death and resurrection; not just for our own salvation but also for those also with whom we are connected. Our martyrdom is our witness to Christ for the unsaved. In Greek of course “martyr” means witness. Even if we are not called to surrender our physical life at the hands of persecutors we can still give the same witness by self-sacrificing love – a divine love that lies at the very heart of the Cross.
In conclusion and especially as we approach Great and Holy Week let us attend to some life-giving words from our holy Father, St. Theodore the Studite on the significance of the cross. It is blessedness for us who are being saved:
“How precious is the gift of the Cross!
See, how beautiful it is to behold!
It shows no sign of evil mixed with good, like the tree of old in Eden;
it is all beautiful and comely to see and to taste.
For it is a tree which brings forth life, not death.
It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out.
It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil,
the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant.
It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent.
Of old we were poisoned by a tree; now we have found immortality through a tree.
Of old we were led astray by a tree; now we have repelled the treacherous snake by means of a tree.
Indeed an unheard of exchange! We are given life instead of death, incorruptibility instead of corruption, glory instead of dishonour.
How right Paul is to exclaim: ‘Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!’
For that supreme wisdom, which flowered on the cross, proved that the proud boasting of worldly wisdom was folly.
The beauty of all the good gifts which grew on the cross cut out the shoots of evil.”
St Theodore the Studite (759-826)