The opening Psalm and the Beatitudes both seek to understand the challenging question, ‘Who will be blessed and what does it mean to be blessed?’ Psalm 1 asserts that the person who is blessed ‘will be like a tree that is planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season’; and whatever those who are blessed do, they will prosper (v.3). As a Biblical note on Psalm 1 suggests, to be blessed is to be in ‘the happy condition of those who revere the Lord and do His will’. Therefore, being blessed does not mean simply being emotionally happy. To be blessed is a free gift from God, not a reward for service to God or others. There is also from Psalm 1 the strong sense that blessings are linked in some way to seasons, that blessings evolve throughout the continuing experiences of life, whether that life is a human life or the life of a tree. How then can we find the different blessings that God intends for each of us at different times in our lives? A good place to look for an answer is the Beatitudes.
In the first beatitude, St Matthew tells us quite explicitly who will be blessed: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. In Homily 15, St John Chrysostom, that remarkable fourth century Church leader, teacher, preacher and pastor, has pondered over what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’; and his reply is: be of such a ‘humble and contrite mind’ that you ‘are awestruck and tremble at the commandments of God’. To be ‘poor in spirit’ for St John Chrysostom is THE ‘remedy to the disease of pride’. Both St Matthew and St John Chrysostom are deeply aware of the exhortation in the last verse of Psalm 111: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever’.
It was those words, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ that were inscribed on the wall behind the tabernacle in the Jewish synagogue that I attended for the first eighteen years of my life. When I chose to complete my Jewish heritage by acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, that phrase—‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ was the primary teaching I brought with me into my new life as a Christian. And I was afraid—I was afraid of the Lord; I was afraid of how other Christians would treat me as a Jew; and I was both afraid and saddened by the response of my very Jewish parents. However, St John Chrysostom is right—fear of the Lord is a good remedy to the disease of pride, because if you are afraid of the Lord you are not going to waste much time feeling proud about little achievements which probably have more to do anyway with the blessings of the Lord than with your own limited abilities.
OK, so to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to be humble, to be afraid of the Lord and to reject pride. But more is involved in being ‘poor in spirit’ than simply being humble, being afraid of the Lord and rejecting pride. St Gregory of Nyssa, another great fourth century theologian, sets each of us an astounding challenge. His interpretation of this first beatitude is: ‘The end of the life of virtue is to become like unto God. Yet [human beings] can by no means imitate that purity… There are , however, things belonging to the Godhead which are set up for the imitation of those who so wish. It seems to me’, writes St Gregory in his first sermon on the beatitudes, ‘that by poverty of spirit the Logos understands voluntary humility… Would you like to know who it is that is poor in spirit? [Those] who [are] given the riches of the soul in exchange for material wealth, who [are] poor for the sake of the spirit. [Those who have] shaken off earthly riches like a burden, so that [they] may be lightly lifted into the air and be borne upwards’.
Now, none of us are going to become so pure that we begin to float upwards tonight. But we can see the goal—‘to become like unto God’, to imitate the pure intentions that God has for each of us at different seasons in our lives, to be humble and to forgo wealth or use what wealth we have for humble purposes. Many Orthodox scholars call this process of becoming like God, ‘deification’; and that is precisely what we seek as the culmination of our life of earth, even if we may not achieve that essence of poverty of spirit until we die.
To me, the first beatitude is rather frightening. The goal is very high—deification, preferably on earth. Yet the second beatitude guides us into beginning to achieve that goal: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’. Once again the same Church fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa and St John Chrysostom, guide us along a realistic path that leads to the implementation of the second beatitude in each of our lives. St Gregory of Nyssa, in his third sermon on the beatitudes, reminds us that ‘there is more than one kind of sorrow… [S]urely if a soul bewails its wicked life because it feels its bad effects, such suffering cannot be excluded from the sorrow that is called blessed…We should not think it is a loss to be deprived of some of the pleasant things of this life, but rather [need] to [learn to welcome] los[ing] the better things for the sake of enjoying the others’. In other words, to be blessed in mourning for our own sins is to discover that walking on the bridge that leads from earth to heaven requires giving up certain ‘pleasant things of this life’ in order to gain eternal life.
St John Chrysostom in Sermon Three drives home the vision of St Gregory of Nyssa: Christ “did not simply set forward [and bless] all that mourn, but [only] those that do so [that is, who mourn] for sins…Now of this kind [of mourner, Christ] calls happy those who have sorrow in accordance with God [and His will for their lives]’. St John Chrysostom reminds us of the words of St Paul in Second Corinthians, chapter 7, verse 10: ‘For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death’. The distinction here is between ‘God-centered sorrow over the wickedness of sin’ as opposed to ‘self-centered sorrow over the painful consequences of sin’. It is an important distinction: mourn because sin draws you away from God, not because sin leads to painful consequences in any self-centered life.
The Messiah whom the prophet Isaiah envisages in Chapter 53, verse 3 and whom we know as Jesus Christ, has been accurately described as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. The two Greek words used for ‘the cross’ mean ‘wood’ and ‘stake’, so the cross is intimately linked to the act of crucifixion; and crucifixion has become for us the ultimate sign of sorrow and anguish, one of the most painful ways to die. Yet the cross of sorrow on which Jesus Christ died draws us away from the world and onto that bridge that leads to eternal life. This cross of such deep sorrow becomes a sign of salvation for every Christian. Why? Because once we mount that cross of sorrow in our own lives we gain the grace to lose our sins. In one of the most significant passages in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 2, verse 20, St Paul speaks of his own experience, yet also sets a model for each of us when he writes: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me’.
An unknown fourth century Biblical commentator, whom Erasmus knew as Ambrosiaster (mistakenly linked to St Ambrose) comments on this single verse from St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: ‘One who is fixed to the cross of Christ is one who, in imitation of His footsteps, is not ensnared by any worldly desire. Living to God, he [or she] appears dead to the world’. For me, it is precisely in that sense, in imitation of the life of the Messiah, of ‘the man of sorrows’, that we each embrace this cross of sorrow on which Jesus Christ died secure in the knowledge that He rose again. And so may all of us.