by Jim Forest
Those who are new to Orthodoxy are sometimes surprised to discover the intense reverence the Church has for the Gospel. A book containing only the four Gospels is normally kept on the altar, representing Christ’s throne. The book is large and is decorated with several icons on the cover, most frequently one of Christ’s resurrection.
In the first part of the Liturgy, the Gospel book is carried out of the sanctuary, which represents heaven, into the main part of the church, which represents our world, and back into the sanctuary once again. Throughout the procession, the book is held high. We all bow to it, as we would bow to Christ, for Christ is present wherever His word is present. The Gospels are a sacrament of Christ’s presence.
For the same reason, there are occasions when the Gospel book is kissed by faithful Orthodox believers. While any Orthodox library will have many treasured books, most notably the writings of the Church Fathers and various lives of the saints, no other book by any saint or theologian is reverenced by Orthodox as the Gospel is reverenced, just as no saint is venerated as Christ is venerated.
Later, the Gospel book is brought back into the center of the church for the day’s reading. Like the rest of the Liturgy, it is sung. “To sing is to pray twice,” according to an ancient Christian saying. Everyone stands, a gesture both of respect and of attention. Candles are held on either side of the Gospel book, a symbol that Christ is the light of the world.
The careful connection, typical of Orthodox tradition, of spiritual and physical action does much to bring even a skeptical bystander to awareness of the life-giving significance of the Gospel. Yet ritual gestures can only invite an inner response, never force it. It is one thing to kiss the Gospels with one’s lips, another thing to live them body and soul. What is it we are bowing to? Are we really listening? It is a lifelong task opening our ears and hearts to the Gospel and trying to live it fully. Even the holiest saint knows he is not yet living the Gospel as he ought to. Indeed, the closer we come to Christ, the more aware we are of how far we are from Him.
During the procession with the Gospel book, the choir sings the Beatitudes. The reason is that the Church recognizes these verses as a summary of Christ’s teaching, a synopsis of the whole Gospel.
If we recognize the last two verses as one, in that both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who love the Gospel, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of them an aspect of being in communion with God, and each of which we need to think about again and again as we make progress in our lifelong conversion to Christ.
They are like rungs on a ladder. Each one leads to the next, and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step. The idea isn’t that I’ll be a peacemaker while somebody else specializes in poverty of spirit or being pure of heart.
We begin at the beginning, the first rung of the ladder, the primary Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Without poverty of spirit, none of us can begin to follow Christ. What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death. It is my awareness that I desperately need God’s help and mercy. It is stepping away from the rule of fear in one’s life, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means becoming free of the myth that possessing many things will make me a happier person. It is an attitude expressed in a French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only that which you have given away.”
The second rung — “Blessed are they who mourn.” Here is the Beatitude of feeling grief for the sorrows of other people. I can hardly feel someone else’s pain without poverty of spirit, because otherwise I am on always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. If I begin to feel for someone, to feel and not just pretend to feel, I will want to share with him what I have, and even share myself. The immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the losses of people around us, not just those whom I happen to know and like but strangers. This is the Beatitude of tears. Remember chapter 11, verse 35, of the Gospel of John: “Jesus wept.” That is the entire verse. The 17th Century poet and priest, John Donne, comments, “There is no shorter verse in the Bible, nor is there a larger text.”
The third rung — “Blessed are the meek.” We find examples of each Beatitude in Christ’s life. We see meekness in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, something that embarrassed them, something they resisted. But in what better way could he teach them the nature of love and what it means to be an apostle? We see the meekness of his entry into Jerusalem on the back not of a powerful horse but a modest donkey. We see meekness in Christ carrying the cross and enduring all the other events that led to his crucifixion. Meekness is a hard virtue for everyone, but perhaps most of all for men because we have been made to think of meekness as a feminine quality. But meekness is not simply doing what you are told. The person who obeys evil orders is not being meek but being cowardly. He has cut himself off from his own conscience, thrown away his God-given freedom, all because he is afraid of the price he may have to pay for following Christ. We must first of all be meek toward God, and that God-centered meekness will give us the strength not to lord it over others or to commit evil deeds against a neighbor.
The fourth rung — “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for that which is right.” When we begin to share in the sufferings of others, we cannot help but notice that often suffering is the result of injustice or is made worse by injustice. Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who hopefor righteousness” or “Blessed are those who campaign for righteousness” but “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” — that is, people who want what is right as urgently as someone dying on a desert thirsts for water. For the same reason, they cannot adapt themselves to the absence of righteousness, explaining that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, that eggs must be broken to make an omelet, or even the blasphemy that God wills social evils.
The fifth rung — “Blessed are the merciful.” This Beatitude prevents us from thinking that the longing for righteousness permits us to be ruthless. It is natural to feel anger toward those who make themselves richer, more comfortable or more powerful by causing suffering. We can easily think of all sorts of people, from petty criminals to heads of corporations and governments, who, as we hear in the vivid imagery of the Old Testament, “grind the poor.” But we see in Christ the constant example of someone ready to be merciful to anyone, no matter what he has done: not only the prostitute but the Roman centurion (that is, a soldier belonging to an occupying army) and the tax collector.
The sixth rung — “Blessed are the pure in heart.” What is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart able to feel the sorrow of others, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a heart that is not vengeful. We see a pure heart in the face of any saintly person. Consider the pure heart of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who was so free of fear and violence that he was on good terms with a bear who lived near his cabin and on occasion even shared his of bread with the bear, seeing this beast as a neighbor, and who forgave the robbers who nearly beat him to death and left his body bent for the rest of his life. He labored long and hard to free himself of all obstacles to God and finally had a heart so pure that it seems no one can come near him, or kiss his icon, without becoming more pure himself.
The seventh rung — “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Only after ascending the first six rungs of the ladder of the Beatitudes can we talk about the Beatitude of the peacemaker, for only a person with a pure heart can help, in God’s mercy, to rebuild broken bridges and pull down walls, to help us recover our lost unity. The maker of peace must be a person who seeks nothing for himself, not even recognition. Such a person does not even regard his actions as “good deeds.” They simply are the consequence of having been drawn more deeply into God’s love. Because of this, such a person cannot help but see others, even the most unpleasant or dangerous person, as a child of God, someone beloved of God, someone made in the image of God even if the likeness is presently very damaged or completely lost. Think of the teaching of St. Sergius of Radonezh: “Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord.”
How desperately we need such people! We need them not only in places where wars are being fought or might be fought, but we need them within the church and within each parish. Even the best and most vital parishes often suffer from deep divisions. And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. Often it is harder to forgive and understand someone in our own parish than an abstract enemy we see mainly in propaganda images on television. See can see within our Orthodox Church that we don’t simply disagree with each other on many topics but that often we despise those who hold an opposing view. In the name of Christ, who commanded us to love one another, we engage in wars of words. Far from loving our opponent, we don’t even respect him. But without mercy and forgiveness, without love, I am no longer in communion either with my neighbor or with Christ.
At the deepest level, the peacemaker is a person being used by God to help heal our relationship with God, for we get no closer to God than we get to our neighbor. As we know from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor doesn’t just refer to the person next door of the same nationality but even more to the person regarded as “different” and a “threat.” St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain taught that love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.”
Finally, the eighth rung — “Blessed are they who suffer persecution” — the Beatitude of the persecuted. We are reminded that we shouldn’t expect or even want to win a peace prize for following Christ. It is, of course, no news to anyone in Russia what a price can be paid simply for being a believer. But we are given the remarkable advice that we should rejoice when we are persecuted because we are in the good company of the prophets and, still more important, with Jesus the Savior, who never harmed anyone but finally had to carry a cross — we know it to be the holy and life-giving cross but it didn’t look either holy or life-giving at the time — to a place of execution and have nails hammered through his flesh for our sake. But it is on the cross that resurrection begins.
This sermon was preached at the Church of Saints Cosmas&Damian in Moscow on Sunday, March 23, 1996. Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The sermon was a step along the way in writing The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books, 1999).