The Foundations of Christian Morals.
The Sermon delivered by our Savior on the Mount was preceded by two significant meet-ings, one with His secret disciple, Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), and the other with the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4-42). In His conversation with Nicodemus, Christ spoke of being born again, born of the Spirit of God, and in Samaria He taught of God as Spirit and of the worship of the Father in spirit and truth.
Nicodemus had not known of spiritual birth before his meeting with the Lord. What in-terested him was the same question that troubled many other men: was this Teacher and Miracle-Worker an ordinary prophet, or was He the Christ, the promised Messiah? His desire to find the answer to this question is evident in the words with which he addressed Christ: Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him (John 3:2).
Aware of Nicodemus’ inner state and aware of his spiritual blindness and fundamental unreadiness to receive the Truth, our Lord spoke to him of the necessity of spiritual birth: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). Nico-demus misunderstood these words and took them to mean a second birth from the womb. Christ, in His mercy, was patient with Nicodemus and explained to him: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).
According to St. John Chrysostom, what is meant here is not birth in fact, but birth in dignity and grace. Birth in dignity is the spiritual rebirth of the man who strives constantly for the spiritual, heavenly and eternal; for man, as the Image of God, is called to live continuously with God and in God. Birth through grace is the part played by the Holy Spirit’s grace in man’s birth, in his regeneration — justification and sanctification.
All of this was difficult for Nicodemus to understand, for in the last words spoken by the Savior, he saw a fresh mystery, and that is why he asked: How can this be (John 3:9)? Jesus ex-plained that He was teaching not of worldly, but of heavenly things, that He was the Christ, the Son of God come down from Heaven, and that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
Our salvation contains many hidden mysteries and ineffable spiritual blessings linked with them. The greatest and most fundamental mystery, along with the greatest blessing, lies in the fact that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Man should respond to this saving love of God first and foremost with faith in it and in Christ, as the Son of God and the Savior of man-kind, Who came, not to judge, but to save those who believed in Him, Who came as the Light to illumine those who were in darkness and sought God’s Truth, so that they should live and find salvation through it.
St. John the Evangelist, speaking of the Logos — the Word of God — and of those who did not accept Him, wrote: To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13). In these words the Evangelist points out two unfathoma-ble mysteries, that of birth from God and that of the power to become the sons of God.
Children inherit from their parents their nature and their attributes. And what do God’s spiritual sons inherit from Him? First and foremost they inherit such attributes of God’s grace as love, holiness, goodness, light, kindness, peace, truth, righteousness and purity. The gifts of God are received through the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation and they develop and grow throughout the Christian’s life.
In our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan Woman by Jacob’s Well, He revealed to her the truth of the living water, welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). Then, speaking of the worship of God, He said that the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, [be-cause] God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Here, when He states that God is Spirit, Jesus is saying, according to St. John Chrysostom, that God is incorporeal and that for this reason those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
And what does worshiping in Truth mean? According to St. John Chrysostom: “Earlier rites, like circumcision, burnt offerings, sacrifices and the burning of incense, were merely sym-bols, whereas new Truth has come. Now it is not flesh that we must circumcise, but evil thoughts; now we must crucify ourselves, and exterminate and mortify our unreasonable desires.” It is this that is meant by worshiping in truth. But only one who is born in the spirit can worship in this way.
The Savior’s conversations with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan Woman revealed His teaching about God as Spirit and about the spiritual worship of God by those who believe. In this way He established the concepts of spirituality, of spiritual feeling, the spiritual man as compared with the non-spiritual, the natural man, the man of this world, and the man of the flesh. Thus our Lord’s summons to beatitude (or blessedness) is addressed to the man who has passed through or who is passing through the process of spiritual birth, and who already partakes in the effects of the summoning and illumining grace of God, leading to faith in Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the World. Therefore, in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), which are sung at the Divine Liturgy, are to be found the basis for Christian Morals.
The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12).
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Beatitudes can be viewed as a single system — a ladder ascending in virtues. Christ calls us first of all to acquire spiritual poverty, and meekness, and only then to rise step by step to the summit of spiritual perfection. Man becomes aware of his poverty of spirit from the moment when the summoning and illumining grace takes effect within him. The first thing revealed to the spiritual infant is his helplessness — the incompatibility of his present spiritual state with that to which he is being summoned. The human spirit is the chief motivating force of our salvation, for we are bound to God, not by the soul, but by the spirit, and it is not through the soul, but through the spirit that God’s good will descends upon us.
It is in the spirit of man that the Image of God is most truly reflected. Our spirit trembles before God when it establishes contact with Him in prayer, meditation, reading the Word of God, in the Sacraments, Divine Services, good deeds, and so on. Only when it is humbled will our spirit become aware of the gulf which separates man from God and will know that God is all — that within ourselves is nothing worthy of the Lord or pleasing to Him, nothing that is our own except our sins — and that the fullness of spiritual life consists in renunciation of self — in giving oneself entirely to God and to others.
Only by sacrificing ourselves will we find ourselves in the fullness of life lived for God and for others. And to find ourselves in God and in others, we must lose our own selves. Our spirit, renewed in God, knows that human life belongs to Him and always and in all things is de-pendent upon Him, and that we must be in steadfast contact with Him, begging His help and liv-ing in the hope that the gracious Lord in His mercy will not abandon us in our helplessness.
The righteous men of the Old Testament were aware of their insignificance before God. As Abraham said of himself, I… am but dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). David, both king and prophet, cried out, I am a worm, and no man (Ps. 22:6); I am poor and needy (Ps. 86:1). Moses said to the Lord, I am slow of speech and of tongue (Ex. 4:10); and the Prophet Isaiah said to himself, I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips (Is. 6:5).
The saints of the New Testament Church, the nearer they drew to God, the stronger they were aware of their smallness and unworthiness before God, and were filled with truly profound humility. Some of them declared as they died that they had not even begun their salvation, while others declared that there was no place for them even in Hell, while yet others declared that even the earth would not accept their sinful bodies.
According to St. John Chrysostom, humility is the foundation of all virtue, for even if one distinguishes himself by fasting, prayer, alms, chastity, of any other virtue, without humility all of these would be destroyed and would perish. Thus there is no salvation without humility. This virtue was regarded highly in the Old Testament, for as the Psalmist says, A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Ps. 51:17). Seeing the results which humility brings, he was moved to say, When I was brought low, He saved me (Ps. 116:6).
In the New Testament, the Lord Himself gave us the greatest example of humility (Matt. 11:39; John 13:14-16), for His entire life teaches us humility. The Mother of God says of herself, For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden (Luke 1:48). The Apostle Paul said of himself, I am the foremost among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). The Publican of the Gospel saw nothing within himself except sinfulness, and simply hoped in God’s mercy.
The ways in which one attains humility are different. Sometimes it is through sickness, sorrow and misfortunes. Sometimes it is through being persecuted by others or oppressed by dis-ease. As St. John Chrysostom says, True humility comes when we turn from our sins to God.
In the human soul, humility is countered by pride which struggles ceaselessly with it try-ing to destroy it. We know that all the evils which bring man to damnation are the results of pride: the Fall of Satan, of Adam, of Cain, and so on. And to this day pride is the chief enemy of humility, and overcoming it with God’s help is the first task to be undertaken for our salvation, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
The attainment of humility is linked with overcoming our own self and pride, and with the victory over our passions and the temptations which face us. True humility prevents us from passing judgment, from envying, being angry, arousing anger in others, hurting or rebuking them, and it enables us to help others, to pray for all, and to bear everything that happens to us calmly as coming from God. He who has attained deep humility considers himself the unworthiest among men and attributes all his accomplishments to God.
Christian humility is free and highly fruitful, and there is not the least servitude, ingratia-tion or flattery in it. The humble Christian cannot be the servant of other men, because then he would not be the servant of Christ, for the servant of Christ is free in Christ as the Highest Truth. Love for Christ and devotion to Him allow the believer to call himself the servant of Christ, and as a result of his regeneration, he is a freeborn son, a child of God and not a slave.
Therefore, the poor in spirit, those who are humble of heart, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom, as the Lord Himself says, is within you (Luke 17:21), in the spirit and in the humble heart.
2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Sorrow and grief enter the soul of one who has attained poverty of spirit and who has be-come aware of the power of sin over his soul, and they wring an involuntary cry of grief from its very depths. Therefore the Savior is anxious to comfort those who weep with His second Beati-tude.
When it lived in Paradise, the human soul knew neither weeping, nor tears, for then man was with God and God was with man. The sin of our first parents separated man from God, giv-ing rise to godly tears and sorrow which lead to contrition and salvation. This godly sorrow, as St. John of the Ladder tells us, “liberates the soul from all earthly loves and affections.” This sadness, however, should not be confused with worldly grief [which] produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). If we do not overcome it, this earthly sorrow may grow into the mortal sin of depression and despair.
Godly sorrow is permeated with love for God and for others and sorrow for their sins and for our own. Such was the sorrow of Moses when, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Israelites for-got their God and made themselves a golden calf to worship. Such were the tears shed by the Prophet Jeremiah over the ruins of Jerusalem. And such were the tears of the Savior Himself when He foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter wept bitterly after his denial of our Lord, but the Lord comforted him when He appeared to him on the first day after His Resurrection, for God’s mercy is infinite and He not only comforts those who repent in this earthly life, but will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 7:17).
Mourning, as the expression of the spirit’s repentance for its sins, is of spiritual value, and must be treasured so as not to be wasted on earthly vanities. The mourning of the spirit, however, is not always accompanied by physical tears, for deep sorrow can be expressed in sighs, constric-tion of the heart, profound silence, inner concentration and withdrawal. Yet, as St. Ephraim the Syrian notes, these tears are like precious pearls, for “by God’s gift the soul is enlightened by tears, reflecting the heavenly like a mirror.”
Great is the strength of pure and heartfelt tears that rise from the depths of the heart, for these tears wash away all internal and external filth and quench the flame of all irritability and anger. These tears are especially saving when they are constant and, as St. John of the Ladder teaches us, “he who is truly concerned for his salvation will count each day when he has not wept for his sins as wasted, in spite of any good deeds that may have been accomplished.”
We are constantly sinning, both when we are active and when we give ourselves over to idle dreams, and these sins must be washed away with tears of repentance. These tears are a means of washing and purifying our soul, and a sacrifice offered up to God by our contrite and broken spirit. If our tears arise from fear of God for our sinfulness, they will “intercede for us with God,” as St. Ephraim tells us.
The blessed receive a special gift from God — tenderness and the tears of tenderness, which show that “godly tears and sorrow contain both joy and gaity, just as the comb contains the honey.” In addition, there are the tears of the heart, “which are better than the tears of the eyes,” as Bishop Theophan the Recluse wrote. “The tears of the eyes fatten the worm of vanity, while the tears of the heart are to be seen by God alone. Tears during prayer at Church and at home are beneficial, but in Church it is better to hide one’s tears, leaving merely the tearful mood in one’s heart, that is to say, a contrite spirit and a contrite heart. Night is the best time for prayer, especially at midnight. That is the place for your tears.” Therefore, secret tears for our sins cleanse the soul and bring it closer to God, bringing us both comfort in this life and true consolation in the next.
3. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Meekness is directly linked with heartfelt repentance and mourning for our sins and he who considers himself worthy of all sorrows and troubles will be filled with the spirit of meek-ness and humility. He who is meek offends no one, is angered by no one, is modest and virtuous. He is a stranger to idle curiosity and never refuses his help to those who are suffering, doing good quietly and without notice. This virtue is as difficult to attain as it is great, for it demands much effort and struggle within the one who wishes to attain it. First he must overcome his irri-tability, impatience, touchiness and irascibility, for by overcoming his passions, he attains mod-esty and meekness. This, however, is only the beginning of his growth in this virtue.
The Psalmist especially praises meekness, placing it on a level with truth and righteous-ness (Ps. 45:4), and the Prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s particularly merciful attitude to man who is meek: This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My word, says the Lord (Is. 66:2). St. Peter sees a meek and quiet spirit as one of the greatest treasures of the human heart, which in God’s sight is very precious (1 Pet. 3:4). Therefore he urges the followers of Christ to be ready to answer with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15) those who ask the reason for their hope. St. James asks us to receive with meekness the Word of God (James 1:21), so that it will find the most direct way to the hearts of his listeners.
St. Paul pays special attention to meekness, pointing out that meekness in the preacher is the best way of convincing those who oppose him (2 Tim. 2:24-25) or for correcting the sinner (Gal. 6:1). He begs the Ephesians to treat each other with all lowliness and meekness, because these are the qualities that make a man worthy of the calling to which [he has] been called (Eph. 4:2, 1). To the rebellious Corinthians, he would come not with a rod, but with love, in a spirit of gentleness, (1 Cor. 4:21), for this Apostle to the Gentiles counts meekness among the fruits of the spirit, for against such there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).
In the Old Testament King David (the Psalmist), the Prophet Moses, who is called very meek (Num. 12:3), and also the righteous Job, who blessed the Name of God when subjected to severe trials, were all distinguished by their meekness. In the New Testament the Savior demon-strated the greatest meekness and called us to learn from Him first and foremost this virtue: Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:29), for it is out of this virtue that all the other virtues grow, including love itself. Through meekness and humility man overcomes his natural self and pride, and spiri-tually develops towards self-denial in the Name of God and out of love of Him and one’s neigh-bor.
The saints offer us marvelous examples of meekness. Once during Divine Liturgy, St. John the Almsgiver, when he was Patriarch, reading in the Gospel lesson about making peace with your brother before coming to pray (Matt. 5:23-24), recalled that there was a cleric whom he had punished for some misdeed and who was angry with him. He called him immediately and, falling at his feet, begged him to forgive him and to make peace. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, while in a conversation with a local landowner, was in the course of an argument struck in the face by him, at which the saint fell down on his knees and humbly asked forgiveness of the landowner, saying, “For God’s sake, forgive me for bringing you to such a state.” Only a man of meek spirit could have answered thus.
We can help pave the way to meekness in ourselves by deciding to strive for spiritual health in all things, and for abstention in our designs, in thought, in word and in deed. As St. John Chrysostom says, “If we are opposed, we will be humble. If anyone is arrogant with us, we will be helpful. If anyone torments or oppresses us by making fun of us or swearing at us, we will not answer in kind, so as not to destroy ourselves through vengeance.”
The Lord promises those who attain meekness that they will inherit the earth. One would have expected the meek, the most defenseless and oppressed of all, to perish in the first centuries of the Christian era at the hands of the infuriated pagans, but they have indeed inherited the earth that was formerly ruled by those who persecuted them. The meek will receive their spiritual inheritance in the mansions of the righteous, and will receive the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13), where eternal blessedness awaits them.
To be continued…