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The Beatitudes — the path to Heaven

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the nine Beatitudes. These laws supplement the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Old Testament laws speak of those things one must not do, and emit a sense of severity. The New Testament laws, on the contrary, speak of those things which must be done, and they breathe of love. The ancient Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets and mastered through external education. The New Testament laws are also written on the tablets, but the tablets of a believing heart, by the Holy Spirit. Here is the text of these eternal laws:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven" (Mat. 5:3-12).

It is noteworthy that each of these New Testament laws begins with the word "blessed." While the Old Testament laws work through the path of prohibition and the threat of punishment, the New Testament laws urge one to goodness, leading upward to a never-ending joy in God.

From the time of the original sin of our foreparents, people have lost both true happiness and even the correct notion of it. The word "happiness" itself began to sound like an unrealizable dream, an unattainable ideal. But the Lord Jesus Christ offers people happiness as a concrete, attainable reality. And here the promise refers not only to a heavenly life in the future, but to something which begins to be realized even now, by the measure of how much a person is liberated from the oppression of sin, gains peace of conscience and becomes worthy of the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely the Holy Spirit which gives a person such happiness beyond words that it cannot be compared to any worldly pleasures. When reading the lives of the saints, we see that true Christians were ready to face any sacrifice for the sake of protecting and strengthening the grace of God within them.

Delving deeper into the meaning of the Beatitudes, it becomes apparent that they are laid out in a definite sequence. They show a person the way to true happiness and explain how to travel on this path. They can be compared to a heavenly stairway or plan for a harmonious house of virtue.

The fact that each person (without exception) is damaged by sin, and thus destitute and pitiful, serves as the starting point for the Beatitudes. The tragedy of the original sin of Adam and Eve is the tragedy of all humanity. Sin clouds the mind, weakens and imprisons the will, and constricts the human heart with sorrow and despondency. For this reason each sinner feels unhappy, but, at the same time, does not understand the reason for his grief. In his sufferings he is ready to blame everyone and all of life’s circumstances. The first beatitude gives the correct diagnosis: the reason for the dissatisfaction of any person is his or her own spiritual illness.

The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world in order to heal man. He calls on all to turn to God, to enter into His Kingdom of eternal joy. For humanity, the call of Christ sounds like the voice of a loving Father, calling his lost son to return to his home. When a person returns to God, he does not come to Him with bags filled with virtues or the riches of earned talents; he comes impoverished, like the prodigal son who has wasted his father’s property.

The first beatitude calls upon a person to understand his spiritual illness and to turn to God for help. This first step is difficult! It is not easy for the "prodigal son" to come to his senses, to admit his guilt and helplessness, and to begin upon the path of return. For this reason a great reward is already promised to people for their effort of will, for the good beginning alone: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." It is worth noting that while the fall of humanity began with the haughty desire to be equal to God (the seducer promised our foreparents, "Ye shall be as gods," Gen. 3:5), the restoration of a person begins with the meek confession of his helplessness.

Being poor in spirit does not mean a material poverty, or a lack of spiritual talent. Just the opposite — someone "poor in spirit" may be very rich or very gifted. Spiritual poverty is a humble way of thinking which comes from an honest confession of one’s own imperfection. But Christian humility is not despair or pessimism. On the contrary, it is full in the hope of God’s mercy, and of the real possibility of becoming better. It is permeated with the joyful expectation that with His help we will become virtuous and pleasing children to Him.

The recognition a believing person has of his own poverty and sinfulness is expressed through a penitent frame of mind in the denouncement of one’s past and in the intention to reform. True penitence, which is often accompanied by tears, possesses great divine strength. After one gains it, one feels a great lightness, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from one’s shoulders. The second beatitude calls us to such sincere repentance, saying: "Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted."

When the conscience is cleansed of sins, an inner harmony is instilled in a person — complete order in his thoughts, feelings and wishes. The irritability and animosity he had had before are replaced by a feeling of peacefulness and quiet joy. A person with such an attitude no longer wants to argue with anyone. He will even prefer to suffer a loss in any given worldly matter than to lose his spiritual peace. Thus, penitence raises a Christian to the third step of virtue — meekness: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."

Of course, sometimes malicious people ill-use the meekness of a Christian. They take advantage of it by deception, theft, or humiliatiton. God comforts the Christian with the hope that in the future life he will receive much more than he could lose in this life from the schemes of brazen people. If not always in this life, then in the future, without doubt, justice will conquer, and the meek, as promised, will inherit the "earth" — that is, all the blessings of the renewed world, in which the truth will reside.

Thus the first three beatitudes, calling a person to humbly appeal to God, to penitence and to meekness, lay the foundation on which a house of Christian virtues is raised.

As the reappearance of the appetite in someone who is ill serves as the first sign that he is beginning to recover, so the desire for righteousness is the first indication that a sinner is beginning to heal. While in sin, a person hungers for riches, money, honors, and physical pleasures. He never considers spiritual riches, or may even disdain them. But when that soul is freed from the illusions of sin, he begins to long for spiritual perfection. The fourth beatitude describes this striving for righteousness: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."

The desire for righteousness can be understood as the next phase in the construction of a house of virtues — the building of the walls. By using the words "hunger and thirst" here, the Lord tells us that our desire for righteousness should not be lukewarm or passive, but the very opposite, that it must be energetic and active. A hungry person does not only imagine food, he uses all his energy to appease his hunger. Only by yearning for it actively can one receive righteousness, or, as described in the beatitude, "be filled."

When he reaches the fourth step of virtue, a person already possesses a certain degree of spiritual experience. Having received from God the forgiveness of his sins, peace of soul and the joy of adoption, the Christian now feels His great love for himself. This love warms his heart, and there arises then in his heart an answering love for God and compassion for others. In other words, he becomes kind and gracious, and with these attributes rises to the fifth level of virtue — mercy: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."

The beatitude about mercy is very extensive! Mercy must not be expressed in material help only; it must be expressed in forgiving offenses, visiting of the ill, comforting the suffering, giving kind advice and tender words, praying for others and many other ways. Literally every day offers us many chances to help our neighbors. For the most part, they are a chain of hardly noticeable and "insignificant" incidents. But the spiritual wisdom of a Christian consists in having the discernment not to scorn "small," good deeds, for the sake of what may appear to be "great" deeds — in the future. Great plans usually remain unrealized, while small good deeds, by their number, add up to a considerable spiritual capital by the end of one’s life.

Active love so purifies the depths of the human heart of pride, and brings a person so much nearer to God, that his entire soul is transfigured with spiritual light. A person begins to sense the fluttering of grace; already begins in this life, as it were, to see God with his spiritual eyes. Here the soul of such a Christian can be compared to a lake, which, in the course of many years of neglect, had become overgrown with weeds, filled with scum and clouded, but later, was cleaned out and changed so completely that rays of light could penetrate deep into its crystal-clear waters. The sixth beatitude speaks about people who achieve such a level of spiritual purity: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Examples of such spiritual purity, carrying over into sagacity, were such righteous saints as St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. John of Kronstadt, the Elders of Optina and many other saints of the Orthodox Church.

God makes righteous persons such as these into tools of His providence, using them to save other people. For this end He gives them wisdom and especially spiritual sensitivity. In their calling to convert people to the path of salvation, these righteous individuals begin to resemble the Son of God, Who came into the world to reconcile sinners to God. The seventh beatitude speaks about such spiritual peacemaking: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Of course, all people should try to be peacemakers in their own family circle and among their friends, but the higher form of this virtue requires a special gift from above, which is given to those with a pure heart.

In order to resemble the Son of God in good deeds, a Christian must be prepared to imitate Him in patience. The last two beatitudes speak of the sad fact that the world, "laying in evil," cannot tolerate true righteousness and revolts against its bearers: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." Just as light, dispelling darkness, shows things as they truly are, so the virtuous life of a true Christian reveals the moral ugliness of the wicked. Jealousy arises out of this, on the part of sinners toward the righteous; they desire to revenge themselves for the reproach of their conscience. This animosity toward the righteous can be found throughout world history, beginning with the tale of Cain and Abel and extending to the modern persecution of believers in atheistic countries.

People of weak faith are ashamed to show that they are believers: they are afraid to be subjected to persecution for their religious beliefs. But truly righteous persons and martyrs gladly accepted suffering for Christ, because their hearts burned with love for God. They even considered themselves lucky to be deemed worthy to suffer for their faith. In the days of trials, a Christian should consider their example and comfort himself with the words of Christ, Who promised: "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven!" for the greater the love, the greater the reward.

To sum up the last five beatitudes, we see that they all call upon us to love. Love takes its initial form in mercy for people. Spiritual peacemaking is a higher form of love; for its success purity of heart and insight from God are needed. Remaining faithful to God under ridicule and persecution, as well as willingly giving one’s life in the name of Christ, is the highest expression of love for God. In this way, the last five beatitudes, showing the Christian more and more perfect forms of love, sketch before him a plan for the upper arches of his or her temple of virtue.

In conclusion, it is necessary to say that a Christian, striving toward love, should not in the process forget and ignore the foundation on which his house of virtue stands: that is, humility, the purifying of his conscience and meekness. For if his spiritual foundation begins to weaken and crack, the entire building may fall. The Lord will speak about this danger in the last part of His Sermon. The next parts of the Sermon on the Mount, which we will present below, can be examined as the development of the spiritual principles given in the Beatitudes. 

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