The Meaning of our Divine Services, part seven: Divine Liturgy, “The Third Antiphon: The Beatitudes”
As the deacon intones the second and final small litany of the Liturgy, the priest prays the Prayer of the Third Antiphon: O Thou who hast bestowed upon us these common and concordant prayers, and Who hast promised that when two or three are agreed in Thy Name Thou wouldst grant their requests: Do Thou Thyself now fulfill the requests of Thy servants to their profit, granting us in this present age the knowledge of Thy truth, and in that to come, life everlasting.
The priest, on behalf of all the people gathered, prays that we may acquire knowledge of the Truth and eternal life. Importantly, this prayer reveals that eternal life is a quality of the coming age, of the next eonian. Commonly rendered “eternal,” eonian certainly has that connotation, such as when we read in the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “But now being made free from sin and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). But the eon, the longest period of time in the Holy Bible, can actually be divided into seven distinct divisions: pre-eternal time (see II Tim. 1:9: “before times eternal”), five eons (The eon in Paradise, the eon between the expulsion from the Garden until Noah (antediluvian), the present eon, and two future eons, these are the “ages of ages”: “and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion for the eons of the eons. Amen” [Rev. 1:6].), and the eternity that reigns at the end of the eons (“but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” [Heb. 9:26]). Life everlasting is rooted in the present⎯Christ has already been victorious over the Devil⎯but it will acquire its full meaning with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christians are to always have their attention directed to this Kingdom, which Christ describes in many of His parables. But, since it is not possible to understand the goodness that God has set aside for us in the Eternal Kingdom, we also pray for knowledge of the Truth: knowledge of He Who has promised “life everlasting”: Jesus Christ. “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (John 17:19-21), so prays Christ to His Father on behalf of His Apostles. To know the Truth is to know Christ; to know Christ is to be in God “who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). Importantly, this Knowledge of Truth is inter-personal as well as personal, for we are directed to gather together and where there are two or more gathered in Christ’s name, there He is (Matt. 18:19-20). This is the meaning of the Divine Liturgy as a gathering of the faithful.
It is significant of the Third Antiphon’s importance that the Small Entrance occurs during its conclusion. The Third Antiphon may consist of different hymns, but in contemporary practice, with some variation according to the liturgical season, it is usually the Beatitudes. As we consider the meaning of these Beatitudes, therefore, we should consider the high regard the Church has for them in using them as the “entrance hymn” for the Holy Gospel. It cannot be overstressed that, as the Son of God, Christ is so much more than teacher; those who attempt to limit Him by characterizing Him as a mere instructor of ethics attack His salvific role in our life. Once we acknowledge the danger of such a misunderstanding, though, we can acknowledge Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as the most important of His ethical teachings about how we
should live even as we strive for union with Him through participation in Holy Communion. The entirety of the Sermon of the Mount, of which the Church only gives us the Beatitudes during this point of the Liturgy, was so important to the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew who depicted it that he parallels Christ’s teaching the New Law with Moses’s teaching the Law to the Hebrews after receiving it on Mount Sinai. The branch that has been grafted onto the living vine is bound to it with lessons in humility and godliness. When we sing these words during Divine Liturgy, let us hear not only with our ears, but let us attend with our hearts, lest we turn, instead, to the golden calves in our lives and cause our redeemer to shatter His lessons for us against our hardened hearts.
Before the first Beatitude, we sing the repentant thief’s prayer to the Lord: “And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Like the thief, whose meekness and humility as he hangs upon a cross beside our Lord exemplifies the virtues of the Beatitudes, we ask that the Lord remember us in His coming Kingdom. In doing so, we affirm the forward-pointing, or eschatological, dimension of Divine Liturgy. The Kingdom of Heaven has already begun; we know this because the saints experience glimpses of It while still in the flesh. However, the Kingdom will be
experienced more fully in the future, both after our individual deaths and, for all who escape the judgment of God, after the Second Coming of Christ. The entire Divine Liturgy is structured around expectation of this Kingdom wherein we hope to be received; this is why every Church Altar faces East, in expectation of Christ’s Second Coming and the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The word rendered “blessed” here is makari, which means ‘joyousness springing from within.’ The word “beatitude” itself is Latin in origin (beatus) and means ‘happy, fortunate, or blissful.’ Some translations render makari as “happy,” but, as Jim Forest points out: “‘Happy’ in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for ‘luck.’ [. . .] But [. . .] the word blessed [. . .] was [. . .] chosen by translators in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant ‘something consecrated to or belonging to God’” (The Ladder of the Beatitudes, 18). In beginning his teaching with makari (Berakah in Hebrew, a variation of which begins many Jewish Prayers, such as Psalm 113:2: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore.”), Christ echoes the Psalms, 35 different verses of which begin with Blessed. In fact, the first word in the Psalms is berakah: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). The Psalms, however, emphasize uprightness and keeping apart from the wicked as in Psalm 118’s “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 118:1); St. Hilary of Poitiers calls this probity: “The primary condition is to enter into the way of truth with experienced moral conduct and oriented towards the seeking of a life without fault by the practice of the virtue normally known as probity” (Commentary on Psalm 118). Christ, on the other hand, calls blessed lowly qualities that would, heretofore, have been considered defects of character or spirit. What the world despises, God raises up. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes such ones as being “insulted, reproached, and in dire traits because of His righteous commandment” (The Discourses, 53). The Greek word for “poor” here is ptochos, which does not mean someone who has a very modest life, but “someone who is destitute. There is a different word⎯penes⎯for a person who has the basic necessities [. . .] a destitute person has been reduced to begging” (Forest 24). Importantly, Christ uses such an adjective to describe the blessed one’s spirit. Those whose spirits are so destitute that they are reduced to begging for spiritual satisfaction are promised the ultimate spiritual boon: access to the Kingdom of Heaven. What is the mark of those so blessed? St. Symeon calls it “everflowing tears that purify the soul” (53). St. John Chrysostom links poverty of spirit to “the humble and contrite mind” (Homily 15, 185) and St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us “who it is that is poor in spirit” by identifying such a person as one “who is given the riches of the soul in exchange for material wealth, who is poor for the sake of the spirit. He has shaken off earthly riches like a burden, so that he may be lightly lifted into the air and be borne upwards” (The Beatitudes, Sermon 1, 89). St. Gregory claims that the one who attains the Kingdom of Heaven gives up material wealth for spiritual wealth. Although Christ says that it is poverty of spirit that is rewarded, St. Gregory clarifies that the path to a destitute spirit is freedom from enslavement to material concerns. When one is free of this attachment and when tears continually flow, God makes up for what is lacking in the spiritually destitute person. And what better real estate agent could we ask for than the Architect of Heaven? He who houses his spirit in destitution will exchange a hovel for the Kingdom.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. When discussing the kind of sorrow to which Christ here refers, St. Gregory of Nyssa marks the Apostle Paul’s distinction between godly sorrow that “worketh out repentance to salvation” and ungodly or worldly sorrow that “worketh out to death” (2 Cor. 7:10): “We should not think it a loss to be deprived of some of the pleasant things of this life, but rather to lose the better things for the sake of enjoying the others” (Sermon 3, 116). Christ promises us the enjoyment of comfort; however, just as godly sorrow can be contrasted with ungodly sorrow, the Divine consolation here promised should be contrasted with “the pleasant things of this life.” The Evangelist Matthew uses parakaleo to render ‘comforted.’ It is the same root from which we derive parakletos, used by Christ to name the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, that
He asks the Father to send His apostles: “And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you” (Jn. 14:26-27). The promise of the Holy Spirit, Whose descent upon the Apostles during Pentecost marks the beginning of the Church, animates, guides, and comforts those who willingly indenture their life to Christ, sorrow over their sins, and actively work for the salvation of their souls. It is the Holy Spirit that replenishes our spirit from His abundance of spiritual joy, for His is the “treasury of good gifts” and He is the “giver of joy.” This is our reward: not the comfort of a temporary condolence, but the promise of what St. John Chrysostom calls “abundant consolation” (Patrologia Graeca 57:188). It is with profundity that the Church gives us this promise in the midst of the Divine Liturgy, which itself is an icon of the future Kingdom when God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28); as we sing of that comfort that will be, we experience a foretaste of it now through right worship and our imminent communion of the Divine and Holy Gifts.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The Lord here reminds us of Psalm 36 (37): “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: Fret not thyself, it tendeth only to evil-doing. For evil-doers shall be cut off; But those that wait for the Lord, they shall inherit the land. For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: Yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and he shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the land, And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (8-11). The earth that is to be inherited is the new Promised Land, the new earth (Rev. 21:1). The meek have as their foremost example Christ, Who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). St. Gregory of Nyssa notes that “He calls meekness a standard attainable in the life of the flesh [. . .] He does not set up complete absence of passion as a
law for human nature; for a just lawgiver could not in fairness command things that nature does not permit” (The Beatitudes, Sermon 2, 104). Rather, meekness can be acquired by subjugating one’s passions to properly-directed reason: “For the reasoning power restrains the desires like a rein and does not suffer the soul to be carried away to unruliness” (103). Acknowledging our self rule, God declares us heirs of a superior estate.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. St. Paisius Velichokovski closely connects the desire for righteousness with tears of repentance: “With the passing of time and to the degree of effort, tears, and weeping will come forth, along with a slight hope for the soul’s comfort. Hunger and thirst after righteousness shall appear, that is, a fiery effort to behave in everything according to His commandments and to achieve humility, patience, mercy, and love for everyone” (Starets Paisii Velichokovskii, 153). St. Paisius here emphasizes that the hunger and thirst for righteousness is a profound longing for the Truth that comes from God, not ourselves. Righteousness in English can sometimes be confused with self-righteousness, which refers to someone who is convinced of his own correctness. However, the Greek word diakaoisune refers to the quality or state of being justified by another, in this case God, not one’s self. The very first Psalm clarifies that the state of righteousness is bestowed by God: “Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish” (Ps. 1:5-6). The Lord knows the ways of those who are righteous because He can see into each and every heart. What we feel about ourselves is inconsequential at best and, when it comes to self-righteousness, damning. To those, though, who hunger and thirst for God’s justification, that is who pursue righteousness with the relentlessness of one starving, God will meet out to them every kind of spiritual blessing: “For thou wilt bless the righteous; O Lord, thou wilt compass him with favor as with a shield” (Ps. 5:12). “Therefore,” writes St. Gregory of Nyssa, “God the Logos promises to those who hunger for these things that they shall be filled” (Sermon 4, 18:127). Occurring in the context of the Divine Liturgy, the Lord’s promise of our imminent satisfaction by being filled suggests the spiritual consolation of the Divine Eucharist.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. The prayer for the Lord’s mercy is the most common one in the Church. Mercy refers to a moderation of the severity of justice, but St. Gregory of Nyssa here suggests that it also includes an empathic quality: “Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the sufferings of others. It is a loving disposition to those who suffer distress.” In emphasizing the inner disposition, St. Gregory notes: “if a man only wills the good, but is prevented from accomplishing it by lack of means, he is not inferior, as regards his state of soul, to the person who shows his intentions by works” (Sermon 5, 18:133). Mercy, then, is a quality that first occurs within our heart. In fact, the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is called “the prayer of the heart.” Fittingly, then, this Beattitude is followed by one that calls a blessing on the pure in heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The Holy Apostle Paul describes Christians as distinct members of the Body of Christ and also as united in Christ, whose Body is both whole and one. When speaking of the various callings that the members of the Body receive, he makes distinctions: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof. And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, divers kinds of tongues” (I. Cor. 12:27-28). In a similarly diverse fashion, the Beatitudes distinguish between those who cultivate the different Godly virtues; those who so do receive the promise of Heavenly compensation. Although some Fathers emphasize how the Beatitudes are related, for example St. Symeon the New Theologian and Blessed Theophylact, whose commentary on the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the virtues associated with the Beatitudes are cumulative, every saint does not always exhibit
every Godly virtue. The Beatitude that is rewarded the most handsomely is purity of heart, for it is the pure in heart who behold God Himself. “For there is nothing more needful to see God,” writes St. John Chrysostom (Patrologia Graeca 57:189) as purity of heart, which St. Isaac the Syrian describes as “a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature [. . .] a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts [. . .] for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion [. . .] that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment” (Ascetic Treatises 81). St. Basil the Great describes the experience of seeing God as “the genuine contemplation of realities”: “Now we behold ‘as in a glass’ (I Cor. 13:12) the shadows of things, the archetypes of which we shall behold later, when we are set free from this earthly body and have put on an incorruptible and immortal body. Then we shall see, that is, if we steer our life’s course towards the right, and if we take heed of the right faith, for otherwise no one will see the Lord” (Letters 8:12). Purity of heart and the contemplation of God are not achieved by all saints in this life, but all will so behold Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Those who acquire the inward peace of Christ ⎯ the Prince of peace (Is. 9:6) ⎯ are truly “peacemakers.” Peace between nations is important, but any peace without Christ is false. The antonym of “peace” is “war,” and the war that a Christian fights is spiritual; our warfare being unseen. Therefore, let us fight for the spoils of spiritual warfare: inner peace. St. Gregory of Nyssa ponders, “I think a man is called a peacemaker who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind, but is subjected to [. . .] divine ordinance” (Sermon 7, 18:165). Under this ordinance, we will be able to make peace in wholeness instead of falling to pieces in the face of adversity; under this ordinance we receive “adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5).
Blessed are they that 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 exceedingly glad, for great is you reward in the Heaven.
As the clergy process from the north deacon door of the Altar to stand before the Royal Doors, the choir concludes the Third Antiphon with the final Beatitudes. The Liturgy of the Word is mounting to its culmination with the Gospel Reading, but first we witness humanity’s
entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, represented by the clergy entering into the Altar through the Royal Doors, only after hearing our Lord’s teaching that those persecuted for righteousness’ sake ⎯ martyrs suffering for Christ ⎯ will enter Heaven’s Kingdom.
St. John of Kronstadt writes: “In His last two pronouncements on beatitude, the Lord blesses his followers for the persecution they have already undergone and will continue to undergo for their faith and virtue” (Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes, 87). The Church gives us this teaching now to remind us that there is no reward of Heaven without the suffering of the Cross. Christ thus instructed his Apostles before His own crucifixion:
If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. (John 15:18-20)
Between the world and the Kingdom of God there is enmity. This is not how God, the Creator of Paradise, would have it. Rather, our Adversary stalks this world (I Peter 5:8), mastering the minds of those of the world and inciting them to persecute those who conform to Heavenly, rather than worldly, principals.
But to suffer for the Lord is no cause for sorrow, rather the Lord commands us to “rejoice,” literally to “leap exceedingly with joy” as did Peter and the Apostles who went “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (Acts 5:40-41). In fact, suffering can help prepare our souls for Heaven, as St. Gregory of Nyssa observes when he writes: “For a man who suffers cannot enjoy pleasure. Hence, as sin entered through pleasure, it is exterminated by the opposite (Sermon 8, 18:172).
Next: Part Eight, “The Small Entrance”