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Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted Because of Righteousness, For Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven

March 22, 2014

smart_parenting_persecution_03The previous seven beatitudes have linked human virtue as a state of being and way of life in the tempestuous present with a promise of divine fulfillment in the glorious future. In this Sunday’s beatitude, however, the possession of the Heavenly Kingdom by the righteous is not then and there, but here and now, with the Lord Christ invisibly present in the midst. Promise and fulfillment meet at precisely the most difficult moments in a Christian’s life, at their personal Cross. Every Christian is called to be radiantly faithful to Christ like the first Martyr Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). In that spirit-filled righteousness, the Christian will discover, like Saint Stephen before, that when stones are in the hands of the surrounding crowd persecuting him for righteousness, then the heavens open and the faithful servant of Christ knows that the Kingdom of Heaven is truly his.

It seems ironic that those who try to bring peace to others  should find themselves in the crossfire aimed directly at them. Perhaps for this reason, Saint John Chrysostom cautions us “do not imagine that peace is a blessing in every situation. ‘Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness,’ that is, for virtue, for helping others, for piety,… for the entire philosophy of the soul” (Homily 15 on Matthew, PG 57.228). There is a blessedness in the good that cannot be extinguished by evil that surrounds it. The light that shines in darkness is not snuffed out by the darkness, but by virtue of the surrounding darkness shines even more brightly still.

Light, and darkness, warmth and coldness, oil and water in their pure forms do not mix, and neither do virtue and vice. This beatitude on those persecuted for righteousness is about purity, purity in virtue, and the discovery of where we belong in the midst of trials. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for my sake, for they shall have a place where they shall not be persecuted” (Stromata, 4, 6). That place is not with the cruel, the conniving, the vicious and the malicious, but with the compassionate, the kind, the forgiving, and the loving. Saint Gregory of Nyssa counsels us, “Let us not become weary because we are driven away by things that are earthly, for if we leave those things behind, we can dwell in the courts of heaven. If we are not driven away from the earth, we will surely remain on earth. If we depart from there, we can dwell in heaven” (Homily on the Beatitudes, 8, PG 44.1300).

What transpired in the past in the martyrs’ arenas continues to take place even to this day in places one might not expect. In one of his missionary letters to his spiritual children Saint Nikolia Velimorovich writes, “Until you started praying to God, you were dear to everyone.  And now, all of a sudden, being in your house is like being in the enemy camp.  Before you used to drink, smoke, steal a little, and swear, and spend working days in idleness, and you did everything else which is abominable to God and the honest world.  And yet, you were dear to your whole household.  But now that you have set out on the path of righteousness, honesty, and prayer, they have swarmed you like wasps.  Rejoice, brother, and a hundred times rejoice.  Do you not see that the Gospel is being played out in your home?  In the same house where the topics until recently were taxes, forced labor, thieves, those who harbor thieves and slaves, in that same house, Evangelical prophecies are being fulfilled.  Your house has been elevated to the heavens and is a stage of the Christian drama.  It has formed a link with apostolic and martyric times.  The history of the Christian Church is being played out in a microcosm in your house” (Letter 75, “To a Pious Man Who Is Mocked By All of His Household).

The admonitions of fathers, ancient and modern, to those being persecuted for righteousness are intended to encourage the soul, to make it stalwart, and to help it to continue to remain righteous in persecution. Living a life of ardent faith will necessarily bring persecution from friends, colleagues, and perhaps family members.  Our response, like our faith, is to be in imitation of Christ, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). If we condemn or judge those who persecute us, we can lose the blessedness promised us by the Lord Christ.  To maintain a Christ-like disposition, we are indeed in need of Christ-like thoughts and behaviors. Archimandrite Zacharias refers to the proper stance of the Christian when he writes about his own elder’s teachings: “Fr. Sophrony encourages this disposition with the fact that Christ, whenever He was threatened with death, did not think of it as coming from the Roman soldiers or the Jews—He always saw it as the Cup that the Father was giving Him” (The Hidden Man of the Heart, p. 105). And that bitter cup was the cup of salvation for the sake of the entire world.

Rather than focusing on our persecutors, we are to perceive everything that befalls us (because of our righteousness) as part of God’s often inscrutable plan for our salvation and the salvation of others.  Archimandrite Zacharias makes another salient point in this regard, “When we suffer tribulation, pain or illness in this life, we must remember to pour out our heart to God rather than seek human consolation by going from one person to another and talking about it.  This might give us some psychological consolation, but we lose all the tension of life, that energy of pain which is so precious when we direct it towards God” (The Hidden Man of the Heart, p. 15). There is power in prayer that is offered by the righteous at the time of persecution. Indeed, the “fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

Because we have this beatitude and other warnings from the Savior, we should not be surprised by persecution, but accept it as part of our way to the place of the Cross and then the open tomb. Saint Gregory Palamas writes, “Sincerely believing God provokes opposition not only from the physical passions and the evil one’s snares, but also from people in the grip of passions who lure others and drag them down with themselves into wicked pleasures.  In the same way, having a right belief in the one true God provokes opposition not only from ignorance and the enemy’s promptings, but also from godless men who treacherously pull believers down into the depths of their own destruction.  In both aspects of faith our greatest help comes not just from God Himself and our God-given faculty of knowledge, but from the good angels and from God-fearing people who live according to His will”  (Homily Eight, On Faith).

To become a Christian is to become righteous, to become a mirror in which the very reflection of the life of Christ Himself can be seen.  This is why the early Church martyrs considered their sufferings for righteousness sake as a crown and a glory befitting their status as followers of Christ. Saint Gregory of Nyssa asks, “What is the prize? What is the crown? I think it is none other than the Lord of every soul that hopes in Him, for He is the setter of the contest for those who struggle and the crown of the victors. He not only distributes the portions He is the good portion, the better part. He is the one who enriches. He is the wealth. He shows you the treasure and you become the treasure. He leads you to desire the precious pearl and sells it to you standing faithfully at your side. In order to obtain Him, let us like merchants exchange that which we have for that which we do not. Let us not be sorrowful to now be persecuted, but let us be glad, for to be persecuted by those honored on earth, we are driven towards the heavenly good with the promise of blessedness for being persecuted for His sake that the Kingdom of Heaven may be ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to Whom is due  glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen” (Homily on the Beatitudes, 8, PG 44.1327).

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