Archbishop Stylianos Harkianakis
If blessedness means happiness, then the theme of the Beatitudes is always a timely one, since there is no other good, so intensely and systematically pursued by people, than happiness. And if some of the good aims, pursued by people, are called by a name other than happiness, (for instance riches, glory, power, beauty etc.) again there is no doubt that by using all these good things merely as means, people aim ultimately at attaining one aim, that of happiness. Of course it is a different matter whether what people consider happiness is in reality happiness, or a deceitful trick that leads to detriment.
The theme of the Beatitudes certainly becomes more opportune at the beginning of the New Year, since it was only recently that all of us, believers and non-believers, exchanged good wishes for peace, happiness and blessedness throughout the world. However, since the notion of happiness has so many and so varied meanings, as the multitude of opinions of the people who pursue it, it is natural if not necessary, to limit ourselves to the list of Beatitudes, uttered by Christ Himself. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5, 3–12) we read the following states and attributes of people being extolled:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
“Blessed are those that mourn…”
“Blessed are the meek…”
“Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness…”
“Blessed are the merciful…”
“Blessed are the pure in heart…”
“Blessed are the peace-makers…”
“Blessed are those that are persecuted for the sake
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and speak every evil word against you and bear false witness for my sake…”
Certainly the Lord could continue this list still further, because people’s ethical behaviour towards the good and the evil appears in various degrees. Therefore it is evident that in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount we have no exhaustible “Codex” of the Beatitudes, but we certainly have, once for all characterised, man’s crucial and representative ethical states and attributes.
However, there is still another most important Beatitude of Christ, not included here, but in another part of the Gospel, and for this reason we called it the “missing” one! It concerns the reply given by Christ, when an anonymous woman from the multitude, amazed by the power of His word, shouted:
“Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps
which thou hast sucked“ (Luke 11, 27).
To this high point of people’s sacred enthusiasm for the preacher of God’s word, Christ epigrammatically replies:
“Blessed are they that hear God’s word and keep it”
(Luke 11, 28).
This spontaneous and unprepared beatitude, uttered by Christ with the same emotion that the woman had when she expressed her enthusiasm, is surely the most important and the most fundamental of the Lord’s Beatitudes. If we characterised it as the “missing one”, we did so in order to show that in no way should it be excluded from the list of the Beatitudes, it summarises and invalidates them all.
Now let us attempt an analysis of it, so that we may see the concrete components that give it an incomparable significance. In this Beatitude are praised two groups of people, that are not identical: on the one hand those who “hear” God’s word, and on the other, those who “keep” it. The first category does not need special explanation. They are the hearers of the word.
And it is worth praising all those who had the privilege to hear, even once in their life, what is the true will of God, what is His word, what is His law. Is this a little privilege, when we take into consideration that after 20 centuries of missions, sermons and evangelisation, of the human race, after so much witness and martyrdom, there are still today millions of people who have not even heard the name of Christ!
The second category, namely those that “keep” it, is one that we find somewhat more difficult to define precisely what it means. If we analyse the term etymologically, we should say the “those who keep” are those who guard something from danger. When one looks after his clothes or money or health, it means that he is protecting them from possible danger, theft or destruction. The verb “to keep” includes the meaning of “concealing” or “protecting” namely covering something valuable within a secure place. All this means “preserving” or “maintaining” something from all adverse circumstances that might incur harm or annihilation.
For this reason the guardian and protector of one class of people or of one good is called “warden” or “keeper”, or “watchman”. But the question comes up: Is this the meaning of “those who keep God’s word” in the context of the language of the New Testament and of Christ? In answer to this question, we should say that in the majority of references in the New Testament, where mention is made of man’s relationship to God’s commandments, “those who keep” are considered to be mainly those who respect those commandments and practise them.
Yet, there is one passage, in which the notion of “keeping” is not that of “practising” or “performing”, but that of “protecting, maintaining, and preserving”. It is the passage, which says that the Virgin Mary “kept these words in her heart,” (Luke 2,51). Here it is clear that the passage refers to the preservation and protection of the words of Christ (from possible forgetfulness or from being despised), and not to the application or practising of His commandments; because the practice and application of the commandments is not carried out “in the heart”, but in daily living.
After the above remarks we should admit that in the Beatitude of Christ “those who keep the word of God” should not be primarily regarded as “the doers”, but mainly as “the guardians” and “the protectors” of the divine word from error, change or forgetfulness, that threaten it within the History of mankind. At any rate we know that despite one’s poor efforts to follow and to fulfil God’s will, one will always remain a debtor, since one will never be able to fully transcend one’s own limitations of nature and sinfulness.
Thus all efforts will always be poor trials that will reflect one’s own attitude, without the possibility at any time of attaining their aim, unless God shows His compassion and considerateness. For this reason in times of meditation and repentance we unreservedly confess this expiatory truth. We should remember the sorrowful hymn of the official hymnology of our Church during Great Lent “…we have not kept or followed Thy commandments…” (Ode seven). Therefore, since the application of God’s word is so relative, so uncertain and so doubtful, would it not be unnatural for Christ to give it such great significance with this basic Beatitude? Then, even from this viewpoint and not only form its etymology — we see that “the protectors” should be considered to be “the guardians” of God’s word, namely the keepers of the treasure, not the followers.
But if, on account of man’s weakness, “the application” of God’s word is always relevant, its “preservation” can be absolute, when there is trust. And then we are presented with the case when man does not allow even a simple “comma” or a “dot” to be removed from the treasure of Faith. We could say that this “careful” preservation of God’s word, that is changeless unto the ages, is precisely the ideal and the synonym of Orthodoxy. If there could be a preservation and application of God’s word, absolutely tantamount to its protection, that would surely be called Orthopraxy. Unfortunately such an absolute correspondence can never be found. Thus, we have on the one hand an absolute that is called Orthodoxy, and on the other hand a relative value that is called Orthopraxy.
The question comes up: How is it possible that we have in Orthodoxy the degree of the absolute, while in Orthopraxy only a degree of the relative? The answer is simple: What is demanded in Orthodoxy is not to adulterate the truth with which God entrusted us. In other words one is told what not to do, so that God’s word is a decisive and authoritative event in one’s Own life.
On the contrary, what is demanded in Orthopraxy is what to do, as a reflection of God’s word in one’s own life, by adding a new element, as a secondary product, that can never be equal with its primary incentive, namely God’s word. Can any human action, that is passing and limited, become equal to God’s word “which remains to the ages”?
After these remarks, it becomes clear that to preserve God’s word unadulterated is a service for the whole mankind, which can neither be complemented nor balanced by any human effort to follow God’s word-not to add the temptation of selfishness that is always present in all our life at the danger of rendering all our actions a sterile moralism.
Whoever preserves God’s word among the heresies and “peoples’ myths”, he preserves the measure by which everything will be measured and judged: wisdom, virtue, Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, purity and hypocrisy, holiness and sin. In short, he preserves the measure by which truth and falsehood, life and death will be judged.
If this God-given rule is lost, then our orientation in the world is also lost. Then a confusion of ideas and values prevails, and we find ourselves in the muddied waters, in which the “sons of this ages” always prefer to do their work. This saving measure was revealed by Christ, preached by the Apostles, and preserved from heresies by the Church. It is this same God-given measure that Orthodoxy, like another Ark, preserves through the ages, not only for the sake of her children, but for the sake also of the non-Orthodoxy, the atheists and for the entire humankind.
In this her unique and unparalleled mission, Orthodoxy does not cease to repeat continually with humility and gratitude the epigrammatic words of the Apostle Paul: “We preserve this treasure in earthen vessels”. (2 Cor. 4, 7).
Source: The Greek-Australian Vema, February 2016