-- the "Annunciation" (oil) by Jan van Eyck, ca 1434
because it is so beautiful
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5.6, in the Beatitudes).
“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6.33).
“He hath set me on the paths of righteousness, for His Name’s sake” (Psalm 22.3 LXX).
I will tell you right off the bat what I want to accomplish in this little essay. I want to make the word “righteousness” attractive” again. I want to “renovate” its modern understanding, and return it to its original sense of beauty and awe. With all my heart, I would like to make it appealing again …
… to you. So that you will want righteousness. So that you will “hunger and thirst” after righteousness. So that at the Marriage Reception Feast of Jesus and His Church at the End of Time, you will have wanted the “garment of righteousness” so much that your wedding outfit will shine in splendor.
* * * * * * *
“Righteousness” means following God’s way in all your life -- in every moment, in every thought, word and deed. It means remembering the presence of Christ in your soul and in your body. It means recognizing Christ in the face of your neighbor, who is every single person you meet or know about. It means becoming more and more “Christlike” with every day and month and year you grow older -- because that is the whole positive reason for Time, in God’s Creation.
“Righteousness” means following God’s “Law,” which is His design for Life. Live according to this design, or “way” of life, and you will live forever, becoming more and more beautiful according to the infinite glory of the Holy Trinity.
But if you leave (or shrug your shoulders and simply don’t care about) the “paths of righteousness,” then you will fall off the mountain path, and go down, first class and comfortable, on the cushy interstate downhill journey of perdition, complaining like the devil, who was the first to jump off Christ’s hiking trail and is now driving the bus that will one day stop at the very worst and mangiest bus terminal of Time.
* * * * * * *
The happiest thing about Righteousness is that all you have to do is desire it, to want it, to hunger and thirst for it. You do this by taking the first step, making a beginning toward walking on God’s way. You replace a passion with a virtue. You share generously if you are greedy. You fast if you are gluttonous with food or substance abuse. You humble yourself in lowly service if you are egotistical. You read Scripture, the Fathers and do the Jesus Prayer if you are forgetful about God. You learn how to be by yourself if you are lustful or codependent. You focus on the feelings of others if you are a rage-aholic. You push yourself into tangible work and develop a grownup distaste for luxury if you are lazy. You enter into poverty if you are addicted to usury.
And if you look as though for years you've sucked lemons, then you wonder like a child at the poetry sky. And stay there until joy hobbles the adult in you, and takes you back to the meek child at heart. Because I do not know if an adult stuck in the bus terminal of self can ever forgive, or accept forgiveness.
Orthodox Christianity involves change -- constant change from the now to the not-yet, from the status quo to the eschatological beautiful. Some of my friends are melancholy and even atheistic because they did not see enough change. Others of my friends say that change is not necessary.
For their sake, and yours, I do not agree. Change happens under divine conditions, as the Holy Trinity is our infinite absolute. Thus, change, conversion, certainly the fullness of righteousness and the glorious weight of beauty even now escapes the limited perception of our frail ego.
That said, it is expected that our change proceed from the inside to the out: we must engage with history, and leave written behind us the autograph of our Lord. The world has a right to see righteousness realized in the lives of those who bear His Name.
These are only “first steps.” They are, in the context of eternity, relatively easy. They are possible. God does the rest, the remainder that is “impossible.”
His Grace is always sufficient. His Righteousness is not only beautiful and peaceful, but it is meant to be successful. You take the first step: God does the rest. He waits on your choice. You make that choice in action, and God does the greater work. “And I am sure that He Who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.6).
You can be beautiful. You can experience peace in the here and now.
You can be satisfied in the beauty of His Righteousness, in the peace of the Kingdom of God.
But only there. Because you’re human. Because God -- Who is Righteousness -- made you, and is and always will be the source of your life and being.
* * * * * * *
“Righteousness” is beautiful. But lately, it has been insulted. It has been surrounded by a lot of foolish catcalls and shallow comedy. It has been associated with a lot of untrue definitions.
I remember from some years ago a certain comedy sketch from SNL called “The Church Lady.” It was a comedian dressing up like an older woman in a nice dress from the 1950s, sitting down and gossiping about people she had met in church that day. For a lot of laughs, the Church Lady peppered her remarks with expressions like “Isn’t that special?” or “It must be the devil!”
The general theme of the Church Lady was to make fun of the idea of “righteousness.” This comic picture summed up the general modern attitude toward this word. For modern America, “righteousness” means a hypocritical, shallow judgmentalism. It means a focus only on outward behavior -- the things that are easy to pick out, like smoking, drinking, swearing, uncleanliness. “Righteousness” in modern America has been made to look comic, even ugly, old-fashioned, certainly very unattractive and not beautiful at all.
SNL’s Church Lady is wrong, dead wrong. And so is anyone who agrees with this sort of very wrong understand of what righteousness is.
* * * * * * *
Because “righteousness” is nothing other than the actual lifestyle of the Kingdom of God lived in the here and now. It is reflecting the awesome beauty of the Holy Trinity in your heart, in your daily life and revealing that beauty and peace through your love of everyone around you.
Righteousness means Justice -- inside and outside of you. It means that no one is oppressed or under the domination and power of anyone else. It means that all tyranny is stopped. The poor are taken care of, the orphan has a home, the sick and the lame are healed, the blind are made to see again, the truth of God’s Kingdom is proven to an unbelieving world, the character of Christ and His restoration of human are restored as clear goals for all humanity. It means that forgiveness is given to all your fellow humans around you, because God the Father has forgiven you in your union with Christ His Son and your Lord.
Righteousness is the beauty and peace of the Trinity planted deep in the human soul, and flowing as eternal life out in this life you lead, and fountaining upward infinitely to the never-setting Son.
Righteousness is Beauty. Beauty is Righteousness.
If this does not touch your heart, then you understand neither.
But you must. For your sake.
* * * * * * *
You and I should hunger and thirst after righteousness more than anything else. More than burgers on the grill. More than pop or beer. More than a new car or a new roof. More than bread after forty days’ wandering in the desert, weak with hunger.
You and I, in our hearts, should long and be homesick for God’s goodness and righteousness. We will never be happy without this. St Augustine said that our hearts have a hole that can only be filled with this.
I recommend Psalm 106 LXX (107 in the English Bible). I especially honor the ninth verse from Psalm 106. You should highlight it in yellow marker or stick up on your refrigerator, or have your grandchild write it in crayon for your door. It is all about the place of the beauty of God’s righteousness, and our desire for it:
“For He satisfies the longing soul,
And fills the hungry soul with goodness”
Let us long for our beautiful God and His peaceful Law and His Way of life.
We shall be satisfied.