To See the Heavenly Country

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

On the Orthodox Calendar, the two Sundays before the feast of the Nativity are set aside for the commemoration of the “forefathers.” The first of these Sundays remembers the righteous ones of the Old Testament, the second, the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh. The Eastern Church differs from the West in its treatment of the saints of the Old Testament. They are given feast days, Churches are dedicated to them. In every way they are given honor equal to that of the New Testament saints.

It seems to me that there is something of a “historical temptation” for those of us in the modern world. For the modern mind is largely responsible for the creation of history. Not that stories of the past have not always been told. But the temptation of history is the temptation to value the past only as historical artifact. Things of the past are seen as having value only for what they have caused in the present – or worse – as having value only if you are interested in that sort of thing.

America was one of the first truly modern nations. The story of its founding is the story of the triumph of ideas. America is a decision and not an inheritance or an ethnicity. History is a very tenuous thing in America. The knowledge of the young about the past is often non-existent. As a modern nation, America looks to the present and believes that it can create the future (or one of our controlling myths certainly believes this). An increasing number of modern nations are coming to see the world in this same modern way. Europe is daily re-inventing itself with little view to its past. The temptation of history is becoming ubiquitous.

I describe history as a temptation, for history does not properly have a place within the Christian faith. That may seem a strange statement coming from an Orthodox priest. No Church is more firmly grounded in Tradition than the Orthodox. But to be grounded in Tradition is not the same thing as being grounded in history (as Moderns think of history). Tradition is not the tyranny of the past over the present: Tradition is the adherence to the same eternal reality throughout all time.

That eternal reality for Christians (and for all creation) is the end of things – Christ the coming Lord. Our faith proclaims that He who was born of the Virgin is also the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). It is this same Christ unto whom all things are being gathered together into one (Ephesians 1:10). It is this End of history that is the meaning of all history – the meaning of all things.

It is also this Christ (the End of all things) that is the focus and center of the faithful through the ages. The Letter to the Hebrews, quoted at the beginning of this post, makes clear that it is this vision of Christ that grants the single purpose of all the righteous (including the Old Testament righteous cited by St. Paul).

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The homeland they seek is none other than Christ Himself. And it is this same seeking that unites the people of God through all time in one single Tradition. The seeking of Christ is the Tradition of the Church (or so it can be said).

The temptation of history is to reverse Tradition as though it were a seeking of the past. But what unites us with the historical past is the same faith, the same purpose, the same vision, the same Lord. If the saints who have come before us directed their gaze to Christ, then it is to Christ that our own gaze should be fixed.

The preaching of the Kingdom of God is not a proclamation of the past, but the proclamation of Him “who was, and is, and is to come.” The same Christ who died and rose again is the same Christ who is coming. It is the same Christ who is given to us in the mysteries of the Church.

It is a theological irony that modernity, whose self-definition was an opposition to Tradition, is itself the creator of a history devoid of a future. Modernity denies Christ as the End of all things, and in so doing relegates itself to a place in history, but not to a place at the End.

For the faithful, we should desire a better, a heavenly country. And so God will not be ashamed to be called our God. He has already prepared such a city for us.

Comments

  1. dinoship says

    it is to Christ that our own gaze should be fixed.

    Thank you again Father for reminding us, from yet another angle, of the one thing needful!