The American Apocalypse

americanapocalypseAmerica was founded by religious people – their imagination became a nation. Among their most powerful ideas was an apocalyptic hunger: they believed God was doing something new in the world and that they were its harbingers. One visionary described his colony as “a city set on a hill.” It’s a heady thing to invent a nation.

Nothing is more “modern” than the belief in “something new” coming. Progress is the unceasing movement towards the better. On the level of technology this belief is mildly entertaining, and even beneficial. But this fails to capture the deeper currents of the apocalyptic hopes (and fears) of the American heart.

In its most extreme form, the American apocalyptic mind is deeply fearful. The dark images in the Book of Revelations and Daniel provide a wealth of material that feed our anxieties of things to come. A large proportion of the population fully believes that the present world will end in disaster. American foreign policy in the Middle East for the past half-century has drawn on a well-spring of popular support that is rooted in specific beliefs regarding the nation of Israel’s role in an apocalyptic future (as well as the belief that we are already entering that future). There is now an entire subculture in America known as “Preppers” who are making practical plans and stockpiles of materials in order to survive a coming apocalypse. Americans are also quite vulnerable to political promises: the New Deal; the Great Frontier; the War on Poverty; the City on a Hill, etc.

A downside to this popular Apocalypse is the deafness it creates to the true Apocalypse within the Scriptures. What is it that is to come?

The word “apocalypse” simply means “to reveal.” It is to take something out of hiding and show it to others. Thus we have in the Scriptures (and a number of other books) accounts of “hidden things” being shown to certain individuals: Enoch, Ezekiel, Daniel, St. John.

Their writings are about “what has been shown” to them.

Though St. Paul never describes a journey into the heavens with an angel guiding him around (like St. John), he nevertheless makes reference to such a thing:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago– whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows– such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows– how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2Co 12:2-4 NKJ)

In a less dramatic form, St. Paul describes his entire teaching in the same manner:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:7-8 NKJ)

And also:

To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; (Eph 3:8-9 NKJ)

This is the very heart of Christian teaching. It is not an exposition of a body of doctrine taught by Christ to His disciples, nor is it reasoning based on certain well-established principles. The teaching of the Christian faith is the revealing (apocalypsis) of a reality that has been hidden, but is now being made known. As such, it is not a collection of ideas, but an active and living reality that is even now breaking into the world of which the world itself is but a reflection. The mystery that was hidden from before all the ages reveals the true meaning of all things that have taken place, are taking place and that are yet to come.

And there is one alone who is able to make known this mystery:

And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it. So I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it. But one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.

St. John’s vision is the “mystery” which St. Paul preaches. It is the “Lamb who was slain,” that is able to open the “sealed book” and make known what has been hidden. Indeed, He alone is able to make it known.

but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co 1:23-24 NKJ)

Orthodoxy continues to have a “piety” that reflects this “apocalyptic” character of the gospel. It loves to “hide” things and then “reveal” them. The liturgical drama involving the opening and closing of doors, the drawing of curtains and the veiling and unveiling of the gifts, all stem from an inner sense of this “hidden” character of the gospel and its coming to us as “revelation” (apocalypsis).

Indeed, the “mysteries” themselves (the sacraments) have this same character. Thus St. Basil’s Eucharistic Prayer (the Anaphora) has an apocalyptic formula of consecration:

We implore You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show… this bread + to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ…

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, sacraments do not make things to be what they are not – it reveals them to be what they truly are. This is true of the Christian faith: it reveals the truth of all things.

That truth is made known to us by the only one who could open the “sealed” mystery: the “Lamb who was slain.” It is Christ crucified, at the very heart of St. Paul’s gospel, that is the revelation of the eternal purpose of God. The crucified Christ is not a salvage operation on God’s part, launched in order to rescue a world gone wrong. The Lamb was slain, “From the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

The mystery of Christ’s crucifixion reveals that God purposed through the humility of the Cross to reconcile all things to Himself – to unite all things, “things in heaven and things on the earth.”

It is this same hidden mystery that is revealed in the Holy Eucharist – in which we “proclaim [καταγγέλλετε] the Lord’s death ‘til He comes.” This “proclamation” is only rightly understood in the context of that which was hidden. It is the revealing of the Lamb of God, the present manifestation of the eternal Son of God, crucified in time and yet already slain before the foundation of the world. Those who reduce the Liturgy to historical remembrance destroy the true apocalyptic character of the Christian faith. It is little wonder that they have created a time-bound expectation of future events. They watch the newspapers for the coming of Christ and dismiss his true parousia even as the religious leaders of Israel two-thousand years ago failed to understand the mystery that was present in their midst. 

The apocalypse is now.