I am fascinated by what the Holy Tradition does with the idea of “fullness” or “fulfillment.” The Church is described as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). And it is not unusual for Orthodox Christians to express the meaning of Orthodoxy under the rubric of “fullness”: Orthodoxy is the “fullness of the Church.”
The Scriptures do much with the concept – speaking of the “fullness of time,” or the “times being fulfilled.” It says far more than something being merely large (full) – but of a completeness in which nothing is lacking, or of a completion in which that which was anticipated is now here.
I believe that the word or concept of fullness is very expressive of what we look for in the Resurrection – not a destruction of the Person nor of the replacement of a Person, but of a Person who is finally existing in his fulness. The Miltary may once have advertised “be all that you can be,” but such is only possible in Christ and in the fullness of time. A uniform will not fulfill you.
I use the example of a tree. I have not seen a tree in the fullness of what a tree should be. I know that in some sense all trees have been changed by the One Tree which is now the “invincible weapon of peace.” In that sense trees have seen their fullness in the Cross which was transformed from instrument of torture into instrument of life. Just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil once became the instrument of our death – so now the Tree of Life has become the instrument of our life. The Cross itself, and how we see it, is an excellent example. Before Christ the Cross could only be seen as an instrument of execution. After Christ we have to be reminded of its original use. After the Cross, all trees must be seen with at least a hint of their fullness.
There is a peculiar Appalachian folktale which posits the Dogwood tree as the substance of the Cross (Holy Tradition is much more elaborate, with a tree that was a composite of three different evergreens – a biological impossibility but irresistable to medieval writers). The Appalachian folktake goes on to say that the Dogwood is now a short, twisted tree as a curse, so that it could never again be used as a cross. But, of course, this runs so terribly contrary to what the Church understands of the Cross. Christ’s death on the “tree” was not an event to occasion new curses, but an event to lift all curses. Were the Dogwood the tree of the Cross, it would be the most honored tree in the forest. As things stand – we must instead give the honor to all trees and include the Dogwood (and the evergreens) among them.
After Christ, we must look at human beings differently as well. In Christ we have seen the fullness of the human. What it means to be “fully man” is revealed only in the God/Man.
All things will have their fullness – though very few yield up to us clear hints of what that fullness will be. We cannot know the fullness of a man until we see him in the fullness of Christ. Reading the lives of saints occasionally carries revelations of such images. That which seems to escape the ability of our language to describe is often a fullness for which language is inadequate.
The Mother of God comes to mind in particular. I am certain that what many Protestants find troubling about the place of the Theotokos in the Church is the problem of someone who has been made known to us in her fullness. She is “full of grace,” and we stagger before such a revelation. She is not mere mother, but Mother of God. We are accused of saying things about her, or offering a devotion which is inappropriate, but none of this is true if we are understood to be standing before someone who stands in her fullness.
Everything around us has a fullness – which also says that we do not yet see the Truth of the things that surround us. How carefully and joyfully we would move through the world if we knew or could see that fullness already – but this is the mind and the eyes of Christ. Such eyes could see a fisherman who seemed more talk than action and call him a “rock” while seeing in him that which would be the foundation of the Church.
The same eyes could see a Publican and yet see a saint. The same eyes saw Jerusalem and wept for that great mother of all cities that has yet to see her fullness though her name is married and synonymous with the Fulness that is to come.
And so we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” We do not yet see such a fullness. But as St. Paul reminded us – that which we do not see we await in hope. I hope to see us all in that fullness as well as the whole world. Glory to God.
Father Stephen —
Similar to “fulness” is the concept behind what we render into English as “perfect.” The Greek word seems to focus on the “complete”-ness or “whole”-ness or even what we might call “well-rounded”-ness; but, to make matters more confusing, the Greeks considered completeness to be a perfection . . .
In our language, this usually has to do with excellence and superiority. In baseball, a “perfect game” is one in which the winning side retires every opposing batter without before any of them reach first base. A “complete game” on the other hand means that one pitcher is on the mound for all the outs recorded against the other side. Thus, someone can pitch a complete game and still be the loser. To the Greeks, all who failed to pitch a complete game could be losers — and were definitely imperfect.
This difference in the scope of concepts comes up at places in the Scriptures. For example, we are to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Or of Jesus, who was “made perfect through suffering.” On a moral plane, this is almost gibberish — who can be “like God”? how was Jesus at any time not morally perfect? But these passage rely on the “whole-ness” sense as well, — we are commanded to be complete in imitation of our God, and Jesus grew in the “favor of God” — to quote from a different passage.
Likewise, the Creeds and the doctrine sometimes refer to Christ as Perfect God and Perfect man. Doubtless this includes every perfection, but it surely includes and perhaps emphasizes that Christ was wholly God and wholly Man.
These thoughts came to mind in reading through your words about “fullness.” All of creation will receive its fullness, its completion, and its perfection in Christ, and Christ wills that we be revealed as the sons of God. And that we shall be like him — in fullness and in whole-ness — when we shall see Him as He is.
Indeed. Thanks for the note. Translation is always problematic. I appreciate your insights on perfection and completion. English uses the words so different from the Greek. It’s one of the reasons, I think, that the Eastern Church uses the concept of “fullness” far more than is heard in the Latin/Western tradition.
Thank you Father Stephen,
I come to your site when I am feeling a bit weary. Always there are words waiting here that lift me up, give me the slight change of perspective needed to go forth and do better.
As always, thank you for your wonderful insights. I was wondering about fullness lately as it pertains to the death of a Christian. When a Christian dies and comes into the presense of Christ, has he come into the fullness of himself and Christ or does that fullness not come untill the resurrection of the body? Is the Theotokos experiencing fullness right now, or does she have to wait for the bodily resurrection? Of course, if her body was indeed taken up into heaven then I suppose this ends the discussion. What is the Orthodox thought on the duality of soul and body? I’ve heard differnt things. I guess I shouldn’t be using this site as my own personal Q&A blog. I apologize.
The texts of the feasts of the Dormition make clear the Orthodox acceptance of Mary’s assumption into heaven (after her death). I would generally think that she enjoys the fullness of resurrection with Christ, whereas most enjoy only an anticipation until that great day.
I run across different takes on soul and body. I think the duality can be overdone (usually at the expense of the body). However, it is clear that our fullness is to be found not in their duality but in their union as well as their union with God.