As Christ walked in the midst of the people of Israel an event that was far more than historical took place. The One who was in the midst of them is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Strange paradox that you should meet and encounter a person who is Himself the beginning and the ending of all things. This paradox has led to many of the more profound insights of the Christian faith.
St. Maximus, reflecting on this, said that “the Incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things,” thus paradoxically placing the cause not “before everything” but in their midst, for the one who was in their midst was “before all things.”
Christ Himself would utter strange paradoxes that were completely true though opaque to his listeners: “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)
This aspect of who Christ is lies very much at the heart of much Orthodox understanding. Thus we understand that when we gather together for the Divine Liturgy, it is “heaven on earth.” It is not a change of locations of which the Church speaks, but a change in the nature of the location in which we gather – for as we gather “two or three,” “there am I in the midst of them.” And so our remembrance uttered in that service transcends the bounds of time:
Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again…
The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning. The Lord of time and space is not bound by his creation but raises His creation “into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”
It is this reality that is also proclaimed by the holy icons. They are not placed in the Church as though they were a photograph album of heroes now long dead. They are instead the “great cloud of witnesses” made present to us in the image, not as wood and paint, but hypostatically (i.e. personally). Thus icons are described as “eschatological” images – images that are painted according to the end of all things and not according to the historical record. The language of inverse perspective becomes the grammar of the age to come in the icons of the Church – pointing us not to what has come and gone, but to what is coming and now is.
And the whole congregation is invited into this new existence. Baptized into the death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). It governs our actions. Being dead to this world, we forgive the things of this world (“by his resurrection” we sing at Pascha). A life lived in forgiveness toward enemies and love for all is a life that is lived in confidence that all has turned out as it is promised by Christ. Christ defines history and gives it its meaning in His death and resurrection. His sentence of forgiveness, spoken from the Cross, is nothing less than the justice of God echoing across our world. For there can be no other justice than His freely offered forgiveness. Such light may be unbearable to some, particularly if they were counting on God to smash their enemies for them.
It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).
Thank you for such a beautiful and theologically inspiring post. I meant to say that in The Scandal of the Incarnation, St. Ireaneus expresses a sense of humor, which is a wonderful thing. Yes, the language of the services is nurturing and to internalize it is the key to mental health, I believe, but there is a price to pay for it, it will put you at odds with the world and everything it holds dear, yet you are still forced to live in the world.
I agree. But in the quiet recesses of the heart, where we may flee the world – God is there. In such a place the humor of St. Irenaeus finds its true home.
Thank you for sharing this inspired vision of the Kingdom.
May HE be praised forever!
Dear father, evlogeite.
Thank you for your post. You wrote
Indeed, that is very true. It is amazing how one can understand something like this “rationally” but without having the experience inside the Church will never be able to truly appreciate this very important point. But while to eventually approach this mystery it needs to also speak in our heart, that other centre of man, in certain ways, one can perhaps somewhat see this through photographs of saints vs. their respective icons.
To me, this ages-old “fact” truly “rung home” when I first saw the icon of the spiritual father of Elder Paisios the Hagiorite, St. Arsenios the Cappadocian. Having been used to seeing various photographs of the Saint,in various publications (of the Monastery of Souroti etc.), it was a pleasant surprise (that brought all these feelings that I cannot really describe) to see his icon. Truly an image of the New Man; and somehow it really is him at the same time, just as he should be. It was not until this event that the mystery of the icons and the importance of the theological art of iconography became more apparent to me and I stand in awe in front of it to this day.
tankyu for his salvation for me , because i livewinthaut him is nothing, yah
in my life all my hope is ini he love and faithfulness
From you, Fr. Stephen: “It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.”
Amen and Amen and Thank you!
“The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning.”
I never picked up on that before — thanks for pointing this out.
I feel ashame to ask but, maybe I am the most naive of all bloggers can you please explain how is it that “we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning.” I am not very good with the paradoxes. I honestly want to understand. Sorry.
Don’t be ashamed. The paradox is best revealed in John 1:1 which in the language of men appears to allude to things past.
But John speaks of things to come — what is born of God is eternal, cannot die and has therefore, no past tense. It exists in the way God exists.
As for the question of whether matter can attain the substance of God, the empty tomb of Joseph of Arimathea speaks volumes.