Final is not a word you often hear in Christian teaching. Most Christians leave the final things until, well, the End. But this is not the language of the fathers nor of the Church. A good illustration can be found in the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism. During the blessing of the waters the priest prays:
And grant to [this water] the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities; the final destruction of demons, unassailable by hostile powers, filled with angelic might. Let those who would ensnare Your creature flee far from it. For we have called upon Your Name, O Lord, and it is wonderful, and glorious, and awesome even to adversaries.
What can it possibly mean to ask that the waters be made “the final destruction of demons”?
The nature of the waters of Baptism reveals the Orthodox understanding of the world. These waters, now in a font, are none other than the waters of the Jordan. They are an incorruptible fountain and all the things we ask for. They are the final destruction of demons because they are nothing other than Christ’s Pascha. The waters of the font are Christ’s death on the Cross and His destruction of Hades. They are the resurrection of the dead.
For this reason St. Paul can say:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The realism of St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism is mystical realism (to coin a phrase). These waters become those waters. This event becomes that event. This time is now that time. Christ’s death now becomes my death. Christ’s resurrection now becomes my resurrection.
How utterly and uselessly weak is the thought that Baptism is merely an obedience to a command given by Christ! The idea that nothing happens in Baptism is both contrary to Scripture and a denial of the very nature of our salvation.
The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe.
The reality of in the Incarnate God was not obvious to those around Him: no surgery would have revealed His Godhood. The proclamation of the Gospel, from its most primitive beginnings (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), announces the in-breaking of a mystical reality. Many modern theologians misunderstand Christ’s (and St. John the Baptist’s) preaching on the Kingdom to refer to an imminent end of the age. They hear, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to mean, “the End of the world is near.” Thus we have protestant theologians creating an “interim ethic” to cover Christian activity in the “in-between” period – between Christ’s first coming and His second. If the coming of the incarnate God into the world did not fundamentally alter something, then the preaching of Jesus was in vain and radically misunderstood by His disciples.
The Gospels presume and proclaim at every turn that in Christ, the Kingdom of God is present. Christ says, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11:20). There is a mystery at work in the presence of the Kingdom. Christ makes statements such as that just quoted, but also frequently says that the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom is a reality and a presence that has both come near us, and come upon us. But in neither case does it simply refer to a later “someday.” The urgency of the proclamation of the Kingdom is not caused by the soon approach of an expected apocalypse. Its preaching is urgent because its coming has already begun!
The sacraments of the Church (indeed the Church itself) should never be reduced to “holy moments” or “instances of miracles” in the life of an otherwise spiritually inert world. If bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then the Kingdom of God has come upon us! And nothing less.
The sacramental life of the Church is not an aspect of the Church’s life – it is a manifestation of the whole life of the Church. It is, indeed, the very character and nature of the Church’s life. The Church does not have sacraments – the Church is a sacrament. We do not eat sacraments or just participate in the sacraments – we are sacraments. The sacraments reveal the true character of our life in Christ. This is why St. Paul can say:
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me, etc. (Galatians 2:20)
I am…nevertheless I…yet not I…but Christ…. This is the language of the mystical reality birthed into the world in the Incarnation of Christ. Thus we can say: This is the Body of Christ…nevertheless you see bread…but it is not bread…but Christ’s Body sacrificed for you. This is the Hades of Christ’s death and the Paradise of His resurrection…nevertheless it is the water of Baptism…but it is not water…but Christ’s death and resurrection into which you are baptized.
And so we see the whole world – for the “whole world is sacrament” – in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew. We struggle with language to find a way to say “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is.” This is always the difficulty in expressing the mystery. It is difficult, not because it is less than real, but because of the character and nature of its reality. Modern Christian thought and language that simply dismiss the mystery and postpone its coming, or deny the character of its reality, change the most essential elements of the Christian faith and inadvertently create a new religion.
But we have been taught something different. We have been given the Final Destruction of Demons, the Mystical Supper, the Kingdom of God. Why should we look for something less?
I have a little trouble with the ‘two storey universe’. I can understand that it is a simile, but why do we say ‘
He ___ascended___ into Heaven’; and speak of God separating the Firmament —above—the waters &c.?
But ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’ also makes perfect sense; am I missing something here?
Christ ascends into heaven, but is not somehow “up there.” Actually, the Scriptures say that he was taken from their sight. Of course, the language of firmament, etc., reflects some primitive ideas about how the universe was constructed, and not about how heaven and earth actually are.
The Kingdom of God is both “here and now,” and “not of this world.” It is certainly a paradox. My emphasis has been to try and return and understanding that was in danger of disappearing.
The Scriptures sometimes use earthly language to speak of heavenly truths, that wise and simple alike might profit. Even so, the Scriptures — taken in their totality, and read with the mind of the Church — do not portray a “two-story universe.”
St. Paul writes of the ascension, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
Commenting on this verse, and others related to the ascension, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “God’s seat is said to be in heaven, not as though heaven contained Him, but rather because it is contained by Him. Hence it is not necessary for any part of heaven to be higher, but for Him to be above all the heavens; according to Psalm 8:2: ‘For Thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens, O God!'”
Wisdom from the Angelic Doctor…
Thank you for this blog post, Fr. Stephen, it is such a blessing and an encouragement!
As a recent convert I do so appreciate your blog. Many thanks for the time and effort you put towards this.
I can only agree with Margaret and repeat the blog is such a blessing and encouragement.
Thank you far sharing! İt is very deep and truth!
Father, if I may be so bold to ask, would it be possible to read some of your thoughts on boundaries, within Orthodoxy and within man? Everything I read in your last posts or the comments after (the addicted, the length of the Liturgy, the beauty of the vestments and now the reminder of the one-storey universe) seems to revolve around this subject.
With or without a link to it, I keep remembering that ultimate virtue of the monks, I don’t know how it’s called in English, I’d translate it as the highest level of common sense – not professing all virtues blindly, but rather acting by the situation for the highest good of the involved, lying when it would save a life, being rough and radical instead of meek when it would serve to awaken the other person, etc.
God bless you and thank you!
LI and Father, I’d love to hear more about this:
“I keep remembering that ultimate virtue of the monks, I don’t know how it’s called in English, I’d translate it as the highest level of common sense” – –
It seems to counteract a fear I’ve had that a commitment to Orthodoxy means becoming rigid (“monkish” in the stereotypic sense) in living out its ideals. In fact, I have heard that this happens to some converts.
Albert, thank you! I got the link now, those words were for you! 🙂
I wouldn’t know what to say about the rigidity of the converts – could it be an excess counteracting previous lack of awareness? I am sure Father Stephen has better words to enlighten you more on this.
I read recently in the published diary of a Romanian monk who was born a Jew and baptised into Orthodoxy in the communist prison a phrase that stuck with me, “I knew I fell into the hands of the Living God”.
Our Lord is indeed the Living God and those closest to Him are the most alive, un-rigid people I have ever-ever saw or heard, or read (though some of them monks and nuns under strict “authority”). That’s my experience so far.
I just happened upon this passage in Philo today and was reminded of your post, which I read a few days ago. It seems as if Philo the 1st century Jewish philosophy from Alexandria in Egypt, though not a Christian, is referring to the effects of Christian baptism in this passage:
(1.148) Now the God and governor of the universe does by himself and alone walk about invisibly and noiselessly in the minds of those who are purified in the highest degree. For there is extant a prophecy which was delivered to the wise man, in which it is said: “I will walk among you, and I will be your God.” [Lev 26:12] But the angels—the words of God—move about in the minds of those persons who are still in a process of being washed, but who have not yet completely washed off the life which defiles them, and which is polluted by the contact of their heavy bodies, making them look pure and brilliant to the eyes of virtue.
(1.149) But it is plain enough what vast numbers of evils are driven out, and what a multitude of wicked inhabitants is expelled in order that one good man may be introduced to dwell there. Do thou, therefore, O my soul, hasten to become the abode of God, his holy temple [house], to become strong from having been most weak, powerful from having been powerless, wise from having been foolish, and very reasonable from having been doting and childless.
–Philo of Alexandria, On Dreams 1.148-149
Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 378.
Albert…My wife and I’ve been Orthodox for 18+ years. We’ve discovered that those who were fundamentalist Christians before becoming Orthodox became fundamentalist Orthodox. Those more evangelical continued in that vein. We have attended liturgies weekends for the last 10 years at a Greek Orthodox Monastery. Are some there “rigid” as you say? Yes. But again others are much more flexible in living out lives as Orthodox believers. They do not “major on the minors.” So Don’t worry. No one will push you in a way in which you do not want to go. After all these years I still relish the liturgical services. God leading us to the fullness of His Church at almost 50 years of age was the best thing that ever happened to us.
Albert says: ,blockquote>It seems to counteract a fear I’ve had that a commitment to Orthodoxy means becoming rigid (“monkish” in the stereotypic sense) in living out its ideals. In fact, I have heard that this happens to some converts
Indeed, it can happen to some converts inspired initially by reading of the highest and best of Orthodox spiritual life but without the context of day-to-day life in a parish in the 21st century. These people either relax and start to live, become strident judges of others or simply leave the Church because it is not as perfect as they expected.
The effort to “rejoice in God my Savior” is a life-long struggle and there is much to distract us and lead us astray including the temptation to spiritual perfection without genuine change. That temptation is there for all of us, IMO, to a certain degree a remnant perhaps of our “Buy now, pay later” consumer mentality?
An easy trap to fall into when the world around us seems so corrupt and getting worse. The world of the ‘super-Orthodox’ however, is not really life the Church calls us to.
However, if you run into such folk, don’t let them take away your peace and divert your journey into the fullness of the faith.
I assume you mean ‘discernment’ (διάκριση)?
Yes, Dino, thank you, I do believe it’s discernment. It was to be expected that such a broad requirement would be hidden under a very simple word. Quite Orthodox. 🙂
My reflection on the mystery of the Lord’s baptism:
Perhaps some of you will find it edifying.