Living the Apocalypse

13 faces illusion

The world ended last Sunday (Pascha).

No. You weren’t “left behind.” But you might not have noticed. And our not noticing is, strangely, at the very heart of our problem. It is also at the heart of the Christian faith. What I am describing is the “apocalyptic” character of Christianity – the fact that it is a revealing of something hidden. And this is not a “one-time” revelation. It is the moment-by-moment reality that characterizes the life of authentic Christian living.

The word “apocalypse” has come to mean a terrible disaster at the end of the world, or, at least, something that rhymes with it. I suppose putting a word into a blockbuster movie title essentially redefines it. But this popular meaning has robbed us of an essential word, one worth recapturing. Apocalypse means “to reveal,” or, better, “to take out of hiding.” Nothing within the word itself has anything to do with disasters (or zombies). The traditional name, in Greek, of the Book of Revelation, is “The Apocalypse of St. John.” That book, with its fantastic images of beasts, plagues, horsemen and judgment, is the account of a vision experienced by St. John, when he was exiled to the Island of Patmos towards the end of the 1st century. It is a “revealing” of “hidden things” to this great apostle and theologian. And, since its images climax in an account of the final judgment and the end of the world, the book’s title became synonymous with the idea of cataclysmic destruction.

If we understood things correctly, we would understand that the whole of the Christian faith is apocalyptic. Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.

St. Paul describes his ministry in apocalyptic terms:

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 communion of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him. (Eph. 3:8-12)

St. Paul clearly understands that what he is preaching is not obvious – it is something  that has been “hidden in God from the beginning of the ages….” Its most “obvious” aspect is seen in the resurrection of Jesus. But that, too, remains largely hidden.

Note that after the resurrection, Christ does not show up in downtown Jerusalem and return to His public ministry. He does not drop by to visit the leaders of the Sanhedrin or revisit his conversation with Pontius Pilate. While hanging on the Cross he was taunted with jeers: “If you really are the Christ, the Son of God, then come down from the Cross and save yourself!” And, of course, the jeers were to the point. Had God wanted to be obvious about the gospel, such a stunt would have done the trick, as would publicly visible demonstrations of the Divine triumph after the resurrection. But, after every wonderful thing was said and done, what had happened in and through Jesus Christ, remained largely hidden. And for good reason.

The obvious life is no life at all. It has more to do with death than life, more to do with hell than paradise. The point of Christianity is not to make that which is hidden to be more obvious. It is to take our life into what is hidden and live in a new manner. For what is hidden is an entirely new way of being.

The resurrection appearances of Christ have always represented something of an embarrassment for Christians. The early witnesses had to struggle to stress their bona fide:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1Cor. 15:3-8)

This passage is extremely important. It represents not only the first written account of the resurrection but is itself a recitation of a primitive oral tradition. “I delivered what I received…” is a formula invoking the paradosis (“tradition,” here given in the verbal form that we translate “delivered”). The tradition lists witnesses: Cephas, the twelve…the five hundred. Note that the list is growing in numbers…though it seems to have maxed out with the five hundred. The gospels and Acts give no clear reference to this very public revelation, though it might be what is being referred to in the accounts of the Ascension.

St. Paul lists himself as the “last of all” in Christ’s appearances. And St. Paul makes a very weak witness to anything obvious. Frequently beaten, arrested, stoned, and narrowly escaping death on numerous occasions, St. Paul’s life looks nothing like a victorious celebration of resurrection power. Instead, he says that he “glories in his weaknesses.” Crowds prefer the obvious and are drawn to spectacles. When St. Paul spoke of the resurrection of Christ to the Athenians, he drew laughter.

The commandments of Christ have “obvious” flaws. He commands us to “love our enemies,” to “do good to those who hate us,” to “not resist evil.” These are not obvious ways to get ahead, or even to make people like you. Many have protested over the centuries that such behaviors will leave evil unchecked and unmanaged. It is largely preferred to make such commandments to be somehow “ideal,” but not practical, and, therefore, only of a marginal, or, at best, a moral concern.

But such behaviors are precisely related to the hiddenness of the gospel of Christ. They are part of a “hidden” way of life, in which all of the markers and signposts are obscured from general observation. Only our actions “reveal them.” And even then, St. Paul says that what is being revealed is to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Our actions make Christ’s victory known to the demons!

The Christian way of life is grounded in our perception and witness of the risen Christ. Because we know the risen Christ, we are able to live in accordance with His life rather than in accordance with what seems obvious to others. This cannot be done in the same manner as an “obvious” life. We cannot weigh and measure, debate and decide. All of the normal criteria required for such a life are largely missing for the Christian. There are, of course, plenty of Christians who want to make Christianity an obvious thing, and they usually damage the gospel in the process.

Christ has not called us to make persuasive arguments to the world. He Himself only showed the resurrection to a little over 500 people. His life remains hidden on purpose. We are also told that our own lives are hidden:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:2-4)

This is the true Christian apocalypse, the revealing of the glorified Church in the world and in the heavens. And note that this statement occurs in the context of a command. We are to “set our mind on things above,” (the hidden things), and “not on things on the earth,” (the obvious things). The daily life of a Christian consists in discerning the hidden things and walking in them. It’s apocalyptic.

 

 

20 comments:

  1. Thank you Father – very well articulated, makes much sense and, I admit, not at all a perspective I have tended to reflect on. Having been strongly formed in an Evangelical Protestant context, much emphasis on apologetics and evangelism are fairly ingrained in me. So would appreciate your further reflections on those aspects of our faith in light of the hiddeness of our Gospel so well revealed to us in your post.

  2. Why is it so easy to disbelieve Christianity? Among things to believe, the resurrection of Christ is the most important, and yet it seems as if the resurrection refuses to stand up and be counted. For Paul, for Constantine, for Moses it was obvious: “Behold! I am God, here’s a miracle for your consideration, go and do x,y,z” Nothing hidden for them, nothing uncertain about what they should be doing. Why then do most of us flounder about, not knowing our up from out down: while not Christian scared that Christianity might be true, and while Christian scared that it’s not.

  3. “The obvious life is no life at all. It has more to do with death than life, more to do with hell than paradise. The point of Christianity is not to make that which is hidden to be more obvious. It is to take our life into what is hidden and live in a new manner. For what is hidden is an entirely new way of being.”

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this beautiful article. The sentences above are summarizing so beautifully the Orthodox experience. But to see this meaning and depth is a gift from God, no less. May God bless you for sharing this truth with the world, and may as many people as possible really hear it, and accept it into their hearts… I have to wonder how different my life might have turned out if I had heard something like that in my youth…

    Better late than never, I suppose….

  4. Thank you Father. This is a well written article revealing the true nature of the Apocalypse in contrast to common belief. I particularly like the explanation of the hidden aspects of the Resurrection and our lives in Christ.

  5. At the beginning of the Jewish Passover Seder, the middle matzah which represents both the Jewish people and the promise of restoration is broken. The larger half is then concealed because “more is hidden then is revealed.” The Seder itself is revelatory in that nothing is obvious by visual appearance. The strange things which are done are supposed to evoke curiosity so that the children ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This then invites explanation and exploration.

  6. Father Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve read only a few of your posts, but each one contains more wisdom than a year’s worth of homilies from my parish priests. I hope you don’t mind, but I referred to, and included some of, your words in a blog post of my own. If I did not do them justice or have somehow misconstrued them, please forgive me, and by all means, set me straight. The post can be read here: http://www.theruffdraft.com/revelations-about-the-apocalypse/

  7. Jordan, Isn’t it amazing how much is actually hidden within the Seder? The Middle Loaf is also the Son, part seen and the greater unseen. The Hebrews did not see that but we can. The part of the Seder that I find most fascinating is the three communal cups of wine. The first is called the cup of Remembrance, shared before the meal itself begins. The third cup, the very one that Christ pronounced as His most precious blood is the Cup of Redemption. I find that a very moving amazing piece of a hidden thing being revealed in the fullness of time.

  8. I have a question with regards to this. I’ve always wondered what this statement means in our communion prayer;

    “Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for….. I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies”

    Can anyone explain what this means for me? I love trying to communicate what’s often hidden in God, am I not supposed to?

  9. Michael,
    It’s a very rich phrase. It reflects the practice of the early Church in which the Mysteries (the sacraments), were, in fact, not discussed with those who were not Orthodox (Christian). That meant not discussing them even with the catechumens. There was an assumption that these things could not be rightly understood outside the Church.

    Today, modern theories of knowledge presume a kind of democratic approach to everything, that anything can be known by anybody if they simply get enough information. But the Christian faith is not information based. It is revelation based.

    I think our modern habits are formed outside of the Church, and we often bring them inside. There is, of necessity, a requirement to say more today than was once said, because we are evangelizing a modern democratically-minded culture. But there are many inner things that are better considered in silence.

    People, for example, talk very openly about sex, it seems. They should not. A man should never discuss his intimate relations with his wife with anyone, unless it is for a very precise therapeutic reason that is for the salvation of his marriage. I believe it is, in fact, a sin to do so. It is deeply shaming to discuss someone’s utterly vulnerability in such a manner. Using our intimacy of friendship and gaining information, which we then share with others to whom such trust was not given is also a serious and shaming sin.

    There are many experiences that I have as a priest within the altar that I do not discuss with others. It happened in private with the Lord. As to “not supposed to,” it depends. There’s no one rule. It requires that you use discretion and wisdom.

  10. “[…] far from being a merely metaphysical truth or mystical perception, the Mystery of Christ is the action of a Person doing something (namely, making a New Creation) in and for us. It’s not simply something to be discovered by speculation or inner experience; it’s the presence of someone who is there for us regardless of what we believe, think, or feel.”

    (Robert Capon, from The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It)

  11. There is currently a debate in progress which is an off-shoot of the NPP (New Perspectives on Paul, Sanders, Wright, et al). A “new” understanding emerging is referred to as “Apocalyptic Theology” (Martyn, Adams, et al) which in many ways tracks with what you have expressed Fr. Freeman.

  12. Tom,
    I’m vaguely aware of the Apocalyptic Theology. What I’m saying is actually quite common within Orthodoxy. From time to time, the West gets excited about something that seems “new,” when, in fact, it’s really just old. One of the problems in Western theology is its constant change. I have seen so many “new” things over the course of my adult life viz. theology, and had to learn a century’s worth of preceding new things in order to take part in the conversations at a doctoral level. There’s really nothing much like that in Orthodoxy, other than among the Orthodox who pay too much attention to the West.

    But, that aside, it’s a very fruitful point of understanding. However, without the proper sacramental context of the Church, I’m not sure it will matter.

  13. Nicholas,
    Small correction- there are four shared cups of wine, not three.
    And of course the hidden matzah (the afikoman) is often literally hidden in the house and then recovered, usually by children. This matzah is then broken and shared with everyone present, which is likely the place in the Passover meal that Jesus shared his body with the disciples.

  14. Jordan, you are correct. Because I could not remember the names of all the cups, I did some research. Apparently our Professor in Seminary does not know as much as he claimed to about the Seder Meal. He was also my Senior Pastor and did a Seder Meal ever year in church for the five years I was there and he only had three cups. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  15. So I “Set my mind on things above” and this is the response “Love is patient and Kind, Love does not envy or boast” Praise God

  16. Thanks Father. A lot to think about. I am one who has found out the hard way why one does not “cast pearls before swine.” Also, I have been told that to reveal any “mystery” to someone who is not prepared and will reject is in fact to subject them to judgment, and that this is another reason to avoid it. One more “apocalyptic” thing, in more than one sense!

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