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.