A series of recent conversations with a parishioner turned up the problem of “bookends,” that is, questions of the beginning and the end. It is only natural in our day and age to attack problems in this manner. “How did it start?” is a way of saying, “What is it?” The end, of course, is not so obvious, other than its connection with our insatiable desire to know how things will turn out. These questions, thrust into the mix of Christian thought, have come to dominate a certain way of thinking about God. They are also very misleading. For though the Christian faith has something to say about the beginning and the end, it does not do so in the manner that we imagine.
Genesis is and is not about the beginning of the universe. However, what Genesis does not do is set forth a problem that must be solved. We read it in that manner, but only after the fact. That the primal stories in Genesis receive almost no attention whatsoever in the remainder of the Old Testament is itself an indicator that Jewish tradition did not see Genesis in this manner. Our modern habits of thought are quite linear, reducing the world to cause and effect in a long chain of historical events. With that in mind, we go to Genesis to see if we can find the cause of all later events. And there it is! We see mankind’s sin in the Garden and the punishment of death. There, we believe, is the cause of the Jesus story.
This reading creates terrible problems for many Christians when various scientific accounts of early humanity make the story in the Garden somewhat problematic. For example, I have been told that if Adam and Eve are not literal characters, then the entire account of Christian salvation falls apart. This is only true if you’re stuck in the problem of “bookends.” This same anxiety often drives an anti-science bias among believers. They feel threatened.
The Orthodox writer, George Gabriel, makes this observation:
The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.
This echoes St. Maximus:
He who apprehends the mystery of the cross and the burial apprehends the inward essences of created things: while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.
The “bookends” approach to Christian theology creates false problems – precisely because it assumes that the cause of things is found within history itself, and therefore “in the beginning.” However, the cause of all things is the Incarnation of Christ, encompassing both His death and resurrection. This alone is the “starting point” of the faith and of creation. The Incarnation of Christ is the beginning.
It is difficult for our reasoning habits to grasp this. Most people read such statements as nothing more than an exaggerated way of saying that the Incarnation is important. But the Scriptures witness that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Difficult as well to understand is that the Crucified Christ (“Lamb slain”) somehow exists before the creation of the world.
Our thinking about time and creation, about what we call “history,” is secular for the most part. We think of history as something that unfolds outside of God and into which He must choose to enter. In point of fact, we think that what takes place at any moment of time depends solely on what took place at the moment just preceding. The historical reasoning that searches for causation in a linear fashion is modern secularism, and the larger portion of Christians reasons in just such a manner.
Another way to describe this is to say that true eschatology (the study of “final things”) has been lost to modern Christians. The only ending that is presently considered [and it’s a major industry] is some final product of history itself. We falsely imagine ourselves capable of “making the world a better place” because we think of ourselves as the actors and creators of history. The proper way to understand things is to see that the beginning and the end are to be found in the same place and are utterly similar in character. The Incarnate Christ Himself is the “Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega.”
Of course, it is just as difficult to imagine the end of things being “in the midst” of history as it is to understand the beginning to be there as well. Such understanding only comes with the “renewing of our minds” (Ro 12:2). It is the gradual perception of Christ as central to all things, that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the Divine Liturgy, we speak of the end of things in the past tense, so strong is the patristic grasp of eschatology. The meal we eat in Holy Communion is the actual, real and true Marriage Supper of the Lamb, that we share with Him in the Kingdom. We say to God,
“…and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.”
Such a strange mix of tenses! He did not cease…until He had brought us up…and endowed…which is to come! In our salvation, we are given now, that which shall be. This destroys the linear thought of the secular mind and initiates us into the mind of the Kingdom of God.
We struggle with the commandments of Christ because our minds are mired in the secular, historicized view of the world. We fear the future, nurse our anxieties, and worry about what might happen if we actually practiced what Christ teaches. What happens if I forgive my enemies? What happens if I give without expecting in return? What happens if I turn the other cheek? Christ speaks as He does because, in Him, the Kingdom of God has come. Those who are in Christ are already “seated in the heavens.”
…even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Eph. 2:5-6 NKJ)
The secular historicization of the faith has distorted Christian believing. We treat the death and resurrection of Christ as past events and imagine that our accepting them as historically true is the nature of faith. But they are not merely historical in the secular sense. They are present and real now. As the beginning and the end, they are also always present. By historicizing them, we dismiss them and relegate them to the collection of historical “facts” (things done). They are rather present tense “facientes” (“things being done”). Our present tense actions, done in union with that present tense reality, alone constitute faith. We do not live in the past or because of the past. We live only in and by the death and resurrection of Christ. Because of these things, the commandments of Christ not only make sense, they alone constitute a sane course of behavior.
…If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jn. 8:31-32 )
The truth of Christ’s word, His commandments, is only revealed as we abide in them (keep them). When that truth is known, then we will then (and only then) see the freedom that is ours in Him. We are not the creatures of history, but of Christ.
Christ is risen!