Remembering the End

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Orthodox Christianity often seems inherently conservative. The unyielding place that tradition holds within its life seems ready-made for a conservative bulwark against a world all-too-ready to forget everything that is good or beautiful. There are subtle but important distinctions that make this treatment of Orthodoxy misleading and can lead to the distortion of the faith and an almost reverse image of our true salvation. Orthodox Christianity does not seek to preserve something that is now past – it is not a faith bound in history. Rather, it professes that what was once given at a moment in history is nothing other than that which shall be at the end of all things. The faith is thus only rightly lived when it is radically oriented towards that which is to come. The Kingdom of God is never anything other than the end and fulfillment of all things, that for which creation itself came into existence.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

Understanding the true nature of the “end of things,” or, in theological terms, “eschatology,” is a difficult task at first. It breaks many rules of space and time (yes, Dr. Who fans, it really does), and requires a certain shift in perspective. One example of this shift can be found in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom where the priest prays:

Do this in remembrance of Me! Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming.

The priest refers to the Second Coming in the past tense. This does not represent some strange doctrine in which the Second Coming is thought to have already occurred in history. Rather, it is the recognition that the Divine Liturgy stands in a mystical place from which it is correct to describe the Second Coming in that manner. For the Divine Liturgy is truly the “last” supper, the meal at the end of all things.

The Fathers held that the truth is to be identified with the end. Both St. Maximus the Confessor in the East, and St. Ambrose in the West, wrote of a three-fold scheme in which the Old Testament is “shadow,” the New Testament is “icon,” while the “truth” is the age to come. This understanding has several aspects.

First, the truth of anything is found not in the present, but in its telos, its end. A seed is not known until it is a tree. But, most importantly, this realization of the truth is not seen as a gradual progression, a building up towards the truth. Such a scheme would suggest that the truth is “not yet.” The truth, however, is already and now. We can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, draws everything towards itself. Or, we can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, manifests itself in time even now, for those who have the eyes to see.

Our most common way of viewing the world is to privilege history, to presume that the past is immutable and is the cause of all things in the present. That makes us the authors of creation, the makers of the story of the universe. That is very alluring, even though it carries the seeds of anxiety and war. But God has not so constituted creation so as to make it the maker of its own destiny, the master of its own fate.

At the creation, God observes His work and says, “It is very good.” This is not simply an observation of the work He had done, but a proclamation of the very nature of the creation itself. Its nature is revealed in its end. The end calls forth creation, always towards that for which it was created. St. Paul offers this description:

…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

This verse should also be read along with St. Paul’s statement in Romans 8:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)

This is the “good” or the “very good” according to which all things were created. This same good, however, is hidden. It is in no way obvious to us, except as we see Christ Himself.

Consider the world, ca. 1000 B.C. An utterly obscure people, little more than a collection of tribes, is engaged in a struggle over a piece of land that is almost useless in its fertility and insignificant in its situation and size. Within the same region, however, mighty kingdoms and civilizations are rising and flourishing, producing wealth, power, and innovation. Their monuments will stand for thousands of years. But in this obscure place, a young man will face down a giant in single combat and win. In the scale of the universe, it is almost nothing, without significance. But this is the story of David and Goliath, and this David will become the ancestor of God Incarnate, Who is Himself the “good” of the world.

At this very moment, we cannot judge or measure the “good” within the world, nor can we measure the aggregate of evil. Nothing makes any sense until it is interpreted in the light of the end of all things. David only has significance in hindsight. It is his offspring who “causes” him to have meaning and significance. More than that, we must understand that the “cause” of David’s renown was already drawing all things towards itself. Christ the child was causing the rise of David and establishing his kingdom.

In the same manner, our own lives are being “caused” by the end for which they were created. Again, St. Paul says:

Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phi 3:13-14)

We do not build on the past or seek to preserve the past. The foundations of the Kingdom of God are not in this world, nor of this world. They are “unshakeable,” in the words of Scripture. What is called “tradition” by the Church is not a dim historical memory; it is the ever-renewed life of the Spirit that is “once and for all delivered to the saints.” The continuity of the Tradition does not depend on memory. It is the same always and everywhere because it is the once-given reality that has existed from before all time and towards which we are being drawn.

This is a strange perspective for most people and runs counter to the merely human sense of conservatism. It might strike an outside observer as something conservative, but if what is maintained is only preserved in a historical manner, it is not the life nor the truth of the Tradition. There is a requirement that we must empty ourselves at every moment in every way and constantly receive the life that is being given. Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever.” And this is the content of the Tradition. I do not know Him today because I knew Him yesterday. I may only know Him now.

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Father. It is a tricky thing… and can cause great violence to the carnal moorings in the soul. It is something I have to constantly revisit and wrestle with.

  2. “I do not know Him today because I knew Him yesterday. I may only know Him now.”

    Is this perhaps what is signified by the “I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity” of the Sermon on the Mount? That many of us are not wholly surrendered to God in the Present Moment, but think that since we “set aside” some X amount of time “for God” surely it woudn’t matter if we kept some Y amount of time for ourselves, whereas this kind of calculativeness with time is foreign to the kingdom of God? And therefore since we never truly knew Christ, we fail to give Him a chance to know us?

  3. “We can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, draws everything towards itself.”
    I can think about these things for a long time, Father!
    St Maximus talks in analogies. For example, Christ drawing all things to Himself like as a Center of a circle with radii extending from and being drawn back to Him.

    “Or, we can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, manifests itself in time even now, for those who have the eyes to see.”
    So I picture in my mind Christ as our Beginning and our End … not on a time-line, but as Center. In this manner we can say Christ’s passion takes place within history, and is at the same the culmination of all history, even future events.
    Again, He as Center, I picture the Cross standing like an emblem, an emblem with scenes from Creation, to His first advent, to the Second Coming. We can speak about these as timeless events because we know God’s existence is timeless, where the past, present, and future are presently before Him, as in the ‘now’.
    “for those who have eyes to see” – I think when St Maximus speaks of seeing the truth of all things, he means seeing through the eyes of Christ, those things not as they are now, but as they will be in the coming age.
    I think of Christ’s words “I am the way, the truth and the life”. So we see Christ (wholly)all and (wholly) in all’. Or “I am the Resurrection and the Life”, again as Center, in all of history, every created thing, every moment of time, those words can only be truly understood, given its true meaning, in the light of the Risen Christ. Going further in such thought, the perspective of time seems to change, where the truth of every moment and every thing created that exists in those moments is revealed in and drawn toward Christ…that is, the entirety of all time. It seems that this is the essence of eternal time. Christ as Center, drawing all things, in every moment, to the One and Center, where the differing natures of life will not be absorbed in Him, but be sharers in His life. This is the telos of the created. And it seems this is the ‘vision’ of those who have eyes to see.
    St Maximus also says that to see in this way takes continual practice, of emptying oneself, or in other words, taming the passions. He seems to be saying that the passions prevent us from seeing the truth.
    Father, is that true? Or do we get glimpses, just enough to encourage us to ‘press toward the mark’ ?
    Oh, and thank you very much for this post. Thoroughly enjoyed it!

  4. One of the sweetest expositions of the “hope which is a strong and trustworthy as an anchor for our souls and which leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary”, declared in the letter to Hebrews.

  5. Paula,
    There are certainly glimpses. For example, even to read a holy description and understand what is being read, constitutes a glimpse – something that could only be understood by a measure of grace. When such a description stirs the heart and we feel ourselves drawn to it, that, too, is an action of grace. I often think we get stuck when thinking about taming the passions – that this must come first. When we insist on this way of approaching things, we often fail to use the most powerful gifts we have been given. We are drawn by Beauty, for example, and holy desire stirs within us – this enlivens and empowers our battle with the passions. If our concentration is on the passions and fighting them – it’s easy to get drawn down into distraction and depression – just being tired of fighting. We “look to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” When we set our eyes on where we are being drawn to – the battle becomes ever so much easier.

  6. The final victory, of the “Heaven-isation” of all creation, which we see first manifested in the Author and Finisher of our faith, reminds me once again that Christianity, in practice, is not so much a philosophy, but is a ‘sacred materialism’ (or a ‘material sanctity’).
    What we have is, on the one hand, the utter ‘meaningfulness’ of the sacred, which is, [of its own accord] utterly immaterial [“plain heavenly”], conjoined, on the other hand, with the utter meaninglessness [of its own accord] of “plain matter”. It is to this ‘end’, this ‘union’ that Scripture continuously speaks of, from the opening of Genesis to the closing of Revelation.
    The above two ‘opposites’ are conjoined utterly in Christ the Logos. Hwever, this same kind of union of immaterial meaning with meaningless matter is also the distinct ‘logos’ of each and every creature.
    The term ‘symbol’, which we use in Church and often misinterpret, contains this very biblical notion of two opposites ontologically conjoined together: Heaven “informing” matter, while simultaneously matter “manifesting” Heaven. It is why the sacramental materialism of the sacraments escapes current secular analyses and leads down dangerous paths.
    Of course, modern-day anti-sacramentalism, excuses its infiltration with various secular rationalisations, however, it would be better flagged up as what it really is within this biblical, overarching context.

  7. Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve been cheated out of a fair amount of sleep this past week, so my mind may not be as sharp as it could be right now, but I’m having a hard time getting a hold of the essence in this article. I can sense that there is something of real substance here, but I’m flummoxed.

    If God is the cause of all things, yet God patiently works with our God-given free will allowing us to bring good or evil into the world, it seems as if we would actually be “creating” history in some measure or else we’re left with the Calvinist predestination theology in which God is pulling the string in a marionette puppet show, which is clearly not Orthodox theology.

    I suspect that you’re describing some sore of “middle path”, but I can’t be sure or see it clearly. Can you help get some perspective here?

  8. All sorts of remembered and half remembered poetry is being brought to mind. Perhaps it takes a poetic imagination to perceive.
    My favorite so far:
    What is deep, as love is deep, I’ll have deeply. What is good as love is good, I’ll have well. Then if time and space have any meaning, I shall belong to it.

    From Christopher Fry’s “The Lady’s Not For Burning”. It was a play I was in I’m college and, somehow, I know not how, it was a part of moving me toward God and Jesus Christ.

    I had not thought of that line in decades but somehow, this discussion brought it to mind.

  9. Timmy,

    We do not “create” things, we take part in the completion of all things in Christ. God is the fulfillment, or fullness, of all creation (it is troubling to think in terms of “cause”) and He is manifest now within all things. One might say that our sin limits us so that we do not yet see these things, even though, by God’s grace, we catch glimpses and long for more.

    That is my understanding anyway. If I am well off course, please correct me.

  10. Timmy, start with looking at two things: 1. We are not autonomous, and 2 We are interconnected with everyone else through Jesus.

    History then becomes the discovery of and participation in that life in a particular way and God will guide you to what you need to know.

    Historians call it “empathetic projection” — the human ability to actually and honestly connect with the life and experience of other human beings. History is not linear and it has only been widely thought of that way in the last couple hundred years.

    Before that it was understood as much more numinous as, in fact, it is.

  11. Dear Father… thank you so very much for your answer. It offers much encouragement and confirms what I suspected, yet unable to verbalize with precision. I will try to explain briefly…
    There is something about ‘old age’ where I began to realize that I have had just about enough of the condemnation of morality, of legalistic ‘right and wrong’, devoid of compassion (passion=to suffer; com= with ) in unity with others. I have come to that point, only to realize ‘now what?!’ It is here, in the midst of my passions, where Christ in all His compassion, remains (this He truly shows us as our co-sufferer, sinless, no less. Where do you find such solidarity that our God would put on our nature to demonstrate this? It is beyond stunning… ). Amidst my passions, He is quiet, as if to say ‘alright then’, ‘keep going’. This is a far different reaction than what I have been used to. And I marvel. In much awe. He does not, and never did turn His face away.
    Relationships with others, oh my God, is very very tough these days.
    So, the passions, Father. You say we get stuck in thinking we must tame them in order to begin to see. Well, I found out, finally, that this is not how it works, and you have described in words what I couldn’t, except to say ‘I have had enough!’. You say that such a battle causes depression, where you get tired of fighting. Yes, exactly.
    And there Christ remains…the solid Rock. It is precisely that kind of reaction – compassion rather than rejection – that I think is the Grace you refer to. We seek after Him, in desire that is without estimate. And ‘He gives more Grace’, as if extending His hands and saying, ‘here, take what I freely give…’ . How presumptuous of me to think that I had to be better, behave better, to succeed in quieting my passions, as if Christ turned His face away from me and was waiting for me to get my act together. It is a ‘small’ estimate of Christ, and too big of an estimate of myself, when it need be the other way around. In His kindness, He so shows us.
    So yes, we do get glimpses, Father. Thank you for saying that! Yes, Grace He gives is in measure, but a measure that is filled to the full! It draws us to Beauty, the “Good”, where we feel a certain repulsion toward words and actions that lend to defeat. And more so, it “enlivens and empowers our battle with the passions”. Yes It does! I would hope to remember this, not only for myself, but for everyone I encounter in this life. We seek to live in unity, even in our struggles…especially in our struggles.

    Many thanks, Father.

  12. Timmy, you really cannot analyze this without distinguishing material, formal, efficent and final causes. Otherwise we conflate causality to the point that we cannot talk about God and human agency in a meaningful way.

  13. Timmy,
    I’m not very good at thinking in terms of philosophical causation (formal, efficient, final, etc.). The Scriptures tend to work at these things with stories. The story of Joseph (the one with the coat of many colors) is a good example. He is sold into slavery by his brothers. In Egypt, while a slave, he rises to a position of great power and through his gifted management he saves Egypt and his own family from famine. When he confronts his brothers at the end of the story he says, “You meant it to me for evil (selling him as a slave), but the Lord meant it to me for good.” That describes something of the mystery of “causation.” The good that God intended was a work, despite his brothers’ evil intentions. And so it is with us. It is not that our brothers and sisters (metaphorically speaking) don’t do us great evil – and we even do evil to ourselves. But God (and His good purpose) has not abandoned us and is working us good always and in all things. That working doesn’t make those evil intentions to be good – but, it thwarts them.

    That is the strange “logic” of Christ’s death and resurrection (His Pascha). The crucifixion is a terrible evil when thought of from one angle, and our greatest good when seen from another. God is the rescuer, the one who delivers from bondage, who exalts the humble and meek, and thwarts the designs of the rich and proud, etc.

  14. This is very deep, Father. All I can say at the moment is W O W… and Thank you!

  15. Timmy – thanks for that question. It is helpful.
    One thing in all of this that always find helpful is to remember that in Christian (and indeed most older religions) there are at least two big notions of what we in English collapse to that word “time”. In Greek, they were kronos, or ordinary linear time, and kairos, which is rich idea containing the idea of meaningful time or events. When Jesus talks says “My time has come”, the word is kairos.

    Sorry if you knew all of that and it sounds a bit suck eggs. But I find it is always worth reminding myself of these ideas of time whenever I read something like Father’s article, because it is our embedded notions of time that condition the way we hear this stuff. Having both ideas makes it easier to hear it, and indeed have layered sort of quilt-like approach. In particular, I find it is impossible to think sensibly about these ideas of beginnings and endings without constantly reminding myself of where I am (or may be) in the weave.

    Interestingly, I think that this is a very modern problem, and one which older cultures did not have. Greek (and Hebrew) pretty naturally had words for the different ideas because the time ideas were much more deeply embedded in the culture. My impression is that we are a very kronos culture (all those clocks everywhere!), but 2000 years ago it was pretty balanced and interwoven. Go back further and you get cultures where kairos ideas seem pretty dominant. I have always found the opening to Peter Weir’s (a fave director) lesser known film “The Last Wave” (set in Australia, dealing with a mysterious Australian indigenous theme) to be very helpful

    “Aboriginals believe in two forms of time. Two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity … The other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the “dreamtime,” more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. Some people of unusual spiritual powers have contact with the dreamtime.”

    My impressions is that most earlier humans had similar notions – and I rather fear it was the crashing of those ideas of sacred time that suffered most from contact with Europeans.

    I find it helpful to hear some of the kinds of things Father’s article is talking about through that kind of lens. The idea that it is the telos that shapes everything is a kairos idea. That we have to live out our part without knowing the vastness of the dreamtime is increasingly bothering me less (although I still do have the odd nervous breakout).
    Among moderns it is probably T.S. Eliot who is best at this stuff, and the medium is, appropriately, poetry. His grand and epic set of poems “The Four Quartets” has as its main theme (in a particularly rich quilt) is time and its workings. Here’s a snippet as a teaser from the the first poem Burnt Norton (think kronos and kairos – and indeed telos and circular causation etc – as you work through this densely packed, but beautiful, little piece):

    Time past and time future
    Allow but a little consciousness.
    To be conscious is not to be in time
    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
    The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
    The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
    Be remembered; involved with past and future.
    Only through time time is conquered.

    Christ is the Alpha and Omega indeed. The Beginning and the End, All in All!

  16. Timmy, I was struck that you are asking for some perspective here. Lovely! I will just add to the answers given above what was important to me in college days when I was asked to give a report on Kierkegaard’s “Philosophical Fragments” to the class. I don’t think I did the work justice, but what has remained with me is a description he gives of Christ’s life on earth as the moment in time when eternity touches time itself. And that happening radiates, as others have said, both back and forward enfolding all into that single point. It’s what makes every moment for us, able to be fused into that occurrence so that we can be in touch with eternity each moment, forgiving and being forgiven, in the midst of sorrow lifted into joy.

    I wasn’t Orthodox when I encountered this concept, but it has remained with me. I hope it helps. It is my understanding of the importance of reverse perspective in icons.

  17. Father Stephen,
    I hope you might check this comment to Timmy for correction as needed.

    If God is the cause of all things, yet God patiently works with our God-given free will allowing us to bring good or evil into the world, it seems as if we would actually be “creating” history in some measure or else we’re left with the Calvinist predestination theology in which God is pulling the string in a marionette puppet show, which is clearly not Orthodox theology.

    Timmy, thank you for your question. I ask for your patience as I reflect on your question as it has been a thought I have held as well in the past (and may continue to slip into) and I continue to ‘check’ my understanding with an Orthodox understanding. As you have here.

    God as ‘the cause of all things’ is a concept heavily influenced by our understanding of causal relationships described in this culture’s philosophy. We (at least I do) have a tendency to conflate the Creator of all with the “cause of all”. We do say the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, present in all places and filling all things, Treasury of Goodness and Giver of life: come and abide in us…”

    Within this prayer we might think in a logical way that “present in all places and filling all things”, suggests “cause”. But that interpretation (as far as I know) might not be as full as an understanding as perhaps saying that God is existence of all, which might seem to resemble our notions of “cause”, but has more to do with God’s love. God’s love and Word calls to us and potentially draws us into a more fully substantive reality, to which the Theotokos responded and said, “let it be”.

  18. Dee,
    Yes, I think that tracks well with things. We struggle when we think about causation if we get into the predestinarian mind – in which case there’s no freedom, etc. One way that we might think about it is that, regardless of what we do, we are always dealing with God. For example, if I’m walking all over the place, no matter where I walk, I’m still walking on planet earth. There’s no getting away from it, regardless of our freedom. God (if I stated this in an impersonal way) is the good that stalks us and interacts with us always and at every moment regardless of what we do or think. And this good that stalks us and interacts with us is uniquely our good – the good for which we were and are created. It would be possible to always in accordance with that good and our path would always be good. But, we ignore it and try to fight it many times. It doesn’t fight back, but it abides and doesn’t leave, always drawing it towards our proper good. And, because it is uniquely our own good, it has a “natural” attraction for us. We desire it, even when we cannot express it in words. It desires us, uniquely. We are free – but we are never “free of this good” because this good is also our true self.

    Now, I stated that in impersonal terms just so we wouldn’t go off on a tangent with the word “God.” But, God is that unique good that we desire and who desires us. God is, indeed, our true self (at least according to His image).

    I find this, and other sorts of “thought experiments” that rhyme with it, to be a useful way of thinking when I ponder the providence that permeates our lives and world.

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