This Christmas was the last Christmas – ever.
Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Wherever He is, there is the beginning and the end of all things. If Christ is truly present in this year’s Christmas, then it is the last Christmas – and the first Christmas. And if statements like this make your hair hurt – then read on.
Our common way of thinking about the world is marked by the linear passage of time (it moves from past to present to future) and by cause and effect (everything is caused by something else). And we think of the two things together (a cause always happens before the effect). That being the case, we would never say that what someone is going to do tomorrow caused something to happen yesterday. I hope this seems obvious.
It is therefore not at all obvious when we hear the Divine Liturgy saying something quite contrary to this arrangement. St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy has this passage:
It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, 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.
The clear meaning of this passage puts being “brought up to heaven” and being “endowed with the Kingdom” in the past tense (past perfect to be more precise). Indeed there is a complete jumble of tenses in the last phrase: had endowed us…Kingdom which is to come. Whaaa?
So God has given us something in the past, which hasn’t come yet. Such language is not isolated. It occurs again later in the liturgy:
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 Second and glorious Coming is numbered among those things that have come to pass…
This is not unique to St. John. He is merely following language that is already found in the New Testament:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, 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 2:4-6)
He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, (Col 1:13)
Something that seems clearly in the future is spoken of in the past and addressed to us in the present. What is this? This is the true character of eschatology – the study of last things.
For one segment of contemporary Christians, eschatology (the study of last things) refers to questions of what will happen at the end of the world. It concerns itself with wars and political figures, the persecution of the Church and such. It places last things in the last place, thereby conforming to the normal world of cause and effect and the flow of time. But this provides no manner for understanding the strange language of St. Paul (or St. John Chrysostom) and actually misses the entire point of the last things.
The first proclamation of Christ (and of John the Baptist) is: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Modern scholars, having lost a proper understanding of eschatology, often misinterpret this as an announcement of an immediate coming of the end of the world in a linear, cause-and-effect manner. They equally think that Jesus was “mistaken” in this and that his followers had to change the message to fit his failure.
And the message is misunderstood as well. For many, the “coming of the Kingdom of God” is made into an ethical event, while others simply give up on the topic and make Jesus’ ministry into something else. For example, the forensic model of the atonement reduces Jesus’ ministry to His blood payment on the Cross. His teachings, healings and wonders become of little importance (again reduced mostly to ethical teachings).
Only the strange world of traditional eschatology sees Christ’s ministry and the whole of His work as a single thing and continually present within our lives at this moment. This strange world is found within the liturgical and sacramental life of Orthodoxy – indeed, it is essential.
The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ was not an expectation of a soon-coming political entity. It was the announcement of an immediate presence that was Christ Himself. When St. John the Forerunner sent his disciples to question Jesus, as to whether he were the Messiah, the reply was given in the language of the Kingdom:
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Luk 7:22)
It is a reference to the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD…
Christ says what He says and does what He does, because He Himself is the coming of the Kingdom of God. And where the Kingdom is, these things happen. The Kingdom of God is a present-tense manifestation of a future-tense reality (which is actually an eternal reality that forms the future, the telos, of all creation united with God).
This is the very heart of the Divine Liturgy. There we remember something that was itself a present tense manifestation of the Messianic Banquet, rather aptly called the Last Supper. We eat a meal that was an eating of a meal that has not yet been eaten.
Such statements make for very strange reading. But listen to these words spoken quietly by the priest as he breaks Body of Christ in the altar:
Broken and divided is the Lamb of God: Who is broken, yet not divided; who is eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifies those who partake thereof.
The liturgy is filled with such inner contradictions. It is a hallmark of the Orthodox liturgical experience.
The Christian life is an eschatological reality. The life that is ours in Christ “has not yet been revealed” (1Jn 3:2) and yet it is a present reality. This same character runs throughout all of the sacraments. We are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ as into present events. Holy Unction is a manifestation of the Kingdom to come in the same manner of Christ’s miracles, and so forth. This is among the reasons that Orthodoxy is described as “mystical.” It means precisely what it prays.
And this differs profoundly from those who have turned Christianity into a merely “historical” religion. For them, the historical event of Christ’s death and resurrection represents a transaction that has paid for their sins. The time after Christ’s Ascension only marks a period for evangelization and awaiting His Second Coming. Nothing in particular has been made different about the time we live in. Our time is still viewed as linear, marked by cause-and-effect, in no way differing from the time of an unbeliever. True eschatology has no place in such a scheme.
But the proper heart of the Christian life is learning to live in communion with this eschatological reality – to participate now in the life of the Kingdom which is to come. This present tense participation in an eternal reality is how we die to ourselves, how we find a new life, how we enter the Kingdom, how we find the place of the heart, how we overcome the passions, how we eat the heavenly bread, how we trample down death, how we are justified and made holy.
We are living the last things. Ever.
May we never forget.
Thank you Father. Merry Christmas!
So good. Christ is born!
Very grateful to read this before I attend The Royal Hours at Church!
Dear Father Stephen,
This is a most wonderful Nativity gift…full of love, hope, joy and consolation. Thank you~
“The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ was not an expectation of a soon-coming political entity. It was the announcement of an immediate presence that was Christ Himself….
“Christ says what He says and does what He does, because He Himself is the coming of the Kingdom of God.”
Amen and amen. With this word alone, peace descends into my heart.
Emmanuel—God is with us! Because of this, I look forward with hope to a new heaven and new earth where this Kingdom will be made manifest in its fullness. I pray that this fullness may evermore increase within my own heart in spite of and even within tumultuous circumstances and the sufferings of this present life.
Blessed Feast, Father, to you, your family and your readers!
Such a beautiful – and much needed! – message. Thank you, dear Father!
Merry Christmas to you and yours and all the world!
Christ is Born!
Thank you Karen. May Christ descend into our hearts as our hearts ascend into Him!
Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Living life as an Orthodox Christian is quite challenging when the dominant culture is overwhelmingly Protestant and secular. Prayers for God’s grace and guidance for all of us, and Merry Christmas!
Excellent, Father Freeman! Your ministry is a gift to us. Merry Christmas, sir!
Thank you, Father Freeman.
Christ is born.
,i>The life that is ours in Christ “has not yet been revealed” (1Jn 3:2) and yet it is a present reality. This same character runs throughout all of the sacraments. We are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ as into present events. Holy Unction is a manifestation of the Kingdom to come in the same manner of Christ’s miracles, and so forth.
I would love to see you write in much greater detail on each of the sacraments and the character of our lives in Christ, Father! Or, if you can recommend a good book(s) that goes through them all in this manner? Glory to God! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
I’ll give some thought to an article on that.
Father, I agree with Bryon.
Christ is Born!
Thank you. Merry Christmas!
This post will make tonight’s events that much more glorious!!
Christ is Born!
—as it was in the beginning ,is now , and ever shall be ( world without end )
The Doxology ?
This post speaks to my heart of deep, very deep truth. Thank you.
“Something that seems clearly in the future is spoken of in the past and addressed to us in the present. What is this? This is the true character of eschatology”
I think there are many scriptures that could be better understood if we can somehow grasp this paradox of future being both past and present.
Are there any (readable) writings that can further support this understanding or will you be able to produce some more teaching along this line?
So much of your writing is a blessing.
Peace be with you.
CHRIST IS BORN! To one and all.
Glorify Him! Merry Christmas, all.
Humbled by Love manifest, Thanks for words that are hope and make a way for Peace that passes understanding. Please say a prayer for Chadd, who is in jail and Kalina. Thank you.
Thank you fr for the Wonderfull post. Very illuminating!
Can expound on this?
My understanding Is that the saints and angels are there too worshiping with us but they are not The Alpha Omega. I m trying to put all this in my head but i do believe this is a metaphysical reality.
Blessed feast to all!!
Christ is Born!!
It all does “make my hair hurt” a little, haha, but the description of time as non linear is one of the things that draws me toward Orthodoxy…..I have often had this perception of time as non linear; I have tried to describe it myself many times, but never before have I heard someone actually try to explain this perception in a way that makes sense of the world. But it does make sense to me: for example I can think of things in my past that are part of the story I’m living in today, and I’m still making it reality, so it isn’t really past at all….
Excited for 2022!
Non linear time. Can’t understand it. Pagan cyclical time is understandable to a degree. RC thought accepts linear time, which again is understandable to a degree.
I can only grasp time as movement, beyond that it’s totally incomprehensible.
Some thinkers have seen time as sort of cyclical and linear, like a spiral.
Andrew, my mother of blessed memory looked at time as a dynamic spiral. She was a modern dancer of great skill and also appreciated the changes in rhythm involved. My father taught and practiced the interconnectedness of all things not only in the now but always. I prefer the image of a 4-D mobius strip that has rythmn and music in it too. A strip that God interpenetrates through His Incarnation and through each person’s repentance.
God knew me before I was.
Thank you Michael. Everything begins and ends with God; ‘I am the alpha and omega.’ God is.
We didn’t pre-exist, but have our beginning, our existence from God, into what we experience as time and space. But the end which is in God, is not an end in the sense of a cessation of existence. We enter into eternity, outside of time and space. I can’t get any further than that and have no inkling what it will be like.
I did not “pre-exist” but God knew me anyway.
My favorite history teacher described the discipline of history as: “The creation of a past which allows for a future into which can come the ever emerging now.”
My hair has been hurting concerning such things for a long time. The dynamic spiral was a motif my mother used extensively in her teaching and choreography. The early modern dancers (1920-1940) were fascinated with Pagan Greek forms and thought. My mother was a participant in all of that.
Interesting Michael. I’m pondering the fact that God knew before our existence, that I’d be sitting here now pondering your post. And that even though we don’t know each other personally we are communicating and connected through this blog.
That one, my brother, will really hurt your hair. I am increasingly satisfied, even joyous, that His mercy endures forever, world without end and, by His Grace, we are brought into His mercy through the Cross and repentance.
Here is a case in point: My 13 year old God Daughter told my wife and I a couple of weeks ago that she really wants to learn to shoot archery using a recurve bow. Since my son shot archery 20 years ago, I can train her up. Great. Problem. No bow, arrows or anything else. So, I started asking about getting a good starter bow for a 13 year old. No one. Too costly to buy one before knowing if she will really stay interested. Today, a friend and fellow archery enthusiast who attends St. George made a point to come up to me right after communion and greet me. I had not spoken with him in weeks, if not months and had forgotten his interest in archery. So, as we were leaving, my wife sees Doug sitting in the Narthex and it “strikes her” that I need to talk to him about the bow. So, I talk to him and, guess what, he “happens” to have the perfect bow in his car with some arrows too and he gives it to me. God, in His mercy, is Good.
Christ is Born!
I should point out that I am not writing about the nature of time itself. Time is a “creature,” meaning, it is a created thing, part of the created universe. It is not “uncreated.” As such, it has some sort of “laws” that it obeys, etc., that can be described, ultimately, with good science.
What I am writing about when I speak of “eschatology” is an aspect of the Kingdom of God, which has the character of the Resurrection. How the Eucharist is, for example, as an eschatological event, is not a revelation of the nature of time, but of the reality of the Kingdom of God.
It’s an important distinction.
I think Father what we are discussing is where the transcendence of time occurs and how it occurs, in Christ. Or we could just be engaging in some enjoyable game — either way I am sorry for going so far afield. There are just a lot of occurrences in my life that seem to suggest that time is mutable no matter what the laws are. … and that mutability has invariably been to bring me closer to Jesus somehow. It seems to me that that is a kind of escatology. But I am probably wrong . Forgive me
apologies for going off point. But when it comes to time, I do find it difficult to get to grips with kairos and kronos. Are they linked in some way due to the Incarnation?
As a former Roman Catholic, I still have in mind that when being at Mass, I was present bodily in time and space, but also entering into eternity, being outside of time and space through the celebration of the liturgy.
I have not though of time being a creation. I’m not doubting what you say, but your article did raise the question of time. Is it in a fallen state? Has it been redeemed? How does it relate to eternity? Will it just cease to exist after the Parousia?
correction to my last post. Sorry, your article did not raise the question of time (kronos). The questions and comments are what came to my mind.
I’ll let it go now here and won’t bring it again. Thank you for your patience,
Forgive me, I must be sounding like a terrible grouch. I’m laid up with a cold and fever for the last several days, tough tests came up negative for flu and Covid. We’ll see.
St Basil describe time as a “created thing,” which was and is terribly insightful. Before it was created there was no time and, in that God is Uncreated, there is no time for Him. When we look towards the eschaton, the end of all things, we look towards the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of the created and the uncreated. One very holy scholar suggested that in the eschaton, all moments will be present at once. It makes a sort of sense.
Time doesn’t disappear, but like all of creation, it is transfigured. It is possible that we have a foretaste of that from time to time. It was the distinction between the created and the Uncreated that I was seeking to maintain, a distinction that will be overcome in the end of all things.
Forgive my surliness, and pray for my recovery, in your kindness.
As it turns out – my Covid test today is positive – which explains what’s going on. My symptoms are pretty much like a cold, with mild fever, and grumpiness. Actually, I feel less grumpy just knowing what’s going on. I’m fully vaxxed and got a booster early last week, but had a strong exposure in a counseling session last Thursday. According to everything I’ve read, I will, when this passes (please God), be “super protected.”
Ah, Father. May our merciful God sustain and heal you in body, mind and spirit. COVID makes everyone grumpy–even those who do not have it May the Lord forgive us.
“Covid makes everyone grumpy, even those who don’t have it.” Now, that right there is funny.
Andrew, I enjoyed our repartee. I can definitely se a glimpse of what Fr. Stephan says about all moments being present together. The celebration of the Divine reality on Sacrament opens the door to that a but. That’s why I would love to see Fr. Stephan do a series on the Sacraments from an escatological perspective.
no problem, I didn’t take offence to your comment, nor detect any grumpiness.
I hope you get well soon. May the good Lord bless you and yours.
Thank you for your further clarification.
Just a sneak peek on sacramental eschatology. In Baptism, we are “buried into Christ’s death.” His death (which occurred in 33 ad) is obviously present to us in Holy Baptism. We do not Baptize into the “memory of His death” but “into His death.” It’s interesting that classical Protestant realism also got very symbolic (in the weak sense) when it read Scriptures on the sacraments.
We are truly, fully, really, completely, Baptized into the death of Christ, and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.
When I am blessing the waters of Baptism (the Orthodox prayers are wonderful), I often stand and stare at them in amazement. I know of miracles associated with that Sacrament. Here is a wonderful link to the text of that service. The prayer for the blessing of the waters in its present form, was written by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, who also wrote the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. He, it was said, was one of three holy elders by whom God sustained the world in existence in his generation.
The service should be read and used as an object for slow meditation – turning it around in the heart.
I’m trying to understand Orthodoxy from the outside; far from ideal. Reading can only take one so far.
I appreciate yours and others input here, as it puts things in context to a degree; from a lived experience of Orthodoxy.
I enjoyed our repartee to.
Andrew, Orthodoxy is not just about attending services, etc. The fullness of Orthodoxy describes and contains all that is. Rural Scotland is a very good place to begin to sense the wonder of the life in creation that Orthodoxy points toward. My father, as I have said was a pioneer in New Mexico in 1906 to about 1915. His formative years. He saw and lived in an environment which was wide open and spare. Nothing much to draw one’s attention for miles. He learned of the interrelationship of all created things sustained by “something”. His understanding of that gave both my brother and me a wonderful foundation for Orthodoxy.
God is everywhere present filling all things You have an opportunity to allow your reading and meditation to reform your appreciation of such things. The creation is an icon. Even time. Look, see and open your heart to a more complete reality with wonder at all He has wrought.
Father, I will work with that. Thank you.
thank you so much for that. Wonderful explanation. I am focusing too much on where I am not instead of where I am. And God is here too. I’m not seeing the wood for the trees.
Sometimes I start reading comments from the bottom up. And I’ve only read the last few so far, enough to learn of Father’s illness.
May God grant you health and we’ll being, dear Father
Just a question from your proclamation “We are truly, fully, really, completely, Baptized into the Death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His Ressurection. ”
It seems that all of the Sacraments partake of that same mystery, do they not? In their own particular way.
The experiential wonder behind that statement is invigorating to me. We need more of that.
One very holy scholar suggested that in the eschaton, all moments will be present at once. It makes a sort of sense.
Frightening sense! Will this be the revealing of our sins to all? All present at once…. Oh my!
Fr John Behr has a couple of videos on YouTube on what it means for the human being to grow through time, drawing on his deep study of St Irenaeus. One is called “By Such Order and Rhythms”. Unfortunately, I can’t find the other right now, but if I do I will return here with the info. It was actually the other, that I can’t find, that I thought of while reading through your comments, but the one above is good, too. Anything of his is worth a listen; I often listen several times. He is now teaching at Aberdeen, so who knows if you will encounter him in Scotland!
thank you for that; I’ll check out the Fr. John Behr video(s). As for going to Aberdeen, alas Dana I live a long way from Scotland. I’m Welsh and currently live in Nigeria, but thank you for the thought.
The scholar was Fr. Alexander Schmemann. I have more to say viz. “seeing our sins”…but that will wait.
We Brits are a scattered lot. My family has been exiled from Britain since the early 1700’s. 🙂
we are indeed a scattered lot. I hope my exile doesn’t last that long. 🙂
It’s off topic and you don’t have to reply, but what brought your ancestors to the U.S. ?
I don’t know anything of my family beyond my grandparents.
May the Protomartyr intercede for your speedy recovery. Wish you a joyful co-celebration with St Stephen
My “cheeky” answer to the question is, “A sailing ship.” But, possibly debt. Don’t really know. First trace I have of them is in Maryland – and that is a child whose father had died and his mother remarried..but his birth name (last name) was Freeman. He was John Freeman, which is a heck of a hard trace – too many of them. He went down into North Carolina, married and had 12 kids. Three of his sons came to South Carolina when the Cherokee were moved out of the Northwest corner. Been there ever since…with nothing in particular to show for it. Many of them were Baptist preachers…but my line were farmers and mechanics…until me.
thank you for that. I liked your cheeky answer too🙂.
I have listened to Fr. John Behr. Very interesting and a lot ponder. Thank you.
Father, after reading through the material on Baptism you linked to last night, the hymn As Many As Have Been Baptised into Christ came to my mind and it has been echoing in me off and on since. Then I searched for it on line and found many beautiful versions of the hymn.
time is a gift. I don’t need to understand it, but to receive it and hopefully allow God to use it to bring me to Him.
I meant I don’t understand time, rather than I don’t have to. What Fr. J. Behr said is quite a lot to take in. I will look at more of what he ha to say.
Father it seems to me that this is exactly how most Christians in the west, whether Protestant, Catholic or (converted) Orthodox view the life of Christ. “Life in Christ”, within such a perspective appears to lead away from abiding in Christ and instead, seems to be more about mental conditioning and potential behavior that satisfies secular morals, goals and means to reach such goals–all under the perview of what an individual thinks is the right thing to do as is inculcated by their culture. It seems ‘true eschatology’ might be quite difficult to comprehend after such inculcation.
Over the course of years you have taught catechumens, Father, does this eschatological understanding about the Christian life seem to be the most difficult for us?
For some reason, perhaps just the circumstances I found myself in, I frequently encountered paradox in nature, particularly when I was focused on deeper questions. I had an unslaked thirst to understand our reality which pushed me on until I encountered Orthodox Christian teachings. One of the first books I had purchased was the Philokalia. Unfortunately, I don’t remember now which volume. Then later after reading the Orthodox Way and the Orthodox Church (Met Kalistos Ware) I began to be aware how the Orthodox teachings were different in this regard (eschatology). Then I read your book “Everywhere Present-Christianity in a one storey universe”, which seemed to be the proverbial “cherry” on top! (Please forgive my playfulness) At about that point I knew I was heading for Orthodoxy. But still didn’t know how far that would go. Each step seemed to be a kind of fumbling to Christ, like a baby learning to walk (whilst holding the hand of Christ–unbeknown by me).
May God grant that we learn to walk in communion with this eschatological reality.
Trying to find the “Like” button on here…
I wish you all the best and a good recovery.
I am currently reading Olivier Clement’s book, Transfiguring Time, Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition. It is wonderful and affirms Fr Stephen’s comments about time as created and transfigured. He writes so poetically I am often moved to sit in wonder and tears.
Thanks for being a ‘virtual spiritual director’ for me these last 6 or 7 years. The Lord has used your postings over and over again to speak to me or through me to others. I don’t comment that often but I am so grateful for God’s ministry through you.
I found the other video. It’s called: From “the Bible” to “Scripture”: Learning again how to read Scripture.
I’m not sure that we will ever understand time while we’re still “in” it, or that we really need to. I do think time is one of those “all things” that Christ had to somehow recapitulate I’ve found Fr John’s ideas helpful, esp in this one about how time is experienced by us as growth into the likeness of Christ.
Have a blessed Christmastide – without snow 🙂 – there in Nigeria. May God grant you safety for your purpose in being there.
Dear Fr Stephen, hope you are feeling better and fully recovered soon.
thank you for your kindness. Time as we experience it is very mysterious. I am learning from reading Fr. Stephen’s writing and the comments here, that I have much to learn and need to let go of the modern Western mindset and that there is much I will never understand in this life.
I miss the change of seasons in the UK.
The good Lord bless you and yours this Christmas and beyond.
thank you again. Having watched Fr. John Behr’s video, a lot of questions have been answered. I understood what he said on one level, but it was also completely beyond my grasp.
Christ crucified is the key, so to speak of everything; the hermeneutic of God’s self Revelation? It’s no wonder Fr. Stephen stresses the Cross in his writing.
I think now that I am only just beginning the Christian journey. That the Gospel is only now being preached to me; through this blog. Glory to God for all things.
Andrew, my experience is that I am always at the beginning in a sense. There is a newness and wonder each time that makes it seem that way in any case.
Just a reminder of the change of seasons: Today high of 60 degrees F. Sunny. Tomorrow: Snow, ice and low of 6 degrees F. Ahhh, Kansas.
you’re right in what you say. It does appear that we are making progress, but when we get a glimpse of truth, it’s all new and wonderful; ‘I make all things new.’
It’s comfortably cool here at the moment. I live in Plateau State, which high up and cooler than most places here. But when it gets hot, I do miss a bit of northern hemisphere winter. I haven’t seen snow for four years🙂. I especially miss spring and autumn.
“But it is not at first a question of what object or even Person we contemplate but of whether we allow Christian theology to be rooted in gift of revelation rather than in speculation. ”
Timothy Patitsas in ” The Ethics of Beauty”.
Would it be proper, then, to think of Alpha and Omega as Origin and Telos?
Also wondering whether – when we think of eschaton or eschatology – should we pause and think telos and teleology to shift (to the extent we’re able) towards a more eternal frame?
That would be among the thoughts that are appropriate. Note, however, that the Alpha and Omega are one and the same Person. The One through Whom we are created, is the One for Whom we are created.