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.