The Fullness of Lent

This article comes to mind as we celebrate the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts on these Lenten Wednesdays and Fridays. There is nothing to compare to them in the Christian liturgical world. It’s hard to think of fasting in the midst of such a feast.

Orthodoxy has a number of “favorite” words – all of which fall outside the bounds of normal speech. Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean – but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church.¬†There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer – a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.

In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.

Words such as fullness and fulfilled are equally important and specialized in the language of the Church, but whose meanings bear little resemblance to popular speech.  Fullness (pleroma), occurs a number of times in the New Testament. It was also a favorite word in the writings of the gnostics. In Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act Рit carries with it something of the Divine itself. It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God. Prior actions and words may have hinted at the fullness, but in the revelation of the fullness all hints will have passed away and been replaced by the fulness itself.

The core understanding of words such as mystery and fullness is the belief that our world has a relationship beyond itself, or beyond what seems obvious. The world is symbol, icon and sacrament. Mystery and fullness reference the reality carried as symbol, icon and sacrament.

Many people read the frequent statement in the gospels: “This was done so that the prophecy of Isaiah (or one of the other prophets) might be fulfilled….” What many people think this means is that the prophet made a prediction and it came true. Biblical prophecy (in a proper Christian understanding) has little to nothing to do with prediction. The prophets do not see the future –¬†they see the fullness. What comes to pass is the fullness breaking into our world such that the prophecy “has been fulfilled.”

This same fulness is referenced in Ephesians:

And¬†He [the Father] put¬†all¬†things¬†under¬†His [Christ’s] feet,¬†and¬†gave¬†Him¬†to¬†be head¬†over¬†all¬†things¬†to¬†the¬†church,¬†which¬†is¬†His¬†body,¬†the fullness¬†of¬†Him¬†who¬†fills¬†all¬†in¬†all (1:22-23).

This description of the Church as the “fullness,” is among the most startling statements in Scripture. The phrase, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is an early version of “God became man so that man might become god” (St. Athanasius, 4th century). God is the one who fills, and we are what is filled (or even the “filling”). At least as striking is a kindred passage in Colossians (the two letters have many similarities):

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:9-10).

The English disguises the wordplay within the verse. We are told that “in Christ dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead (or deity) bodily, and you are the ones who have been made full (pepleromenoi) in Him…” Again, this time Christ is described as the fullness, but we have also been made the fullness (pleroma) in Him. His life is our life, and this life or fullness is precisely that which is important about us.

The idea is not dissimilar to Christ’s statements in St. John’s gospel:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (17:20-23).

In John, Christ has given us “his glory,” just as the Father gave Him glory. Glory is not praise or reputation, but rather something¬†substantial¬†(as I search for words). In Hebrew, glory (Kavod) is precisely something substantial, the¬†weight¬†of something. God’s¬†kavod¬†pushes the priests to the ground at the consecration of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:11). But glory is not simply an¬†effect¬†of God, it is, somehow, God’s presence itself.

Fullness has a relation to glory, in this substantial sense.

… we beheld¬†His¬†glory,¬†the¬†glory¬†as¬†of¬†the¬†only¬†begotten¬†of¬†the¬†Father, full [pleres] of¬†grace¬†and¬†truth….¬†And¬†of¬†His¬†fullness [pleroma] we¬†have¬†all¬†received,¬†and¬†grace¬†for grace (Jn. 1:14 and 16).

The glory of the only begotten is full of grace and truth and it is of this fullness that we have all received.

I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many. Mystery, fullness, glory and the like are largely neglected in many of the doctrinal structures of the West. Where they are not neglected they are stripped of mystical content and morphed into more rational systems.

Within the Orthodox East, the mystical content is allowed to shine forth – particularly within the liturgical life and prayers of the Church (this is also true of the ascetical tradition of the Church). One place where language and reality are deeply united is in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week). The Eucharist is not celebrated on these days, but communion is given from the gifts consecrated on the Sunday previous – thus the “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts.”

It is a very solemn service, with a liturgical “climax” when the Pre-Sanctified Gifts are brought out of the Altar and processed through the congregation in silence. The congregation is prostrate during this procession with faces to the floor. Thus the procession occurs in silence and “invisibly.”

Just before the entrance, the choir sings, “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.” The Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood are indeed the “mystical sacrifice,” the very mystery hidden from the ages made manifest and present in the midst of the Church. This same mystery is also the¬†fullness¬†– its presence is¬†fulfilled.

The Christian life lived within the mystery is a life in which God is hidden, made known, revealed, perceived. It is a life in which the Kingdom of God is breaking forth, not destroying nature but fulfilling it. In the same manner, we are not destroyed by our union with Christ but rather fulfilled. We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.

It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.

The mystical life marks the whole of Orthodox Christianity. It’s doctrines are replete with references to the mystery and speak of matters such as the atonement in a manner that is consistent with the revelation of this mystery. The Conciliar definitions, from first to last, are rooted in this language and presuppose its grammar within every aspect of the life of the Church.

Upborne, fulfilled.

25 comments:

  1. Early in my life in the Church I experienced a type of the fullness in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. During the Silent Entrance I was kneeling with my head down (prostration not possible in pews).
    As the priest came near my row, I became physically unable to lift my head it was as if a great hand was on my neck pushing me to the floor. Along with the hand was the sense of a great vibrancy in the silence. The hand did not lift until the priest was going into the altar through the Holy Doors.

    It is so difficult for me to rely release my distractions during worship particularly as my body ages and pain is a constant companion. I frequently come back to that moment to remind myself where I am.

    I had never before thought of my experience as “the Glory of the Lord”. Now, I wonder if it might not have been.

  2. Fr. Stephen,
    I’ve been studying Orthodoxy for about 5 years. I keep bumping up against what seems like two opposing themes: the gracious Suffering Servant who wants to save everyone, and the hagiography of the church. On the one hand, you have a view of salvation that is so encompassing it requires clarification that universal salvation is NOT the dogma of the church. On the other had you have all this business about deserts, hair shirts, wearing chains, and living on nothing but ”pig weed”.

    I know I’m trying to unlearn 30+ years of Reformed doctrine. This takes awhile.

    I feel like the key to understanding how these two work together is in this article you’ve written. Pray for me; I’ll be reading it several more times.

    But, I must add, there seems to be a lot of Orthodox material out there on the internet that is not so gracious. If I did not read your writing on a regular basis, I think I would be in a state of despair.

    Jeff

  3. Father,
    I too, like Jeff, rely on your teaching. As a cradle Orthodox with immigrant parents, Orthodoxy was all rules, morality and not doing anything to anger God. But it was not just my parents, but their community too, more systemic. Hard to overcome. Grateful for your teaching.

  4. Jeff,
    What you portrayed makes a lot of sense to me, even if I have little such personal experience. I believe that the word ‘mystery’ applies to it ‚Äď as in: something that requires a gradual “initiation into” (which happens to be the original Greek understanding of that word).

  5. Jeff, “internet orthodoxy” tends to be less about Orthodoxy and more about “internet” (as a community of debaters, to say it kindly…). It is good, I think, to avoid it.

  6. Jeff,
    I understand what you are saying. I am grateful that my own encounter with Orthodoxy was prior to the internet (in any practical sense). It would not have been made easier – only harder.

    For what it’s worth, my purpose in maintaining this blog, writing, posting, commenting, answering questions and such, was to maintain a place that was generally “safe” (both in content and in how people are treated). My “rules of the blog” which are referenced on the sidebar, were written to both remind readers of what is expected of us, but also to remind myself.

    What I can say is that what you encounter here is genuine Orthodoxy – or the attempt to share with others what has seemed truly genuine and best within the Orthodox faith.

    I have said (and written) a number of times that we should “never mistake our neurosis for God.” When I encounter a very bellicose Orthodoxy, or a sort of “smash and grab” version of the faith, I know that what I am seeing is simply something about the writer – not about the faith. Everything that is genuine in the Orthodox faith can be tested by placing it at the feet of the Crucified Christ. If it doesn’t belong there, then it should just be left alone.

    We live in a very sick world, and our own sicknesses (politics, philosophy, character disorders, fears, etc.) easily find ways to sneak into our speech about God. I pray God keeps some safe and healthy places for us all.

  7. I’m going to Georgia in less than 2 months. What Georgian church is in the picture with this article? Just curious. Thanks!

  8. Jeff, whatever sins I suffer from I seem to find in The Church and my local community. That has not changed in the 35 years I have been in the Church. BUT, I also find the healing I need as well. It is often quite difficult.

    I have to remind myself that my local community is crucial to my wholeness even when it seems terribly mundane, even boring or worse.

    No matter what parish you go to it will not be like the Internet. But, it will be a place (often) where one can work out one’s salvation in fear and trembling but never really alone.
    .

  9. Thank you, Fr. Stephen,
    I find it frustrating that Western Protestants and Eastern Orthodox use similar words (and often identical words) the meanings are far apart.

    Your articles and this article in particular, identify why the frustration exists. I find that when I am with my Protestant friends, I say less, and pray more for them and God’s mercy for all of us.

    Thank you for reminding us that we know and live a reality beyond the logic of the mind. I think we call it revelation.

  10. While reading about the fullness I kept thinking of the term “self-emptying”, as in Christ is the fullness, but becoming man was a self-emptying in humility. My logical self keeps telling me that one isn’t the fullness if one is emptying oneself. I hesitate to ask this because the answer might be complicated but this seeming opposition has always bothered me.

  11. A very timely cogent and comforting treatise here as well as many of the comments also bear witness as to my brief walk now on the path of Orthodoxy and as I at here on my back I the hospital/ rehab for 6 months after a debilitating stroke ,yet ‚Äú revealing‚ÄĚmore than ever expected. Gracias Fathet and comments bringing understanding and ‚Äúfullness. So many similar experiences as M Baumsn and others now make more sense and brining comfort in a dark personal and ‚Äúglobal time of suffering and tension so hateful to all of you who share these experiences and insights !!! Please ray for my wife Rose during this difficult time of uncertainty‚Äôs and fears. Thank you Father for plumbing the depths here for us! Glory to God!

  12. Ook,
    The mystery of “fullness in emptiness” is captured in Christ’s saying, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it, while he who loses his life for my sake will save it.” I think the simple way of understanding it comes in love. Love is self-emptying, yet nothing creates fullness more than love. We are emptied of self, and filled with God, only to discover that the true self is “hid with Christ in God.” As we give, we receive, and we always receive far, far more than we give.

  13. Father Stephen,

    I’m a frequent reader of this blog, but I’ve only commented once before, a while back. Like many others, my soul has profited greatly from your words and from others’ comments. Thank you all for sharing.

    “It’s hard to think of fasting in the midst of such a feast”. It took me a few moments to work out what I suppose you meant by that statement but I’ll try to describe what it means to me. Last night, during the Liturgy of the Presanctified gifts, I was struck repeatedly, as always, by the exquisite beauty of the service, but what was new for me this time was the stark realization of how very privileged I was to be actively partaking in such a “sumptuous feast” (beautiful icons, beautiful music, beautiful Psalms, beautiful Body and Blood of Christ) while, at the same time, physically fasting! I’m sure most everyone else who’s been Orthodox for almost 8 years (like moi) has experienced that revelation much earlier than I did , so call me a slow learner! I’ve participated in the Divine Liturgy and the services of Lent (choir member) regularly over the years, but last night, it really hit me how much God is constantly offering me (the fullness of Himself!) compared to the crumbs of gratefulness, devotion, etc. that I deign to offer Him in return.

    During the service, the idea of being empty, yet filled with God’s gifts kept going through my head and I was reminded over and over how I struggled yesterday to fast for just a few hours before the service last night, feeling grumpy and deprived for much of that time, yet I was feeling a vague sense of anticipation that I had never experienced before a Presanctified Liturgy. Could it have been the Holy Spirit speaking encouragement to me to stay the course? Fasting is hard-it always reveals to me how weak my flesh is! For years, as Lent would draw nigh, I dreaded the fast (largely because of all the extra cooking and meal planning involved-not everyone in the household was fasting). This year, I’m not exactly excited to be fasting again (just being honest) but I’m grateful to God for that timely revelation last evening that impressed upon me that if I will, in humility, empty myself (with all that entails), God will provide me with the sumptuous feast of the fullness of Christ, Himself! Such Amazing Grace! In the words of a well-loved blogger, “Glory to God”!

  14. Dennis,

    May God hold Rose and you close and have compassion and mercy on you both! Heal well, my friend!

  15. Byron, thanks for your response and prayers. Need a few miraculous healings and clear direction here!!!! So much to learn !!!
    Thank you Fr Freeman and your helpful and encouraging insights into this whole “new “ perspective and SANE LIFE

    adios DennisMūüôŹūüôŹūüôŹ

  16. Jeff, Fr. Freeman,

    Fullness relates to a teleology as does mystery and glory – for us, not for God. And again, as always, I find myself thinking how (since you mentioned trying to unlearn Reformed Protestantism, myself a devout Calvinist for many years) a soteriology built on Original Sin means when you are “saved” your teleology is complete in the Reformed sense, all except final glorification – that is the only mystery left in this life. When death and Satan are put back as the causes with us for human depravity, with the belief that Adam/man was meant for this fullness and did not have it even in Eden – he failed to get to fullness through deception and cooperation with Satan – he and Eve were very good, not perfected: they had a teleology yet to fulfill with God – then our salvation initially is reentrance into the Edenic vision, that man be fulfilled, that man fulfill his destiny in union with God. The imagination for the Christian life is ruined Biblically and otherwise with a view of man where he, following salvation (where the whole thing collapses into one event, monergistic regeneration, initial salvation isn’t final salvation) is now perfected via imputation/Penal Substitution instantly. We are exorcised, united to Christ, given the gift of the Holy Spirit, every means of Grace – so that, fullness may be realized through faith/faithfulness/loyalty. But if Adam and we bear Original Sin, once we are saved, we are now full/complete/etc. Imaginatively again, this creates a real dissonance with our experience and with the Bible and Orthodoxy, as every admonition and example in the NT or the OT demonstrates the value of persevering to get to destiny, not destiny is now. There’s no skipping the desert. The Sabbath rest exists (Hebrews 3-4) and it’s real but we have not entered it yet as we reside in the desert. Once we realize the theme of Exodus/Pascha, it’s more evident the meaning of the NT. The Calendar shows this mind I believe, that when we celebrate the Nativity or the Annunciation, or whichever – these are all salvific moments that culminate at Pascha. 1 Cor 15 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you‚ÄĒunless you believed in vain. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 45 Thus it is written, ‚ÄúThe first man Adam became a living being‚ÄĚ; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality (what Paul refers to as mystery), then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

    ‚ÄúDeath is swallowed up in victory.‚ÄĚ
    55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?‚ÄĚ

    58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

  17. So when we say “Glory be to God” it is much more than praise to God . It is the weight of His Fullness as it may be manifest in our lives and the lives of others changing the way in which we see our world. ?
    Matthew: What powerful scripture. Read it over in the Orthodox study bible. on verse 56 “the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” The footnote reads “we are born mortal; then we become sinful. Thus does death “sting” us before we die. Being a Christian is more than having one’s sins forgiven or being good; it is being alive.”
    Being alive. Becoming alive as we work in faith to empty ourselves and be filled with Christ. To become vessels though which God’s glory may be revealed. I think I want this more than anything, if tears have a say. But feel so far removed. So emptiness, fullness, being alive, the Glory of God! Reflecting on these things.

  18. Dear Suzanne,

    You asked about the Church in this picture. The Church is the Anchiskhati Basilica in Tbilisi. As far as I know, this is the oldest remaining church in the city. Several other churches that were built at this time (roughly about 14 centuries ago) were all destroyed.

    Best regards,

    David (parishioner from Georgia)

  19. Thank you David. I will make sure to visit the basilica on my trip. Looking forward to being in your beautiful country!

    Suzanne (Ioanna)

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