Among the stranger phrases found in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy is this:
It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away [past tense], You raised us up again [past tense], and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven [past tense], and had endowed us [past tense] with Your kingdom which is to come [future tense].
It is not unlike this passage:
Remembering [present tense] this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross [past tense], the Tomb [past tense], the Resurrection on the third day [past tense], the Ascension into heaven [past tense], the Sitting at the right hand [past tense], and the Second and glorious Coming [future tense].
And this in St. Paul:
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 translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13-14)
How is it that we are seated with Christ in the heavens (already)? How is it that we have already been “brought up to heaven”? How is it that we may speak of the Second and glorious Coming in the past tense? How is it that we have already been translated into the kingdom of God?
The richest expression among these strange time-games is St. John’s statement that we have been endowed with something that “is to come.” Already, in the past, we have been given something that is not yet.
These statements, both those in St. Paul and those in Chrysostom, obey the rules of Orthodox eschatology, the Orthodox understanding of the Kingdom of God, something which forces us to consistently break the time-rules of human speech and speak the grammar of heaven itself.
The first and foremost example of this is applied to Christ Himself. St. John the Theologian describes Christ as the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” This is not a statement that says that Christ was at the beginning and that He will be at the end. Rather, it says that He Himself is the beginning and that He Himself is the end. Nor is He now one and then the other. He is both always and at all moments. Christ Himself gives expression to this when He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He does not say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” Those are the rules of human grammar, subject to our conception of linear time. Rather, Christ is. He is the Great I Am. “Was” is not a verb that actually suits Him.
The phrase, “Your kingdom which is to come,” is perhaps a good place to begin when thinking through these things. The phrase describes the absolute character of the Kingdom of God: it is “which-is-to-come.” No matter when it is made manifest, whether in our past or present, it is always a manifestation of “that-which-is-to-come.” Every Divine Liturgy is served at the “end of the world,” precisely because it is the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” the “meal at the end of the age.” It is the meaning of the invocation, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” that is heard in the celebration of every sacrament of the Church. The sacraments are always the “end of the world” breaking into our moment in time.
The resurrection of Christ is, of all things, the most singular such moment. If you will, the “historical” Jesus is placed in the tomb as a dead body. That’s history. What comes out of the tomb is something more – “history” is now more than history. The resurrected body of Christ transcends space and time. It does not need to obey the rules that govern atoms and such. He is seen, and yet not recognized. Then He is recognized. He appears behind closed doors (He didn’t need to knock). He may be touched and handled. He eats fish. He appears and then He vanishes. He drops in and out across 40 days, but never for long. He appears outside of those 40 days, even in our present days.
Among the silliest things I’ve ever heard is a denial of the “real presence” in the Eucharist because Jesus is seated in the heavens, and can’t be everywhere. “This is my body,” is true everywhere it is spoken and rightly celebrated.
As is Christ, so is His Kingdom.
We must say, therefore, that the Kingdom of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” But, at the same time, when we say the Kingdom of God is everywhere present and filling all things, we are also confessing that “that which is to come” is everywhere present and filling all things.
When the Orthodox Church is described as having a “mystical” theology (accurately, I might add), it is partly due to the fact that the grammar of our teaching includes such time-shattering confessions and our recognition that what we see now is also more than we see now. This more than says that the world has been changed, is being changed, and will be fully revealed as changed when all things are made manifest.
Every miracle in this age is a manifestation of the age to come (which is already everywhere present and filling all things). Fr. Alexander Schmemann said that in the sacraments, we do not make things to be something they are not, but reveal them to be what they truly are. But the “truly are” must be understood as that-which-is-to-come.
What we do not see in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (and in the greater works of the Church Fathers) is a description of the work of the Holy Spirit described in terms of linear history. Linear history has a set of grammar rules (in which the future cannot be spoken of as past) that have been exploded by the resurrection of Christ. The reality that we describe in terms of linear space and time is itself something that, according to the Scriptures, has been made “subject to futility.” Some might say that it is “fallen,” though I reserve that phrase to describe human beings. Creation was made “subject to futility” by God Himself for our sakes. Creation is not “fallen” in that it had no choice in the matter. Linear time is, therefore, itself something that will be redeemed. It is not the arena itself – for the Kingdom-which-is-to-come could not be truly contained in a linear manner. We hear in Revelation from one of the angels:
“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:” (10:5-6)
Wherever the Kingdom is made present for us, “time is no longer.” And so we have the strange rules of speech found in St. John Chrysostom and elsewhere.
The Scriptures describe our present experience of the Holy Spirit (the Kingdom) as a “downpayment” or “earnest money.” It is a tangible taste of the thing itself, a pledge that the fullness will be received in time. This strange presence colors the daily existence of Christians. Those who question the teachings of Christ (such as the impracticality of forgiving one’s enemies), are speaking the grammar of time. They confess themselves to be subject to space and time and burdened by its rules. In this age, for example, it would appear that true power is found in money. Christ consistently urges His followers to give their money away, to radically forgive debts, to live, in fact, as though the Kingdom of God had already come (because it has). Such timeless living is a witness in time of the Timeless One who has made His abode within us.
Glory to God who has given us the Spirit and seated us with Him in the heavenly places!