The Kingdom of God – One-Storey in Time

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)

And similarly:

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!

20 comments:

  1. I vividly remember a pertinent explanation of the ressurected Christ’s sudden disapearnace from the eyes of the two disciples on the way to Emaus after the breaking of the bread.
    The explanation was that, Christ’s ‘dissapearnace’ was but His proclamation to the hearts of the disciples of His Omnipresence. He would not be in one specific fraction of space and time anymore, so, what looked as a vanishing from that particular space and time, was but the assurance to His disciples that He is everywhere and fillest all things.
    And the betrothal [the ‘pre-taste’] of the eternal marraiage of the Lamb is tantamount to the opening of the scriptures He had spoken of.
    I think it was the previous abbot of Iviron monastery (Vassileios) that spoke this but my memory does not serve me as well as it once did!

  2. Father, have you ever read Tom’s Midnight Garden, a children’s book by Philippa Pearce? She makes brilliant use of the phrase ‘Time No Longer’ and I think you would enjoy the story, about a modern boy who finds himself slipping into the past when a clock chimes oddly. It’s very much ‘on theme’ with what you’re saying here. It has a profound ‘eucatastrophic’ climax, and never fails to give me ‘mystical goosebumps’. 🙂

  3. I believe Fr. John Behr in his introduction to the Origen’s On First Principles says something like after our sojourn here on earth ends in death we become by grace “uncreated” without beginning or end. Then we will be were we always have been forever.

    Although we do not “pre-exist” in some sense we do “exist” in eternity without beginning or end in the “mind of God”.

    Do I understand this very paradoxical “grammar” correctly?

  4. Greg,
    It’s certainly Origen’s grammar. But, on a more approved, Orthodox note: St. Maximus the Confessor teaches very authoritatively that theosis (divinization) means that the created (by nature) becomes uncreated (by grace). To be uncreated would entail an existence that is eternal, and much else. These are certainly profound mysteries.

  5. A friend and I were making fumbling attempts to discuss or, rather, analyze this topic just the other day. It’s like you were listening in and decided to help us. Thank you!!!

  6. Greg
    One of the striking mystical “sensations” – described by Saint Sophrony – accompanying the visitation of God’s grace in uncreated Light upon him, was the sense that he became eternal “both ways”, not just without end, but also without beginning.

  7. Love this conception of time…..it totally resonates though if somebody asked me to explain it I don’t know that I could (except through story).

    “ 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.”

    ….I know a lot of very nice intelligent people who like to talk thoughtfully abs analytically about things that are going on in the world. It is very interesting and sometimes helpful….but it also seems like these conversations become inevitably pessimistic, to the point I want to drop the whole conversation and say: “How can you even get out of bed in the morning if you have so little hope!” Of course we all do have to get out of bed and do the things to stay alive so then I wonder: What is the point of having the conversations and trying to reach any kind of understanding ? Your words (and those you quote) are encouraging because they offer a way out of that existential pointlessness/hopelessness.

  8. Síochána,
    If our hope were only of this world, then we would be right to despair. But we rise each morning and stand in the resurrected life of Christ. The gospel is utterly filled with hope.

  9. My mother was the first person to introduce me to non-linear time. In her younger years she was a part of the “Modern” Dance movement which paradoxically had a foundation in ancient Greek thought. Particularly the Golden Spiral. My mother translated that into her approach to history and the fundamental interconnection of all life throughout time. Never linear.

    In college, my favorite history professor gave a definition of history: “The creation of a past that allows for a future into which comes the ever emerging now”

    Faulkner’s novel ” The Sound and the Fury” focuses on the inadequacy and danger of linear time and hints on the transformation of time the redemption of humanity through the Grace of the Holy Spirit filling all things.

    As I continued my study of history and was moved, gradually, toward Christ and His Church, the idea of linearity as a wholly inadequate, especially in theology, became more obvious.
    So too did the wholly incorporeal approaches which are too numerous to mention.

    Protestant theology, particularly Calvin, has always seemed too linear to be true. Its fruit not palatable. Ultimately secular.

    The reality of time, space and life revealed in the Orthodox spiritual practice, theology and worship fills in the missing pieces and allows for a conscious participation in the paradox of sanctified time.

    It is a great antidote to the insane unreality of earthly political machination and evil — when I allow it to be.

    Thanks be to God.

  10. Dear Father,
    It is through your writings that I began to have a grasp of this important concept of time (fluidity, bendability) to help explain the perception of the Resurrection I had of the Higgs Field. When I use the word “perception” we (emphasis-including myself) are drawn to think that what I saw evolved from my imagination rather than what actually exists (described as an ‘objective’ reality). It took a few weeks to accept that I saw something ‘real’. Then began a rather long hunt to “explain the reality” (this is the way I expressed it to myself). Quantum physics only goes so far for such an explanation. I knew it wasn’t sufficient and hunted for any theological discussion that brought me closer to a better way to express what I had seen. Even more, to express how it was that I could even ‘see’ it.

    Physical Chemistry is a discipline that is structured to ‘scale-up’ from our atomic reality. I had spent many years, decades actually, being prepared within that discipline, to see what has always been and always will be. Nevertheless, while it prepared me to see, in the face of the reality, there are no words. Just tears, awe, love, wonder. As the saying goes, “as each one can endure”.

  11. Oh, and one other important influence on my understanding of time and history: Henry Adams essay: “The Law of Phase as Applied to History”.

    Each of these influences have taken on deeper meaning because of my life in the Church and Her exposition of God’s Revelation.

  12. BTW, the Lord prepares all of us to see. This is the lesson in John 9:1-7. We are all “sent”. And some of us take courage and go to the “pool”. While some of us need to take a little more time. For me it was about 60 years. Nevertheless, in hindsight and paradoxily, He was always with me and in all things. I just didn’t see Him. I was blinded from birth, inculcated into a culture that would not have Him.

    This entire world, all that exists is a testimony and icon of Jesus’ love and sacrifice. Although for most of us, this is a difficult understanding. How is war such a testimony, someone might say. Christ’s disciples had a similar question about the blind man, “who sinned–his parents?” Christ’s answer suggests the out of time reality: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him.”

    So it is all things are brought into a new reality through Christ. The works of God are manifest and demonstrate His transformative power in this world. And I believe this is partly why, after the blind man was healed, many who knew him had difficulty recognizing him.

  13. Dee,
    When St. Paul wrote to the Galatians that he “groaned” until “Christ be formed in you,” that he was longing for a kind of “stability” in the Kingdom of God that informs and shapes perception and discernment. We are Baptized into the Kingdom – and yet, it has to grow in us. When we write or speak about an Orthodox “phronema” or “mind” – I think it is this perception that we (should) have in mind.

    It grows over time – as it is nurtured through the Orthodox life. I like your use of the blind man story. It’s quite apt.

  14. So many conversations amongst Christians seem to be couched in a linear perception of time – one which to a certain extent is the product of Western Culture. When I try and help folk withe these matters I tend to use the illustration that the Eternal is above. We look forwards – to a future we cannot possibly know – or back – to a past which is irrecoverable . . . this creates the walls of ‘death’ in our experience. In a sense, unknown in both directions, but God, Above has made himself Known. Just look up! Or Behold and Adore

  15. This post very much reminds me of the the parable of the leaven: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” The leaven is hidden (mysteriously present), filling or permeating the whole thing, and creating a change throughout until the dough becomes a loaf.

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