“Final” is not a word you often hear in Christian teaching. Most Christians leave the final things until, well, the End. But this is not the language of the fathers nor of the Church. A good illustration can be found in the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism. During the blessing of the waters the priest prays:
And grant to [this water] the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities; the final destruction of demons, unassailable by hostile powers, filled with angelic might. Let those who would ensnare Your creature flee far from it. For we have called upon Your Name, O Lord, and it is wonderful, and glorious, and awesome even to adversaries.
What can it possibly mean to ask that the waters be made “the final destruction of demons”?
The nature of the waters of Baptism reveals the Orthodox understanding of the world. These waters, now in a font, are none other than the waters of the Jordan. They are an incorruptible fountain and all the things we ask for. They are the final destruction of demons because they are nothing other than Christ’s Pascha. The waters of the font are Christ’s death on the Cross and His destruction of Hades. They are the resurrection of the dead.
For this reason St. Paul can say:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The realism of St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism is mystical realism (to coin a phrase). These waters become those waters. This event becomes that event. This time is now that time. Christ’s death now becomes my death. Christ’s resurrection now becomes my resurrection.
How utterly and uselessly weak is the thought that Baptism is merely an obedience to a command given by Christ! The idea that nothing happens in Baptism is both contrary to Scripture and a denial of the very nature of our salvation.
The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe.
The reality of in the Incarnate God was not obvious to those around Him: no surgery would have revealed His Godhood. The proclamation of the Gospel, from its most primitive beginnings (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), announces the in-breaking of a mystical reality. Many modern theologians misunderstand Christ’s (and St. John the Baptist’s) preaching on the Kingdom to refer to an imminent end of the age. They hear, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to mean, “the End of the world is near.” Thus we have protestant theologians creating an “interim ethic” to cover Christian activity in the “in-between” period – between Christ’s first coming and His second. If the coming of the incarnate God into the world did not fundamentally alter something, then the preaching of Jesus was in vain and radically misunderstood by His disciples.
The Gospels presume and proclaim at every turn that in Christ, the Kingdom of God is present. Christ says, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11:20). There is a mystery at work in the presence of the Kingdom. Christ makes statements such as that just quoted, but also frequently says that the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom is a reality and a presence that has both come near us, and come upon us. But in neither case does it simply refer to a later “someday.” The urgency of the proclamation of the Kingdom is not caused by the soon approach of an expected apocalypse. Its preaching is urgent because its coming has already begun!
The sacraments of the Church (indeed the Church itself) should never be reduced to “holy moments” or “instances of miracles” in the life of an otherwise spiritually inert world. If bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then the Kingdom of God has come upon us! And nothing less.
The sacramental life of the Church is not an aspect of the Church’s life – it is a manifestation of the whole life of the Church. It is, indeed, the very character and nature of the Church’s life. The Church does not have sacraments – the Church is a sacrament. We do not eat sacraments or just participate in the sacraments – we are sacraments. The sacraments reveal the true character of our life in Christ. This is why St. Paul can say:
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me, etc. (Galatians 2:20)
I am…nevertheless I…yet not I…but Christ…. This is the language of the mystical reality birthed into the world in the Incarnation of Christ. Thus we can say: This is the Body of Christ…nevertheless you see bread…but it is not bread…but Christ’s Body sacrificed for you. This is the Hades of Christ’s death and the Paradise of His resurrection…nevertheless it is the water of Baptism…but it is not water…but Christ’s death and resurrection into which you are baptized.
And so we see the whole world – for the “whole world is sacrament” – in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew. We struggle with language to find a way to say “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is.” This is always the difficulty in expressing the mystery. It is difficult, not because it is less than real, but because of the character and nature of its reality. Modern Christian thought and language that simply dismiss the mystery and postpone its coming, or deny the character of its reality, change the most essential elements of the Christian faith and inadvertently create a new religion.
But we have been taught something different. We have been given the Final Destruction of Demons, the Mystical Supper, the Kingdom of God. Why should we look for something less?
Thank you Father. We think we know, but we are children playing with realities beyond our grasp…
¨Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. ¨
Oh, Father! What a great gift your coining has giving me! “Mystical realism” is exactly, specifically, truly the Christian fullness of the echo I find in literary “magical realism” (one of my favorite ways of narrative, since it at least admits to the unseen threaded through the universe of the seen).
For the first time in my Orthodox life I participated in the Theophany Royal Hours yesterday, and I have been trying and trying to lay my mind on a name for that cross-section I found myself in. I’m awash in it (so to speak). We blessed water in a service later yesterday as well. All I could think on the way home was “the metaphor is real.” But the word “metaphor” doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the image fusing into the material, encompassing the material, bursting into the material as its ultimate reality.
Mystical Realism. That’s it. That’s it, exactly. Thank you so much!
Blessed feast of Theophany, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for this encouraging perspective! Why should we look for something less? We all feel like we are missing something…indeed we are, because we do not see that we’ve settled for so much less than He’s already bestowed. Praying we can all truly live in the reality of the Kingdom Come.
Mystical Realism. What a wonderful phrase. “As many have been Baptized into Christ have put of Christ!”
That is the beginning of an ontological change that does not stop. The Light and person of Christ are in each one doing the reconstruction work. The other Sacraments support the work. The Holy Eucharist are the building supplies; Confession is all the construction waste and old trash from the site. Ordination brings in new supervisors and suppliers.
The metaphor goes on and we each have our own version. Mt 4:17, well that is the main method of repair and construction….
May the Light of Christ come upon us, leading us into repentance and transformation at the hands of the Master Builder.
The Demons are experts at exiting our passions and fears giving them a reality in our minds they actually lack. The only real substance they have is our passions.
They cannot stand laughter, joy, humility, repentance. or caring for other folks. Being peaceable with others — anything good.
Like others, I like your coined phrase, “mystical realism”. It seems an antidote to the artificiality of our Society and the unrealistic enchantment of the many fantasy worlds of Disney characters and avatars.
Perpetua, as you say, it is more than a metaphor. With the blessing of the waters we re-enact Christ’s baptism, or rather the act and the reenactment are mystically one and the same. The priest dips the crucifix in the water, blows on the water as if the Spirit, and speaks. In the same way, through the Eucharist we participate in Christ’s eternal sacrifice, occurring simultaneously on the Cross, and in heaven, and on our altars. It is more than metaphor, it is spiritual reality.
Thank you. God Himself is Real, the “only truly existing One,” in the words of St. Basil. What the Church describes as “mystical” (and it is, indeed, a venerable Orthodox word. St. Paul makes reference to the “mystery hidden from before the ages.” “Mystical Theology” (the title of one of Dionysius’ works) is simply the contemplation and knowing of the mystery that has been made know to us in Christ.
We moderns like “facts” and assume that factual knowledge is the only true knowledge. What we really mean is that factual knowledge is a key to power – the power to manage and manipulate things according to our own devices and desires. This is an echo of the false use of the Tree of Knowledge – to be like a god. It is the kind of knowledge used by the evil one to lure us away from God.
Mystical knowledge (the knowledge of the mystery hidden from before the ages now revealed in Christ) does not come as “facts” exactly. Even when we know the “facts” of that revelation – if we only know them as “fact” – they become tools by which we seek to manipulate and control. That becomes a form of spiritual abuse.
In mystical knowledge – knowledge of the true mystery – we have to become the knowledge itself. It changes us. It abides in us. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in my and I in them.” It is “real” because God is Real. When we are united in that mystery, then we ourselves become partakers of Reality. We become real.
For the 16 years that I’ve been writing the blog, one of my quiet, abiding efforts, has been to point towards that mystery as reality. For example, in reading the Scriptures, using the means and methods given to us in the Tradition (such as the use of types that have been handed down), I have argued that it is not a matter of learning a literary technique – it is a “discerning” of the mystery – learning to actually see something that is really and truly there, even when hidden beneath the letter.
That same mystery is hidden within every blade of grass and every stone. It is hidden in the heart of every human being (though they don’t know it). Part of priestly ministry is to help others to learn and know that mystery within themselves.
The word “mystery” has been abused and misused, poorly defined, borne accusations and such. But it’s actually the Church’s word (drawn from Scripture and used by the Fathers). I have combined it with “realism” because if you just say “mystical” everybody assumes that you mean “not real.” I’m saying that Reality is known in the mystery.
This is actually so obvious in the Divine Liturgy that I can only wonder that everyone does not see it.
“Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim.” We really represent the Cherubim. We ourselves walk into the Holy of Holies. We ourselves eat the mystical supper. We eat and drink the only true and living God. He abides in us and we in Him. “…I believe also that this is truly Thine own pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood…. Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant;”
It’s all quite real. God doesn’t deal in fantasy. He doesn’t need to.
As an aside – the reason Tolkien and Lewis’ fantasies work, is because they reflect, in some manner, the true and the real. It’s what we actually enjoy about them. They help “tease” that desire which lies within us. We want to enter the door to Narnia. But Christ alone is the Door.
The purpose of most religion is to sanctify something or someone “holy”, “enter the beyond” so that the adherents can become a part of the ” other”. Allow the adherents to become more.
The Modern Project has none of that. The Modern Project is intent on the reduction of everything particularly being human. Not just the reduction of humanity but the elimination of the us, the only part of creation that is in the image and likeness of God.
The image within us not a fantasy, a philosophical precept, but REAL.
Terrifyingly real for most of us. A few we recognize who know the reality we call saints. The outward display of the Church: festivals, good works, celebration of the Sacraments (no other religion is as open in the celebration and worship of our God. All the while we fast and pray in private in deep communion with our God, a transforming communion that no other faith has ever had. It is the Grace of that Communion, inside us, the Union with our Savior (not just in theory but ontological reality) that becomes the Final Destruction of Demons and they scream in terror still trying to seduce us, confuse us and defile us as they writhe in fear and pain.
Sacramental Christianity allows us to participate, protect by Grace, the activity of the saints and the protection and assistance of the Holy Angels.
Just a quick comment about Tolkien….
In the discussion about how God turns evil to good (Joseph/the Bolsheviks), I kept thinking of the cosmology of the Silmarillion, which is represented as a great heavenly symphony. Melkor (the Satanic figure) keeps trying to expand his part and thus disrupts the intended music. Illuvatar (the Creator), however, incorporates the discordant notes in a beautiful, if somewhat mournful, way. After three(?) failures by Melkor to twist the music for his own ego, Illuvatar stops and finally says:
“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”
Christ in his baptism sees heaven opened
So much ‘Modern’ Christianity shuts the door
Eric, just like the Pharisees and keepers of the Temple upbraided by Jesus in Matthew 23:13.
Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life.’ Way, Truth, and Life are not a manner of speaking or poetic sentiment or manner of acting-like, or performance. They are statements of ontology. Statements of genuinely-realized hypostatic existence. This is true of the hypostatic existence that will be realized for all Creation through the revelation of the hypostatic existence of the Children of God: “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
The punch line is that ultimately the truth of creation is revealed through the revelation of the truth of the Sons of God. Creation is not ontologically changed. The ontology of creation is revealed. In a similar vein “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him.”
If the “final destruction of demons” occurs at baptism, why do we still need confession? Fr. Hopko has said that we will be “tempted until the last day of our lives”.
Baptism (like all the sacraments) is not just a moment in history – such that when it happens you never have a problems with demons again. That would suggest that Baptism is merely a historical moment. Instead, Baptism, and all the sacraments, are the revelation, in time, of an eternal event. When all is said and done, our Baptism will have been the final destruction of demons, and we will see that it has been so. But, in time, we live out that final destruction in the daily battle that is our cooperation with the saving work of God.
Dear Fr Stephen,
Our Parish’s class on lives of Saints was just learning about St Gregory Palamas, in an excerpt of Fr John Meyendorfs book about him. Fr John also used the same term of Mystical Realism to describe St Gregory’s battles with Barlam in defense of the hesycasts. I’d take that to mean there’s some reality to the term since it seems to make sense to us. Your writing on this topic is a welcomed help in “making sense” of this stuff. Sometimes I struggle to live in the reality of Church and world as sacramental, when I feel like I only see bread and wine.
Excellent post, I appreciate it.
The “Repent for”, “Repent because”, is the prior motion/precursor/necessary requirement for living according to/in the Kingdom the Son brings.
This would be obvious if people knew what a gospel was, the announcement of the change in regime/laws/way of life because a King had conquered. One King, one law: love, one faith, one hope, and the entry is the destruction of motivating principle at work in you: the former illegitimate impostor ruler, and the death he brought into the world by the deceit of Man and Woman. This is why baptism and exorcism and Chrismation go together. The reason to repent is that the reality has already broken in on you; fight it or find freedom in it. Something has already happened, so, you do this: repent. The Kingdom is love, of the Beloved Son’s, so to repent is to take on a new Love.
That’s the interesting part, most of the imperatives to repentance come before the Resurrection/Ascension, etc. The King has returned, is setting up His Church/those called into living under His Rule/Reign, and all this takes place before it is revealed that He will be vindicated/will win. That’s really interesting to me. I’m going to think on this for a while. At first glance, we are in a similar boat. The King has come, is calling us to union, to love, and yet we have not yet seen the finale yet.
The Apostles and Jews and other, who witnessed Christ’s coming, were supposed to have recognized it, should not have fought it. They were supposed to be glad, and you get all these wedding feast analogies: glad occasions. Instead, they turn tragic. The situation turns into Judgement. I won’t elaborate on what that means, but it is obvious Biblically there was a severe consequence for the refusal to attend the wedding. It was their wedding in essence, and they were run-away brides. We’re on the other side of that, yet we act as if we need additional convincing to attend the wedding/liturgy/worship since we have a car to go inspect, a house to sell, a game to attend, and we run the risk of being run-away brides.
31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
And John 16:
8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
It seems like the pattern is, and I could be quite wrong,
The world that is judged, is the world of unbelief contemporary to Jesus that should have repented since the Kingdom was at hand, and obvious.
Christ is vindicated, as He is with the Father, and that “world” will not be vindicated. He was right, not them.
Christ is vindicated also, in that, Satan will be cast out, and those who are willing adoptees of Satan, will also be cast out.
And the same warnings, apply to us. They are not just about Israel, but all who choose to be run-aways.
Re the following:
“I’m saying that Reality is known in the mystery.”
The funny thing is (and what most people don’t seem to understand) is that “reality” itself is deeply mysterious, shockingly mysterious . . . the broad culture still seems to think that we live in a clockwork universe . . . but it seems to this (non-scientific) layperson that, as our powers of observation have been refined over the past hundred and twenty years or so, we have learned that there are profound mysteries at the heart of physics, biology, psychology, and a host of other disciplines.
Why then, shouldn’t there be a profound mystery (or set of mysteries) at the heart of our contemplation of the divine? (There seems to be a very Protestant tendency to want to sweep out the cobwebs, square all the circles, and purge mystery from any discourse about God . . . a product of modernity perhaps?)
My own experience after 36 years of being Baptized and communing is that the demons never rest. But, if I am watchful in prayer and repentance especially Confession, they tend to back off pretty fast. Some that I took into my flesh a long time ago can be more trouble, but even then not as bad as they used to be.
God is with us. https://youtu.be/Ffp0FrCsbb8
When I contemplate the truth of the sacraments it seems that all things are in there. In the sacraments dwells the fullness of all things as they truly are in Christ. When we partake of the sacraments we are partaking of all things, not as they appear to be, but as Christ knows them to be within himself. For clarity, the sacraments reveal communion with Christ. To be in communion with Christ is to be in communion with all things as Christ knows them to be in himself. Therefore, in time, it will be revealed that baptism is the final destruction of the demons, that is to say the powers that warp appearances and work to hide the ontological truth of existence. Baptism is the beginning of movement from illusion and appearances to the ontological truth of all things as they are in Christ. When the revelation of the fullness of all things is realized in the saints then all creation will be set free from illusion and enjoy the freedom (or ontological truth of its existence) as the children of God.