Orthodox Christianity often seems inherently conservative. The unyielding place that tradition holds within its life seems ready-made for a conservative bulwark against a world all-too-ready to forget everything that is good or beautiful. There are subtle but important distinctions that make this treatment of Orthodoxy misleading and can lead to the distortion of the faith and an almost reverse image of our true salvation. Orthodox Christianity does not seek to preserve something that is now past – it is not a faith bound in history. Rather, it professes that what was once given at a moment in history is nothing other than that which shall be at the end of all things. The faith is thus only rightly lived when it is radically oriented towards that which is to come. The Kingdom of God is never anything other than the end and fulfillment of all things, that for which creation itself came into existence.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)
Understanding the true nature of the “end of things,” or, in theological terms, “eschatology,” is a difficult task at first. It breaks many rules of space and time (yes, Dr. Who fans, it really does), and requires a certain shift in perspective. One example of this shift can be found in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom where the priest prays:
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 priest refers to the Second Coming in the past tense. This does not represent some strange doctrine in which the Second Coming is thought to have already occurred in history. Rather, it is the recognition that the Divine Liturgy stands in a mystical place from which it is correct to describe the Second Coming in that manner. For the Divine Liturgy is truly the “last” supper, the meal at the end of all things.
The Fathers held that the truth is to be identified with the end. Both St. Maximus the Confessor in the East, and St. Ambrose in the West, wrote of a three-fold scheme in which the Old Testament is “shadow,” the New Testament is “icon,” while the “truth” is the age to come. This understanding has several aspects.
First, the truth of anything is found not in the present, but in its telos, its end. A seed is not known until it is a tree. But, most importantly, this realization of the truth is not seen as a gradual progression, a building up towards the truth. Such a scheme would suggest that the truth is “not yet.” The truth, however, is already and now. We can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, draws everything towards itself. Or, we can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, manifests itself in time even now, for those who have the eyes to see.
Our most common way of viewing the world is to privilege history, to presume that the past is immutable and is the cause of all things in the present. That makes us the authors of creation, the makers of the story of the universe. That is very alluring, even though it carries the seeds of anxiety and war. But God has not so constituted creation so as to make it the maker of its own destiny, the master of its own fate.
At the creation, God observes His work and says, “It is very good.” This is not simply an observation of the work He had done, but a proclamation of the very nature of the creation itself. Its nature is revealed in its end. The end calls forth creation, always towards that for which it was created. St. Paul offers this description:
…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)
This verse should also be read along with St. Paul’s statement in Romans 8:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)
This is the “good” or the “very good” according to which all things were created. This same good, however, is hidden. It is in no way obvious to us, except as we see Christ Himself.
Consider the world, ca. 1000 B.C. An utterly obscure people, little more than a collection of tribes, is engaged in a struggle over a piece of land that is almost useless in its fertility and insignificant in its situation and size. Within the same region, however, mighty kingdoms and civilizations are rising and flourishing, producing wealth, power, and innovation. Their monuments will stand for thousands of years. But in this obscure place, a young man will face down a giant in single combat and win. In the scale of the universe, it is almost nothing, without significance. But this is the story of David and Goliath, and this David will become the ancestor of God Incarnate, Who is Himself the “good” of the world.
At this very moment, we cannot judge or measure the “good” within the world, nor can we measure the aggregate of evil. Nothing makes any sense until it is interpreted in the light of the end of all things. David only has significance in hindsight. It is his offspring who “causes” him to have meaning and significance. More than that, we must understand that the “cause” of David’s renown was already drawing all things towards itself. Christ the child was causing the rise of David and establishing his kingdom.
In the same manner, our own lives are being “caused” by the end for which they were created. Again, St. Paul says:
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phi 3:13-14)
We do not build on the past or seek to preserve the past. The foundations of the Kingdom of God are not in this world, nor of this world. They are “unshakeable,” in the words of Scripture. What is called “tradition” by the Church is not a dim historical memory; it is the ever-renewed life of the Spirit that is “once and for all delivered to the saints.” The continuity of the Tradition does not depend on memory. It is the same always and everywhere because it is the once-given reality that has existed from before all time and towards which we are being drawn.
This is a strange perspective for most people and runs counter to the merely human sense of conservatism. It might strike an outside observer as something conservative, but if what is maintained is only preserved in a historical manner, it is not the life nor the truth of the Tradition. There is a requirement that we must empty ourselves at every moment in every way and constantly receive the life that is being given. Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever.” And this is the content of the Tradition. I do not know Him today because I knew Him yesterday. I may only know Him now.
Thank you Father this article is like a beacon!
Father, I am beginning to get the impression Jesus reveals all of Himself to each of us. My heart receives Him, or not, to the extent I am able at that moment. Am I on the right track?
Thank you Father. That was helpful. It is hard in western culture to see things as they truly are in light of Christ’s Kingdom. Praying for eyes to see.
Thanks for finding the words to express this concept. No mean feat but elegant to do it a way we can understand, eloquent yet still fairly simple language. That is great writing
Sounds like right track
I don’t think we can underscore this point enough: Our own lives are being “caused” by the end for which they were created. Do not just read past and let it escape your attention. Stop and let that bad boy sink in.
Thank you Father Stephen
Much to ponder here, not least in regards to when we ponder ‘the meaning’ of our lives. Understanding them as ‘something to be revealed’ in The End certainly gives them a richer more mysterious aspect than the Modern world puts it.
As regards to the Kendrick element to which you point at the end of your post, in my understanding this would be powerfully related to hesychasm, which is self-emptying as I understand it, (or self forgetfulness?) I’d be grateful for your thoughts in this regard
Christ is Risen!
Time, as we know it, is fallen as are all that is created. Thus the modern idea that we “progress” through time and our will determines the outcome.
We can be “progressive” or “conservative”. It makes little difference. Such a view of time is Diest at best. Wholly linear and in modernity it has morphed into blasphemy no matter the emphasis.
He, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity,: the Cross, the Grave and the Glorious Third Day Resurrection, is everywhere present and filling all things, including our hearts and souls.
The way up is the way down. Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. (Mt 4:17)
There were fishermen who rose early in the morning to mend their nets which had snagged on the rocks the day before. But on looking no holes or tears were found. Thinking they will use their time wisely right away the men went out to sea to catch fish. Upon catching many fish they returned and prepared a great banquet for their family and friends. After some hours the Son of a King appeared and greeted all the guests and asked to join in the feast. Because the Son intended to visit the feast the nets were not torn from the day before. So it is with the kingdom of God
A quote from JRR Tolkien seems apposite, my apologies if not
“I am not a ‘democrat,’” Tolkien wrote in 1956, only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power—and then we get and are getting slavery.
I do not know the “Kendrick” element. Can you help?
Eric, great quote from Tolkien
This brings into focus the concept of time in the orthodox tradition. If Orthodox Christians perceive the kingdom of God to be something remote that can only be attained after death, they miss Christ’s message entirely. That is, that the kingdom of god is within us, closer than our own breath, it’s just that we don’t know it. After all, the concept of time and eternity are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true. The Big Bang theory is apostasy. Time is a man made illusion which keeps us from realizing our true self in reality.
Doxa Si O Theos, Doxa Si !
My apologies Fr Stephen
My phone does not recognise kenotic but seems to want to substitute the name of a writer of popular Christian songs. (A name I can’t recall using)
So ‘the kenotic’ element
(There’s probably the seed of an idea for a post there, somewhere)
” for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity”
Came across this passage this morning, and it startlingly reminded me of this essay
I would suggest a milder line of thought as you explore this. Black/white (“time and eternity are mutually exclusive”) are generally not helpful approaches in trying to perceive the depth of truth. It’s also less than helpful to announce apostasies – which is the business of bishops. Relax a bit and give thanks for all things.
“Kenotic” makes much more sense. Imagine what A.I. will do when it has demonstrated such mastery of auto-correct.
There’s a very troubling BBC video talk piece about the current fad for robot (AI) ‘priests’ dispensing ‘blessings’ and ‘absolution’
It is in the Modern Way so ‘open minded’ it’s very deceiving
The only person who speaks sense is a rabbi who notes that robots don’t have souls, but in the way of things that’s just another ‘interesting opinion’
I was in dialogue with one of your fellow Orthodox about technology recently and he was expressing his concern about the damage to our souls from tech in general
We found a point of connection in the recognition that in the Modern World we’re carefully trained out of understanding we might have souls which might be somehow endangered . . .
(And some of the AI ‘dialogue’ I’ve come across is very disturbing in its apparent Liveliness. . .)
Very sorry if I unintentionally ruffled any feathers, but to my understanding the orthodox concept of time is not an abstract matter. Christ’s pronouncement “I am the alfa and omega” invites us to abandon our belief in a beginning and end to existence, but instead focus on Christ’s example of an eternal union with the uncreated essence of God. Again please accept my apologies .
Your Brother in Christ
In doing theology (Orthodox in particular), we should never put ourselves or others into the position of denying the obvious. For example, we cannot speak of time as though there were no such thing. It’s better to speak of such things in terms of “fulfillment.” Whatever it is that time may be (modern science makes it somewhat equivalent of space – or a particular point in space), it is not abolished, but fulfilled. No matter how much, in this life, we focus on eternal union with the uncreated energies of God – we will experience it largely in a timely manner. As the Beginning and the End, Christ gives time meaning and purpose, filling it with Himself.
Chris and Father,
I don’t want to jump into a fray or anything like that, but would like to contribute that I have read that time enables us to repent. It is a learning tool for us. In the Gospels our faith is presented as a journey or “road” (the meaning of the word translated as “way” in “I am the way, the truth, and the life”). And we can read and trace the growth of the disciples in faith and understanding. I recall some interesting passage in reading Gregory of Nyssa for a class in which Gregory traces time to change also (I’m guessing that might have been something contemporary philosophy of that period was concerned with). At any rate, my 2 cents, I hope it’s useful.
“Rather, it professes that what was once given at a moment in history is nothing other than that which shall be at the end of all things.” This reminds me of the liturgical phrase : “As it was in the begining, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” God created the physical universe as a good thing, that partakes of His goodness. We share in God’s goodness which is our life, our existence. This does not change because God “is who He is” and does not change. Often we are badly distracted, so to speak, by other things that we would like to be everlasting; wealth, popularity, pleasure. We wish to feel secure. We take to company or rituals or physical surroundings to help us feel safe, forgetting that our salvation is letting God live in us and not having control ourselves. It’s easy to become a Pharisee and hold to traditions, harder to see Tradition as a sign-post to the Everlasting who transcends the details of any tradition. For instance, is kneeling to partake of the Eucharist wrong? It is not an “Eastern Rite” practice, but does that make it unacceptable? I’m not advocating any changes to Orthodox Liturgy, merely pointing out that being conservative does not mean being narrow minded. The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom helps us to understand that God is near, but no liturgy is God himself. Christ is Risen!