Lately when listening to that old 1960s anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan, I couldn’t help but think of (believe it or not) Eusebius of Caesarea. In particular I thought that this was exactly the sort of song he was singing in his writings and panegyrics about Constantine.
Eusebius was a great fan of his emperor, and something of a herald for the new age which was then dawning. He lived at exactly the time when one age was passing and another age was emerging, and Emperor Constantine was the hinge linking those two very different epochs. (Not that Christianity became anything like a State Church under Constantine. That development—with all its advantages and distinct disadvantages—would have to wait a while, and should be more accurately linked with the name of Justinian than Constantine.)
Before Constantine, Christian assembly was officially proscribed and punishable by law, and Christians were often well-advised to keep their public heads down as much as possible. After Constantine’s accession as sole emperor, Christian assembly became not only legal, but favoured, and the emperor did his best to bless the Church with both status and funds, letting it be known that he regarded Christian teachings as true. (For more about the ever-controversial St. Constantine, see The Christianity of Constantine the Great by T.G. Elliott.) Eusebius was in on the ground floor of this revolution, and exulted in the Church’s new-found status, seeing in it the hand of God. And while it is a stretch to suggest that the important prelate of Caesarea was a fourth century version of the free-wheelin’ Bob Dylan, Eusebius was prophetically clear that “the loser now will be later to win”.
For the young-uns unfamiliar with the Dylan anthem, a verse or two is here provided. Like a firebrand prophet, Dylan said to his generation these words: “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’”. The final verse also celebrated the coming social revolution: “The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. The slow one now will later be fast, as the present now will later be past. The order is rapidly fadin’. And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.”
Eusebius in his day was sure that pagans intent upon condemning Christians would soon be drenched to the bone, and would indeed soon sink if they didn’t start swimming with the rising Constantinian tide. The slow Christians would soon be fast, and the important powerful pagans, formerly first in line, would soon be last. With the coming of Constantine, the times certainly were a-changin’.
And, as is abundantly evident, they are changin’ again. Like Eusebius who lived through a time of revolutionary upheaval, we also are living in such a tumultuous time. Christian Faith is once again becoming—at least in the West—an object of disdain and contemptuous disapproval. Christian dogmas are openly mocked, Christian morality derided and discarded, and the entire cultural edifice constructed upon the Christian Faith is under attack. I sometimes wonder if that whirring sound in the distance I sometimes hear late at night isn’t the sound of Eusebius spinning in his grave. We are witnessing, I believe, the slow implosion of western civilization. It is occurring slowly enough and unevenly enough that some people may still dispute that it is happening. It is true, as they say, that the mills of God grind slowly. But they grind exceeding small. I’m afraid that the times are indeed a-changin’.
Not, I might add, that society is returning to an earlier paganism. It is worse than that. Pagans of the early fourth century might have said that Jesus of Nazareth was a man and no more, but they would’ve said the same thing about Bruce Jenner. They might have been quite tolerant of homosexuality, but they at least could distinguish male from female. We have reached a point—at least here in Canada—where the government census includes space for options other than “Male” or “Female” when they inquire about gender, and where people not obviously stoned seriously talk about there being 63 genders. This is unprecedented in human history. The old order is rapidly fadin’, and people unwilling to swim in these new waters may well find that they will sink like a stone, socially speaking.
What does this mean for us Orthodox? For one thing, it means that the catechumenate must now assume its original importance.
In the early days when Christians lived in a pagan world, the task of the Church was to conform its new converts to a radically-different world-view and life-style, one which was the polar opposite of those around them. What the world regarded as noble piety, we regarded as demonic idolatry; what the world regarded as morally unobjectionable, we regarded as abominably sinful. Entry into the catechumenate involved a radical renunciation of societal norms and entry into a new moral universe.
Those pre-Constantinian days are fast returning, and new converts (as well as old church members) must face up to the fact that the old order traditional in almost every culture in history is rapidly fading. St. Paul regarded Christians as neither Jew nor Gentile, but as something different—a third race whose true home was no longer on this earth. It is imperative that we recover this eschatological orientation, and the catechumenate is the instrument of recovery and formation. Come gather ’round, people. It’s time to start swimming again.