Orthodox as well as Catholic and Protestant scholastic theologies have been greatly distorted when they present eschatology as being concerned exclusively with the end of man and the world, in a perspective that is strictly linear and futuristic – either individual, or cosmic, or universal, but always “far away” and unreal. The gap between this futuristic eschatology of our textbooks, and frequently of our teaching, and the inaugurated or realized eschatology of the New Testament and of the ecclesial and liturgical life is enormous and dramatic. In our day, Fr. Alexander Schmemann has been able to reevaluate the eschatological dimension of worship and of the Eucharist. After him, John Zizioulas has endeavored, in turn, to emphasize the eschatological aspect of the eucharistic gathering of the Lord present in His Church.
To summarize in a few words the meaning of the New Testament and ecclesial eschaton (end), in order to apply it to the liturgical reality, I would translate it at the same time by the term “ultimate,” but also “end” (telos) and lastly, “fullness” (plêrôma). The conjunction, or convergence of these various meanings allows us to give the biblical eschaton its qualitative as well as its linear content. This qualitative sense of fullness and end characterizes the coming of the Savior, His entire work of redemption, and His life-giving presence in the Church. It is to this last aspect, the ecclesial and permanent mode of eschatology, that is, to the presence of the One who comes, that I would like to devote this chapter.
The Ascension of the Savior and the historical Pentecost (Acts 2) are two events that mark a boundary between the evangelical mode of the presence of Christ (manifested in the flesh, 1 Tim 3:16), and the ecclesial mode of this presence. If during the time of His life on earth, the Savior was the favourite, plenary locus of the presence of the Spirit, from then on the Spirit, who animates the ecclesial body of Christ, is, in turn, the locus, the proper space of the presence of Christ, of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.” John Zizioulas recalled forcefully the “constituent” role of the Holy Spirit in the human life of Christ, on the one hand, and, on the other, in His sacramental and ecclesial presence.
…believers find themselves imprisoned in a space, a hermetically closed temporality, according to which the multiple existence of Christ concerns us, certainly, but as if from the outside, because Christ anticipates us, precedes us in history, overarches us in His heavenly glory and lets us wait for Him, without too much impatience, in a second coming that is ultimately very distant, even unreal. Such are the contours not only of our religious psychology, individual or collective, of our ecclesial societies – but such is also the hallmark of our cold, conceptual, scholastic theologies.
All this is, alas, in the “natural” order of things. It is difficult to speak abstractly of the ecclesial presence of Christ, to profess it apart from the fire of the Spirit, just as it is only in the blazing of the eucharistic Pentecost that “boldly and without condemnation we may dare to call upon God the Father, and to say, ‘Our Father.’”
Only in the liturgical action of the Eucharist does the One whose existence seemed far away and abstract, come near, in the liturgical action of the liturgy and in its inner and caritative correlations, that is, in the liturgy of the heart, and in the liturgy of mercy. Only then are the tight, spatial-temporal boundaries of the past, of the celestial and of the future, abolished in the presence of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.”
Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 169, 170-171.