Eschatology


I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) . Here is what Saint Macrina has to say about it – dense, and in need of unpacking, and no doubt open to accusations of Platonism, and asking for a fuller discussion of patristic anthropology, but nevertheless offering a more hopeful but nevertheless realistic view of the last things than some some things I’ve come across recently. (And, for those who haven’t seen it, Father Stephen Freeman’s post on The Geography of Heaven and Hell is worth reading on this topic).

…the Gospel signifies by means of [the fire and the gulf and the other features in the picture] certain doctrines with regard to our question of the soul. For when the patriarch first says to the Rich Man, “Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things,” and in the same way speaks of the Poor Man, that he, namely, has done his duty in bearing his share of life’s evil things, and then, after that, adds with regard to the gulf that it is a barrier between them, he evidently by such expressions intimates a very important truth; and, to my thinking, it is as follows. Once man’s life had but one character; and by that I mean that it was to be found only in the category of the good and had no contact with evil. The first of God’s commandments attests the truth of this; that, namely, which gave to man unstinted enjoyment of all the blessings of Paradise, forbidding only that which was a mixture of good and evil and so composed of contraries, but making death the penalty for transgressing in that particular. But man, acting freely by a voluntary impulse, deserted the lot that was unmixed with evil, and drew upon himself that which was a mixture of contraries. Yet Divine Providence did not leave that recklessness of ours without a corrective. Death indeed, as the fixed penalty for breaking the law, necessarily fell upon its transgressors; but God divided the life of man into two parts, namely, this present life, and that “out of the body” hereafter; and He placed on the first a limit of the briefest possible time, while He prolonged the other into eternity; and in His love for man He gave him his choice, to have the one or the other of those things, good or evil, I mean, in which of the two parts he liked: either in this short and transitory life, or in those endless ages, whose limit is infinity. Now these expressions “good” and “evil” are equivocal; they are used in two senses, one relating to mind and the other to sense; some classify as good whatever is pleasant to feeling: others are confident that only that which is perceptible by intelligence is good and deserves that name. Those, then, whose reasoning powers have never been exercised and who have never had a glimpse of the better way soon use up on gluttony in this fleshly life the dividend of good which their constitution can claim, and they reserve none of it for the after life; but those who by a discreet and sober-minded calculation economize the powers of living are afflicted by things painful to sense here, but they reserve their good for the succeeding life, and so their happier lot is lengthened out to last as long as that eternal life. This, in my opinion, is the “gulf”; which is not made by the parting of the earth, but by those decisions in this life which result in a separation into opposite characters. The man who has once chosen pleasure in this life, and has not cured his inconsiderateness by repentance, places the land of the good beyond his own reach; for he has dug against himself the yawning impassable abyss of a necessity that nothing can break through. This is the reason, I think, that the name of Abraham’s bosom is given to that good situation of the soul in which Scripture makes the athlete of endurance repose. For it is related of this patriarch first, of all up to that time born, that he exchanged the enjoyment of the present for the hope of the future; he was stripped of all the surroundings in which his life at first was passed, and resided amongst foreigners, and thus purchased by present annoyance future blessedness. As then figuratively we call a particular circuit of the ocean a “bosom,” so does Scripture seem to me to express the idea of those measureless blessings above by the word “bosom,” meaning a place into which all virtuous voyagers of this life are, when they have put in from hence, brought to anchor in the waveless harbour of that gulf of blessings. Meanwhile the denial of these blessings which they witness becomes in the others a flame, which burns the soul and causes the craving for the refreshment of one drop out of that ocean of blessings wherein the saints are affluent; which nevertheless they do not get. If, too, you consider the “tongue,” and the “eye,” and the “finger,” and the other names of bodily organs, which occur in the conversation between those disembodied souls, you will be persuaded that this conjecture of ours about them chimes in with the opinion we have already stated about the soul. Look closely into the meaning of those words. For as the concourse of atoms forms the substance of the entire body, so it is reasonable to think that the same cause operates to complete the substance of each member of the body. If, then, the soul is present with the atoms of the body when they are again mingled with the universe, it will not only be cognizant of the entire mass which once came together to form the whole body, and will be present with it, but, besides that, will not fail to know the particular materials of each one of the members, so as to remember by what divisions amongst the atoms our limbs were completely formed. There is, then, nothing improbable in supposing that what is present in the complete mass is present also in each division of the mass. If one, then, thinks of those atoms in which each detail of the body potentially inheres, and surmises that Scripture means a “finger” and a “tongue” and an “eye” and the rest as existing, after dissolution, only in the sphere of the soul, one will not miss the probable truth. Moreover, if each detail carries the mind away from a material acceptation of the story, surely the “hell” which we have just been speaking of cannot reasonably be thought a place so named; rather we are there told by Scripture about a certain unseen and immaterial situation in which the soul resides. In this story of the Rich and the Poor Man we are taught another doctrine also, which is intimately connected with our former discoveries. The story makes the sensual pleasure-loving man, when he sees that his own case is one that admits of no escape, evince forethought for his relations on earth; and when Abraham tells him that the life of those still in the flesh is not unprovided with a guidance, for they may find it at hand, if they will, in the Law and the Prophets, he still continues entreating that JustPatriarch, and asks that a sudden and convincing message, brought by some one risen from the dead, may be sent to them.

[What then, Gregory asked, is the doctrine here?]

Why, seeing that Lazarus’ soul is with his present blessings and turns round to look at nothing that he has left, while the rich man is still attached, with a cement as it were, even after death, to the life of feeling, which he does not divest himself of even when he has ceased to live, still keeping as he does flesh and blood in his thoughts (for in his entreaty that his kindred may be exempted from his sufferings he plainly shows that he is not freed yet from fleshly feeling),—in such details of the story I think our Lord teaches us this; that those still living in the flesh must as much as ever they can separate and free themselves in a way from its attachments by virtuous conduct, in order that after death they may not need a second death to cleanse them from the remnants that are owing to this cementof the flesh, and, when once the bonds are loosed from around the soul, her soaringup to the Good may be swift and unimpeded, with no anguish of the body to distract her. For if any one becomes wholly and thoroughly carnal in thought, such an one, with every motion and energy of the soul absorbed in fleshly desires, is not parted from such attachments, even in the disembodied state; just as those who have lingered long in noisome places do not part with the unpleasantness contracted by that lengthened stay, even when they pass into a sweet atmosphere.

Quoted by Saint Gregory of Nyssa in On the Soul and the Resurrection.

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.