Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

How We Shape God’s Revelation

“God condescends whenever He is not seen as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself by accommodating what He reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.”  (St. John Chrysostom, in Archimandrite Amilianos’s The Way of the Spirit, p. 323-324)

Chrysostom’s observation that God accommodates His revelation to the capacity of the person beholding God is fascinating on so many levels, and really does seem true to what the Scriptures present about God’s manifestations to the world.  It does mean that God takes into account each person readiness for revelation and each person’s personal abilities and adjusts the revelation accordingly so the person can understand what is being revealed to them.  It also means that no two person have the exact same perception of God.  Take for example the Transfiguration – five people besides Jesus are present, and each would be encountering something slightly different about Christ according to their differing personal abilities to comprehend the revelation.   It means that no one person’s experience of God, no matter how true or how capable they are of describing it, ever has a full experience of God.    Certainly in the case of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Tradition as expressed in iconography has each of the apostles differently able to perceive and understand the revelation.  Peter, James and John are understand as experiencing the Transfiguration differently which is shown in the icon by their different responses to the event.

God reveals Himself as love and God reveals His love to us, and each of us experiences it slightly differently based on our own capabilities of receiving the revelation.  God does not require everyone to experience the exact same thing or to understand the revelation in the same way or even to be able to express what one has experienced in the exact same way as others do.   There is a true and unique synergy which occurs between God and each person to whom God reveals Himself.

A good example of this comes from the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples found in Luke 24.  We can consider a few verses as examples.

1] Luke 24:15-16  –    While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Here are two disciples who are personally familiar with Jesus having been discipled by Christ directly as they sojourned with Him.   In this chapter, they are walking with Him and talking to Him and yet they do not recognize Him with their own eyes.  Apparently, not only do different people have different capacities for receiving God’s revelation, but also at different times in life any one person’s lifetime, the ability to understand God changes.  According to Chrysostom, God takes this into account and only reveals what we are capable of receiving, so while our experience of God may be true, it may also be incomplete or just beyond our comprehension.

2] Luke 24:19-26  –    And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The people were able to see the mighty deeds of Jesus and to hear his powerful message, yet they did not fully comprehend either Him or His message.  The disciples admit they thought they understood who Jesus was, but their hopes were dashed.  The crucifixion of Jesus was an unexpected revelation about God which blinded them to the truth of what they were seeing in Christ.  And finally though some of the disciples were moved enough to go look into the claims about the empty tomb and resurrection, they still were not capable themselves of seeing Jesus yet.  They knew Jesus’ own teachings about the resurrection, they had the testimony of the women disciples, they saw the empty tomb, and yet still they were not ready to receive the revelation.   It takes time for them to realize and embrace what God is revealing to them.   God reveals Himself as the disciples are growing in their ability to understand the revelation.  It is a lesson for mission work as well – people may need time to hear the message and to understand it.

3] Luke 24:30-31  –   When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Seeing him with one’s eyes and realizing who He is are two different experiences.  The two disciples are talking with Him and yet their eyes are not opened.  However, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize Him – their eyes are opened and in that moment He disappears!  Seeing with one’s senses is one thing, but it is not the only vision we are capable of.  Another lesson is that as we are more prepared to accept the revelation, we may find ourselves less reliant on proofs and move more into a faith mode, letting go of the “props” that helped us believe and allowing Christ to enter into our hearts.   And we see in the icon that each of the two disciples sees Christ from their own point of view, they are not seeing identical things.  And Christ in these icons hands them a broken piece of bread – each receives a unique piece broken from the whole,  they are not given identical pieces.   They are given according to their ability to receive the gift.

4] Luke 24:33-35  –   And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Lord chooses to whom He will appear.  Not everyone sees Him in the same moment.  God respects those who are ready for the revelation.  Others may simply not be ready, and so God doesn’t appear to them, or He appears to them and they don’t recognize Him.  We see again Chrysostom’s point that God appears in the way and to the degree that the person is able to receive the revelation.  Peter goes to the tomb and is not yet ready to embrace the revelation, but in the right time, the Lord acts and Peter sees the Lord.

5] Luke 24:36-41  –   As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

The Lord chose the moment to reveal Himself at once to all the disciples.  We see their reactions – startled, frightened, doubts, thinking some ghost has appeared to them.  Not all can see as clearly, but Christ proceeds with the revelation as they are able to receive it.  So then, there is disbelief, wonder and joy.  What they experience and understand is changing and growing.  Christ accommodates Himself to the ways in which they are not yet fully prepared to see or believe or understand.    Christ is guided by mercy and empathy for those to whom He reveals Himself, taking into account their weaknesses and accommodating His revelation to them.  There is no need to admire those who understand more nor to despise those who understand less.  God is accommodating His revelation to the needs of each based on His own love for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to God’s revelation as each receives the revelation as they are able.  God entrusts to each person the revelation according to their abilities.  And there is no need for everyone to think exactly alike, because God accommodates His revelation to each.

Truth Relies on Us All

The Lord Jesus said: “‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?'”  (John 14:21-22)

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) offers an answer to the Apostle Judas‘ question as to how it is that God’s manifestation may be seen only by some when “objectively” the event should be visible to everyone.

“…True doctrine conforms to the dispositions of those receiving the word, for although the word presents to all equally what is good and bad, the one who is favorably disposed to what is presented has his understanding enlightened, but the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth….

In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod [Exodus 10:21-29], while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be.

Jesus & Moses at the Transfiguration

According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness. while others are made radiant by the light of virtue.”  (The Life of Moses, p. 69, 72-73)

St Gregory’s answer is based in a clear idea of synergy – God’s revelation, God’s manifestation requires also observers who prepared/open to receive what God reveals.  This idea is reflected in quantum physics where the observer affects the outcome of what is being observed.  God does not even impose His revelation on humanity.  Our inner disposition toward God will determine what we experience of God in our life.  Almost 200 years before Gregory of Nyssa’s writing, St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) offered a very similar idea:

“In respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, no man shall see God and live (Exodus 33:20), for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict.  For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God (Luke 18:27).  For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills.  For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to everyone from the fact of his seeing God.

For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor.  But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.  And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith.  For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him.  It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.”  (ADV. HAERESES 4.20.5)

NASA Photo

And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Does God Speak to Us?

For the monk as well as for any human being, the fundamental question at the core of our existence is not whether or not God exists (in fact, a reasonable case for this can be made on purely natural grounds); the real issue is whether or not God has spoken – indeed, speaks – and if so, what does he say?

If God does communicate, then the most pressing issue in our lives is to learn how to hear and to respond to this. Silence is no less a part of this than speech. As in any language, we have to learn to understand what the silence means.     (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 144-145)  

God Reveals Himself to & through His Chosen People

St. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself  being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  (Ephesians 2:18-22)

Fr. George Florovsky wrote:

“Revelation is preserved in the Church. It was given by God to the Church, not to separate individuals, just as in the Old Testament ‘the words of God’ were entrusted not to individuals but to the People of God. Revelation is given, and is accessible, only in the Church; that is, only through life in the Church, through living and actual belonging to the mystical organism of the Body of Christ. This means that genuine knowledge is only possible in the element of Tradition.” Creation and Redemption, pg. 36) 

The Cross: Window into God’s World

“The cross reveals the way God is by revealing the way God works in the world: through foolishness and weakness, at least as they are normally measured, rather than through wisdom and might, at least as they are normally measured. Christ, Paul says, is ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24), and in context, this can only mean that Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God.

The crucified Messiah ‘became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30). That is, God’s traditional attributes (wisdom, power, justice, holiness, etc.) are revealed on the cross in radically non-traditional ways. This claims means, then, that the cross is a divine revelation – a theophany. In it we see the face of God – the face of sacrificial love, powerful weakness, and wise folly that redeems the world. It is, for Paul and for us, a mystery and a paradox – but it is the heart of the gospel.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pg. 81)

Wishing all a blessed Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.

The Prophet Elijah

July 20 is the day on which in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah.  Many years to all who bear his name – Elijah, Elias.

“Grace begins to operate in people during prayer in different ways, for, as the apostle says, the Spirit distributes Himself as He will in a variety of modes, and is perceived and known correspondingly (Heb. 2:4). Elijah the Tishbite serves here as an example for us (Kings 19:11-12). In some the Spirit appears as a whirlwind of awe, dissolving the mountains of the passions and shattering the rocks of our hardened hearts, so that our worldly self is transpierced and mortified. In others the Spirit appears as an earthquake, that is to say as a sense of inward jubilation or what the fathers more clearly define as a sense of exultation. In others He is manifested inwardly as a fire that is non-material yet real; for what is unreal and imaginary is also non-existent. Finally, in others – particularly in those well advanced in prayer – God produces a gentle and serene flow of light. This is when Christ comes to dwell in the heart, as St. Paul says (Eph 3:17), mystically disclosing Himself through the Holy Spirit. That is why God said to Elijah on Mount Horeb that the Lord was not in this or in that – not in the particular actions He manifests Himself in to beginners – but in the gentle flow of light; for it is in this that He attest the perfection of our prayer. (St. Gregory of Sinai in The Philokalia Volume Four, pgs. 285-286)

The Conversion of St. Paul

“When God summoned Moses to liberate Israel from Egypt, his goal was to establish a covenant people based on the gift of Mosaic law. When Christ commissioned Paul on the Damascus road, he charged him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, calling them to join the one body of Christ, the Church. Divine revelation neither occurs in a vacuum nor is primarily addressed to individuals. God’s word establishes and nurtures community. It is through community that God seeks to fulfill his purposes in history.”  (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology edited by Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, pgs. 24-25)

Greetings to all on the Feast of the Glorious and Triumphant

Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul!   

Jesus Christ the Incarnate God

 “And this is eternal life,

that they may know you,

the only true God,

and Jesus Christ

whom you have sent.”  

(John 17:3)

“The pre-existent son regarded equality with God not as excusing him from the task of (redemptive) suffering and death, but actually as uniquely qualifying him for that vocation…the death of Jesus is understood as the appropriate revelation, in action, of the love of God himself…The real humiliation of the incarnation and the cross is that one who was himself God, and who never during the whole process stopped being God, could embrace such a vocation. The real theological emphasis of the hymn, therefore, is not simply a new view of Jesus. It is a new understanding of God. Against the age-old attempts of human beings to make God in their own (arrogant, self-glorifying) image, Calvary reveals the truth about what it meant to be God. Underneath this is the conclusion, all-important in present christological debate: incarnation and even crucifixion are to be seen as appropriate vehicles for the dynamic self-revelation of God.”  (N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, pgs.83-84)

Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures in the Earliest Christian Communities.  In this Blog Fr. John McGuckin offers a glimpse at how early Christians read the Scriptures – and read them differently from how we read them today.

 “A modern reader, used to interpreting the Bible according to its sequential narrative content, and its historical or ethical significances, is singularly ill-equipped to realize that throughout the vast majority of Christian history this is not how the bible was generally read.  In earlier Christian ages (and the style still applies predominantly to most of the bible as it appears in Church in the form of liturgical poetry) the scripture was read in fragmented pericopes, each one turning around a Type (tupos): namely a figure or symbol or story from the old text that was reworked symbolically in line with the evangelical mystery. 

So, for example, the old story of Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice becomes, by reference to the inherent symbols of the ‘Beloved Son’ carrying ‘the wood’ (the Cross) of his own sacrifice ‘up the hill’ (Calvary), for the establishment of ‘a new covenant’ of grace (the foundation of New Israel) … Type, in this case, means that this reference to the passion-covenant theology is ‘really’ what the Abrahamic story is all about.  Its ‘other meaning’ (what one might call the literal or first-sight meaning, as something to do with the patriarchs and the establishment of the covenant with Israel) was understood as a level of revelation on the surface, meant to be passed through by the enlightened reader (the one who had been given the key to the mystical interpretation through the acceptance of the Gospel story).

Our Father among the Saints: John Chrysostom

The mechanism of this form of interpretation was based upon three central notions common among the Fathers of the Church namely: that (a) all scripture was a single inter-related text telling the same story of the Incarnate Word; (b) that all scripture had superficial levels of meaning that deepened in a mystical significance made visible according to the initiation possessed by the disciple of Christ; and (c) that there were clues within the text, at surface level, that gave signs to the initiate reader who would read the old story (the Old Testament) ‘back from the new,’ not forward as if reading historically.*  Like the ‘type’ of an old machine-press, which was reversed so that its impression on the paper would render the letters in their correct readable alignment, so too the biblical ‘type’ was an enigmatic symbol, or story, hidden in the Old Testament whose ‘real meaning’ became apparent to the careful (initiated) observer only in the light of the Gospel, and only according to the degree of the illumination which the Divine Spirit of God gave to the heart of the faithful reading it ‘In Christ.**’”

[Notes:  *”Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia, described the issue succinctly in his argument that if the scripture is a sacred literature that transcends historicity, being of the eschatological moment, then it cannot be exegeted solely by linear historical methods of interpretation.”

 

The Word of God

**”Reading the text, en christo (1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 1:9) or with the ‘mind of Christ’ phronema Christou, (cf. 1 Cor 2:13-16), it passes from simple textual reading to become a sacrament of divine revelation.  The Church Fathers, then, believed that the Scripture really only became ‘sacred revelation’ when it fulfilled that function in Christ, and through Christ.  His was the presence that sanctified the literature and made it revelatory for the purpose of salvation.  It was in this sense that Origen called the scripture, the ‘sacrament’ of the body of the Logos….”] 

(John McGuckin,  HARP OF GLORY, pp14-15)

 Next: Reading the Scriptures with St. John Cassian