Fr. Stephen Freeman · January 19, 2011
Many efforts are made to convince modern Christians that they live "in between" Christ's first coming and His second - and that this "in between" period is somehow different and requires new understandings of the gospel. Fr. Stephen refutes this false understanding and describes where it is we now live.
The feast of Christmas has come and gone. The eagerness of children for the day of the presents has now passed and with it some of their anxieties. Far from marking Christmas’ twelve (12) days, as the old English Christmas carol notes, many parts of the culture hurry forward, eager to put Christmas into the past. In my childhood, it was generally held here in the South, that within the surrounding Protestant culture, a Christmas tree had to be removed before New Year’s Day, or the result would be bad luck. This eagerness to be rid of the feast is somewhat comically celebrated in the Elvis Costello and Paddy Moloney song the “St. Stephen’s Day Murders”. Part of the lyrics say:
I knew of two sisters whose name it was Christmas;
And one was named Dawn of course, the other one was named Eve;
I wonder if they grew up hating the season;
Of the good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen.
The feast of St. Stephen in the Western calendar is the day after Christmas. Verses go on and say:
For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry;
‘Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed;
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury;
Are feeding their faces until they explode.
There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias;
Mixed up with that drink made from girders;
And it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath;
And it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them;
In the St Stephen’s Day Murders.
The next great feast, of course, in the Church calendar is Theophany (which of course is now behind us) the celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. For a large portion of modern culture, the feast will pass without notice. Having left Christmas, the world moves back to its comfortable position of “ordinary time.” Indeed, the main feast in our popular culture after Christmas is the feast of Valentine’s Day, which is also the “feast” of chocolate, and of cards sent to those whom you love.
The Christian year in our modern experience is filled with these stretches of so-called “ordinary time,” a time between the feasts. It’s not uncommon to hear theologians and even clergy compare our lives to those of what they call “the Church in waiting.” It is pointed out that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, and, therefore, live in an “in between” period. The conclusion of such sermons is to speak about various strategies of waiting. The Christian life becomes a strategy of waiting. The conclusion of course, also carries an inherent sense of the absence of God: “We’re between His first and second coming. So what are now? What are we now?”
Such conclusions fit well, of course, within a secularized world and appeal to the modern sense of God’s absence. The heart of the secular world is not a belief that there is no God, but rather, the sense that God is somewhere else. Our world is a “no man’s land” in which all things work according to natural laws independent of God. I have previously written and done podcasts about this in articles on the “Two-Story Universe.”
Living “in between” adds a twist to the “Two-Story” experience. It is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy - almost obvious - to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two thousand (2000) years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His Second Coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living “in between?”
St. Gregory Palamas, who wrote in the 14th century, uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the idea of an “in between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross, his homily number 11. He begins with the assertion that the Cross, though manifest in history at Christ’s crucifixion, has always been God’s means of salvation, at all times and places. His example is quite illumining and I’ll read this from his homilies. He says:
Although the man of sin, the son of lawlessness which is spoken of in 2 Thes. 2:3—by which I mean the anti-Christ—has not yet come, the Theologian whom Christ loved, being St. John says, “even now, Beloved, there is anti-Christ” (1 John 2:18). In the same way, St. Gregory Palomas says, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that anti-Christ is among us, even though he has not yet come saying, “his mystery doth already work in you” (2 Thes. 2:7). In exactly the same, way Christ’s Cross was among our foregathers before it came into being because its mystery was working in them.
St. Gregory goes on within his homily to illustrate, generally with typological interpretation, how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and of other righteous friends of God within the Old Testament period. His sense of time recognizes a reality of history even though it is not yet come. But transcends that limitation in recognizing that the mystery “doth already work in you.” And of the Cross, as he says, “it was among our forefathers before it came into being because its mystery was working in them.”
This understanding of time and history places theses categorizes in a subsidiary position. They are not the frozen solid stuff of an empty, empirical work. They are a place in which we live, but also a place that is permeated by things that have not even come into existence. St. Gregory’s treatment of these things is rooted in the classical orthodox understanding of the relationship between earth and heaven—past, present, and future—and the mystery of the kingdom of God at work in this world. His universe is distinctly “one-story” as I call it. This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology, that is the study of the “last things”.
St. John Chrysostom, in his Eucharistic prayer, which many of us hear every Sunday, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ—but in the past tense. Not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history, but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that even the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the marriage feast of the Lamb, the banquet at the end of the ages.
To speak of ourselves as living “in between” is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. This is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied, it’s simply placed beyond our reach, as we are placed beyond its reach. The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea; either an idea that was around at the time of Christ, or an idea that will come at His Second Coming, but between these events, simply an idea.
Living “in between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things. Time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument, and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past, or things that have not yet happened. This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in the Book of Hebrews: “Faith is the substance”—a hypostasis—“of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
The relationship of faith with things hoped for and not seen is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things. In earlier postings on faith and podcasts, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise—more than something we think about or will. It is an actual participation or, as we say in Greek, a koinonia with the object or subject of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them. And so, in Hebrews 11, St. Paul describes the faith of our forefathers in the Old Testament and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echos this very same phenomenon. Indeed, he quotes extensively from this chapter in Hebrews.
By faith we do not live “in between.” By faith we live in a one story universe in which the reality of God’s kingdom may permeate our existence. We are not alone, nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception, a delusion. Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live. It is the great struggle of our times; but without the struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost in between the worlds, trapped within those things that are passing away. But Christ has given us something greater.
St. Paul says: “But now we do not yet see all things put under Him, but we see Jesus…” (Hebrews 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts, but this is the same Christ that is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to abide with us. We do not see Jesus “in between” but rather and the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8, 1:11, 21:6, 22:13). Indeed, He is the feast of feasts. Glory to God.