By Fr. Stephen Freeman, March 13, 2018
C.S. Lewis once discussed the question of how angels (and such things) could pass through a wall. His response was intriguing: he suggested that they could do so not because they were less substantial, but because they were more substantial. Just as a rock is more substantial than water or air, so, he posited, an angel (or such) is more substantial than our materiality. Of course, this is completely arguable and unprovable. But it is a useful image for thinking about another aspect of reality, that which the Church describes as “mystery.” Our tendency in thinking about anything we do not see in an obvious manner is to assume that it is either fictional or notional, that is, nothing more than an idea. This accounts for contemporary treatments of the sacraments as “memorials” and the like. Anything we cannot “touch” is just an idea.
To a certain extent, this treatment includes not only sacraments, but God Himself. The “God of our understanding,” easily becomes nothing more than an understanding. The radical claim of the Orthodox faith (and of classical Christianity in general) is that the “mystery” of the Kingdom of God is the very ground and meaning of what is “real,” while that which we see and touch is ephemeral and contingent, lacking in any ultimate reality.
…for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)
There is a kind of “sacramentality” that describes many contemporary Christians who practice what outwardly appears to be classical Christianity. The forms are preserved, but the mind that accompanies them has embraced the less-than-real attitudes towards what lies beneath the surface. Our culture is permeated with “sentimentality,” the idea that what I feel (or think) about something is what matters. The things about which we think or feel only matter in that they are the occasion for our thinking and feeling. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is, however, utterly contrary to this approach.
Christ proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is not some “later” event for which we still wait. It was inaugurated in His own coming: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Neither was Christ announcing a process, the beginning of a project which He was delegating to His Church. The mystery of the Kingdom of God is not the work of human beings, nor part of a historical process. The Kingdom of God is whole and complete and always has been (and it cannot be otherwise).
This is utterly essential in understanding the proclamation of the gospel as well as its place in our lives (or, rather, our lives’ place within it). The Kingdom of God is hidden and revealed – it comes by revelation, by manifestation, by in-breaking, by uncovering. It was hidden from the beginning, and always existed from the beginning in its fullness. It is important to understand – the Spirit of God is only ever in fullness. We are “filled” with the Holy Spirit. He is “everywhere present and filling all things.” Fullness is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom. If we see something of it in part, it is not because the Kingdom is in part, but only that the fullness has not been made manifest.
This is important, for it speaks to the very position of our standing with regard to the Kingdom and the fundamental orientation of our Christian existence. Modernity has taught us to think in terms of process, evolution, and temporality. We imagine ourselves as creators and initiators. Too many (even among the Orthodox) imagine our “cooperation” (synergy) with God to be a mutual contribution to a common product. But the “product” of the spiritual life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit itself. We can contribute nothing to that end.
Theosis (divinization) is the stated end and purpose of the Christian life. This is, according to St. Maximus, becoming “uncreated by grace.” There is nothing that the created can do to make itself uncreated. This is solely a work of God. When we speak of “cooperation,” we properly are describing our acceptance of a completed work, not an addition to something unfinished. Misunderstanding this has contributed to a growing Pelagianism within contemporary thought.
The sacraments point unmistakably to the completed reality of the mystery of the Kingdom. A typical prayer in the Baptismal service says:
O Lord, through holy Baptism, You have given to Your servant remission of sins, and have bestowed upon him (her) a life of regeneration. Likewise, the same Lord and Master, ever graciously illumine his (her) heart with the light of Your countenance. Maintain the shield of his (her) faith unassailed by the enemy. Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.
In the same manner, the Divine Liturgy is filled with references to a completed work, often stating things that we think of as future as though they were past:
It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.
This is a very strange grammatical construction. “We have been brought up to heaven [past] and endowed [past] us with the kingdom which is to come [future].” This is the “eschatological” nature of the faith. That which is to come has come into the world and made us already what we shall be.
The fundamental orientation in such a life is towards our salvation as gift. God gives, we receive. It is why our life should be primarily marked by thanksgiving, always and for all things.
There are subtle distortions that take us away from this manner of life. It is common for us to conceive of God as giving us grace (help) so that we can do this thing or that and become this thing or that. And the emphasis becomes our own doing, with God reduced to an auxiliary position. It is a path of anxiety, failure, and despair.
The Pharisees were champions of this approach and excelled in exercising themselves in everything they thought of as good. At the same time, they became angry that tax-collectors and harlots were freely given even more than they themselves had accomplished. In the end, they sought to destroy the Giver of gifts.
This understanding of the Kingdom of God as mystery, as the fully completed end of all things and yet presently entering our life and our world, is absent from contemporary Christian thought. It has been lost and replaced with historicized chronologies that exalt historical process over Christian eschatology. Indeed, “eschatology” itself has been changed to mean “things that happen at the end of time” (often complete with Darbyite nonsense). The Kingdom of God has been moved off-planet and has become synonymous with a “heaven” that exists somewhere else, and, at best, will come here only at the end of time. This is not the Christian faith as revealed by Christ and preached by the Apostles.
The mystery of the Kingdom of God is real and true – indeed, it is the ground of reality and truth. We are plunged into it in Baptism and eat and drink it in the Eucharist. The whole of the Christian life is properly shaped by its presence. Our salvation is nothing other than its manifestation and revealing within us.
I think of St. Paul’s words:
Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. (Col. 4:2-3)
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2018/03/13/mystery-as-reality/.