Archive for March 11th, 2008

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

March 11, 2008


There is a wonderful translation of Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s  Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, which bears the same title as this post. I am borrowing the phrase, not to comment on the volume (though I highly recommend it), but to bring into focus something of at least equal importance.

It is the reality of our moment by moment encounter with God. We confess that God is everywhere present and fills all things, but we still largely walk through the world treating all the things that we encounter as just that – things. We carry no sense within us that God is in fact sharing His life with us in and through all things.

This goes to the very heart of living life as though the world were secular, of living life in a “two-storey” universe – the storey in which we live being the one not inhabited by God.

It has been a common observation that when various reformers set about to reform the Church, they declared “all days to be holy days,” and thus rid the calendar of any particular holy day. The unintended result was that before long not only were all days not holy days, no day was a holy day.

In the same way, the decrees concerning the “priesthood of all believers” rather than making every individual a priest, became a meaningless phrase, for without the sacramental priesthood, the phrase lost its reference of meaning. No one had seen or dealt with a priest so to be told that they had some kind of “priesthood” from Christ was meaningless.

The same has been true of the more recent democratizations of the liturgy where the “people” gather around the altar and God is in our midst. Somehow, God becomes lost. All boundary between myself and the holy disappear and I can no longer know the holy.

Strangely, most of these reforms were not misguided. They were rooted in Scriptural truth and embodied a certain amount of truth. But invariably they were reforms that were lost in the “law of unintended consequences.” The general principle triumphed over the particular instance and the result was the abolition of something important.

But God is indeed “everywhere present and filling all things.” One of the clearest examples of this in Scripture is to be found in the resurrected Christ’s encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They conversed and the disciples did not recognized Him. Indeed, their hearts “burned” within them as they walked along and He instructed them in Scripture concerning the Christ. But things became clear – they recognized the risen Lord when He stopped with them for the evening meal. There He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them,” and we are told, “their eyes were opened.” Those four verbs, “take, bless, break, and give,” are always used in Eucharistic encounters in Scripture. They are keys for our understanding. Nonetheless, the Scriptures do not say that there was a “formal” liturgy or even a clearly demarcated sacred meal. Only that Christ was present, and that He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it too them.” And He was made known to them.

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body.

It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith.

God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.”

In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone.

No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8). 

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fr. Schmemann said that there were two “no’s” in his life and one “yes.” “No” to secularism; “No” to religion as a human institution; and “Yes” to the Kingdom of God. I am saying nothing different.

This carries us as well to this great season of Lent. We begin by formally asking forgiveness of each member of the Church. But if such a service were confined to Forgiveness Vespers, then not even all the members of the Church would have participated. But, in truth, it only occurs in Church so that we may be taught our true relationship with everyone and everything around us. Repentance is not a legal state in which we say, “I’m sorry,” so that we can hear, “You’re forgiven.” Repentance is part of the true state of human beings, a small part of the larger humility that is our true natural state of being. God Himself is humble (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). In figurative terms, the Old Testament even speaks of God “repenting Himself.” It is the simple openness of ourselves to others and the truth of their existence, and the true existence of all things as revealed in Christ. Only the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8) and is also true that only the pure in heart see anything as it truly is.

So this brings us to the “sacrament of the present moment.” Everything, everyone, every place, filled with God, becomes a moment of communion and theophany. Thus we pray for the whole world, and finally know the fullness for which God is preparing us.

And lest we forget, forgiveness reaches backwards in time, and thus not even the past is fixed in some secular mode, but is subject to the Spirit of God and may be changed by my forgiveness. As God has promised through His beloved Apostle:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:9-11).

And because the existence of all is underwritten by the Good God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”) we are in no way the lords of our own existence. We do not control history nor its outcome. Acts of murder do not remove the existence of our victims, only increase our own distance from the truth of existence. There is no place to run, to flee, to hide ourselves from the truth which resides in God and it is to this truth that we must finally be reconciled if we are ourselves to stand in the truth at the end of all things. And so to everything that is we announce the goodness of the Kingdom of God and ask forgiveness of everything and everyone and for all time. Less than this would not be the fullness of life. Glory to God for all things.


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