To See the Heavenly Country

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

On the Orthodox Calendar, the two Sundays before the feast of the Nativity are set aside for the commemoration of the “forefathers.” The first of these Sundays remembers the righteous ones of the Old Testament, the second, the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh. The Eastern Church differs from the West in its treatment of the saints of the Old Testament. They are given feast days, Churches are dedicated to them. In every way they are given honor equal to that of the New Testament saints.

It seems to me that there is something of a “historical temptation” for those of us in the modern world. For the modern mind is largely responsible for the creation of history. Not that stories of the past have not always been told. But the temptation of history is the temptation to value the past only as historical artifact. Things of the past are seen as having value only for what they have caused in the present – or worse – as having value only if you are interested in that sort of thing.

America was one of the first truly modern nations. The story of its founding is the story of the triumph of ideas. America is a decision and not an inheritance or an ethnicity. History is a very tenuous thing in America. The knowledge of the young about the past is often non-existent. As a modern nation, America looks to the present and believes that it can create the future (or one of our controlling myths certainly believes this). An increasing number of modern nations are coming to see the world in this same modern way. Europe is daily re-inventing itself with little view to its past. The temptation of history is becoming ubiquitous.

I describe history as a temptation, for history does not properly have a place within the Christian faith. That may seem a strange statement coming from an Orthodox priest. No Church is more firmly grounded in Tradition than the Orthodox. But to be grounded in Tradition is not the same thing as being grounded in history (as Moderns think of history). Tradition is not the tyranny of the past over the present: Tradition is the adherence to the same eternal reality throughout all time.

That eternal reality for Christians (and for all creation) is the end of things – Christ the coming Lord. Our faith proclaims that He who was born of the Virgin is also the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). It is this same Christ unto whom all things are being gathered together into one (Ephesians 1:10). It is this End of history that is the meaning of all history – the meaning of all things.

It is also this Christ (the End of all things) that is the focus and center of the faithful through the ages. The Letter to the Hebrews, quoted at the beginning of this post, makes clear that it is this vision of Christ that grants the single purpose of all the righteous (including the Old Testament righteous cited by St. Paul).

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The homeland they seek is none other than Christ Himself. And it is this same seeking that unites the people of God through all time in one single Tradition. The seeking of Christ is the Tradition of the Church (or so it can be said).

The temptation of history is to reverse Tradition as though it were a seeking of the past. But what unites us with the historical past is the same faith, the same purpose, the same vision, the same Lord. If the saints who have come before us directed their gaze to Christ, then it is to Christ that our own gaze should be fixed.

The preaching of the Kingdom of God is not a proclamation of the past, but the proclamation of Him “who was, and is, and is to come.” The same Christ who died and rose again is the same Christ who is coming. It is the same Christ who is given to us in the mysteries of the Church.

It is a theological irony that modernity, whose self-definition was an opposition to Tradition, is itself the creator of a history devoid of a future. Modernity denies Christ as the End of all things, and in so doing relegates itself to a place in history, but not to a place at the End.

For the faithful, we should desire a better, a heavenly country. And so God will not be ashamed to be called our God. He has already prepared such a city for us.

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18 Responses to “To See the Heavenly Country”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The icon is of the holy forefathers. It pictures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, seated with the souls of the righteous seated in their laps and standing behind them. It is an icon which points to Matthew 8:11 “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Thus it is an icon not of the past, but of the past seated in the kingdom which is to come.

  2. Nancy Says:

    Well, there you go again.πŸ™‚ Thanks for this post, Father.

  3. David Dickens Says:

    Strange that when someone stands on the rock and cries out, that rock that was invisible to the eye a moment ago becomes landmark so clear as to make us wonder why it is not on every map.

  4. Laura Says:

    Thank you, Father.

  5. Steve Says:

    In other words, the hypostasis of Tradition is the Person of God revealed in Jesus Christ. God has evidently done nothing without Him, hence He is the Rock. So much for dogmas…

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Ah, but Steve, as Fr. Georges Florovsky said so well, “Dogma is a verbal icon of Christ.” In Orthodoxy, all is Christ.

  7. Micah-Seraphim Says:

    Hi Fater Steven,
    I really love your blog. It always seems to pertain to something I’m dealing with. Some icons portray saints in the midst of their sufferings, the martyrs of Sebaste, for instance. I wonder why they are not portrayed in their Heavenly blessed state? I know that the Age to Come is beyond the ability of human mind to concieve, though. Should we just chalk it up to being one of those mysteries?

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Micah-Seraphim,
    Sometimes it depends on the time when an icon was painted (some centuries and area held more strictly to the rules governing iconography). And even some which portray suffering (the Crucifixion is a good example) are nevertheless eschatological in their depiction. The Cross shows Christ in death, but not in agony. Generally icons do not portray subjects in agony, even if their suffering is shown. In that sense, their suffering is part of their glory.

  9. Steve Says:

    Indeed Father, that was my next point.πŸ™‚

  10. Dana Ames Says:

    My heart leaped and my eyes opened wide when I heard one of the chanters “call the roll” of all the holy women recorded in scripture. It was supremely meaningful for me.

    Dana

  11. Barbara Says:

    Dana Ames,

    Did this happen at the feast of the Forefathers? I haven’t come across this practice in my three years of orthodoxy.

  12. LisaElizabeth Says:

    Thank you Father. History/ the past should be a part of our consciousness; living and not a dead thing to be regarded with curiosity.

  13. Dana Ames Says:

    Barbara,
    it was this past Sunday. I was not more than three people away from said chanter. I’ve been looking for the text high and low on the Internet, and if I can’t find it by this Sunday I’m going to ask the choir director to point me at it in the book… (He’s out of town and I live an hour away from church.)

    Dana

  14. Barbara Says:

    Thank you, Dana. I’d be interested in knowing if this was a common practice or something decided/added by your diocese. Fr. Stephen, do you have any knowledge of this?

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Barbara,
    I’m not sure. I would have to know what the reader was chanting (what service). There are a number of options that come to mind. A reading from the synaxarion might have all the names and this is read in a number of churches. But I’d need more information. The wealth of material available for use in the Church is far more than is ever used, thus you can hear things in one place but not another according to local usage. We have a collection of 2000 years of liturgical material (with no reformation or similar winnowing revolutions).

  16. Steve Says:

    “Modernity denies Christ as the End of all things, and in so doing relegates itself to a place in history, but not to a place at the End.”

    If modernity cannot comprehend the true meaning of Pascha, it is because it’s icons have no meaning beyond the here and now.

  17. Dana Ames Says:

    Barbara, if you’re still there,
    the text in question was from the Canon for the Sunday of the Forefathers, ode IX:

    “By Thy might, O Lord, Thou didst of old make Thy daughters powers: Hannah and Judith, Deborah and Hulda, Jael and Esther, Sara and Miriam the sister of Moses, Rachel and Rebecca, and Ruth the exceeding wise.”

    Our choir director told me he chose that ode specifically for the troparia of the Beatitudes so that the women’s names could be heard in a way not often heard in the liturgy.

    Dana

  18. Barbara Says:

    Thank you, Dana. I am very grateful.

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