Do We Live In Between?

The time between the Ascension of Christ and the Day of Pentecost marked something of an “in-between” period for Christ’s disciples. They had been instructed at the time of the Ascension to remain in Jerusalem and wait “for the promise.” Ten days later the promise was fulfilled and the Holy Spirit filled the fledgling Church with the Holy Spirit. It has been a fairly common treatment by preachers of the gospel to compare our own times to those of 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 conclusion also carries an inherent sense of the absence of God.

Such conclusions fit well in 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 about this in articles on the “two-storey universe.”

Living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey 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 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 (14th Century) uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the “in-between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross (Homily XI). 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:

Although the man of the sin, the son of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3), by which I mean the Antichrist, has not yet come, the theologian whom Christ loved says, “Even now, beloved, there is antichrist” (cf. 1 John2:18). In the same way, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors, even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that Antichrist is among us, even though he has not yet come, saying, “His mystery doth already work in you” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). In exactly the same way Christ’s Cross was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them. (Quotation from The Homilies).

St. Gregory goes on within this homily to illustrate (generally with typological interpretation) how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and other righteous “friends of God” within the Old Testament period.

His sense of time recognizes a reality of history, “even though he has not yet come,” but transcends that limitation in recognizing that “his mystery doth already work in you.” And of the Cross “[it] was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them.” This understanding of time and history places these categories in a subsidiary position – they are not the frozen, solid stuff of an empty, empirical world. 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 relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ 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 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 Age.”

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. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to 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 Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (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, it was noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (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 (Old Testament) and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echoes 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-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom may permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that dogs 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 this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.

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22 Responses to “Do We Live In Between?”

  1. AlyssaSophia Says:

    Oh, my brain. Good stuff to think about (and more), but a very hard lesson for my modern secular mind, apparently.

    When is your book hitting the streets?

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  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Alyssa,
    They have not worked out the production schedule yet. The manuscript is with the editor. I await news.

  4. Mary Says:

    my thoughts too

  5. Seraphim Says:

    I too look forward to the release of your book Fr. Stephen. Many years!

  6. carl Says:

    “By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom may permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that dogs our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.”

    Father, what should our expectations be of experiencing (or sensing or having the evidence of) the one-storey presence of God with us. Many of us feel so dry spiritually, even when we are faithful to pray, fast, confess and attend Church. We really want to “feel” and know that the Holy Spirit is with us but never seem to….

    The NT seems to say that we can KNOW that we have the Spirit. How do we KNOW?

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Carl,
    Yes, I believe that we can know this – St. Seraphim of Sarov was quite adamant on the point. I think such knowledge is a slow (usually) acquisition. The habits of our lives are often quite secular, despite our Orthodox disciplines. Much more thought and care need to be given to this aspect of our lives. Most especially, slowly gaining proficiency in prayer, and learning to descend with the mind into the heart, are key. Fr. Meletios’ Webber’s small book, Bread and Water, Wine and Oil, is quite good, and less technical than many others.

    I have spent a bit of time in the past year with a hierarch of the Church whose background is as a monastic. I’ve seen him in many situations, and noticed a very calm, still place within him that does not seem to vary (or very rarely), regardless of the situation. It surely comes from his life with the prayer.

    This is a great transformation (as described in Romans 12:1) and is thus the goal of a lifetime in Christ. It is good to know where you are going, or else you’ll never get there.

  8. Jeremiah Says:

    This answers my other question in more detail. Thank You.

  9. Darlene Says:

    “We are not alone nor need we be alienated.”

    Thank you, Father Stephen. I needed to hear this today.

  10. Jane Says:

    In this connection (the presence among us of “the things to come”), I find the teaching about the icons and the altar very helpful:
    the icon on the left side of the iconostas is the First Coming of Christ (His Incarnation), the icon on the right side is his Second Coming (Christ Enthroned), and between these two, we have our life in Him and with him, in the Eucharistic Banquet, in and through the Holy Spirit.

    Thank you Father Stephen for putting this so clearly.

  11. Greg Says:

    What a wonderful essay. You describe my childhood experience of protestantism perfectly: we learned something about the past, anxiety about the future, and 2000 years of dead religion to be avoided. One of the things that struck me about the Orthodox Faith was that it was alive – it lived and breathed the life of God, actively and in time.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Greg,
    Yes, this is very true. But we must daily struggle to live it in such a way. The great temptation (particularly for those of us with secularized backgrounds) is to transform Orthodoxy into another brand of secularized Christianity. The struggle takes place within the heart, for it is there we will find the living paradise that is the hidden treasure of the Orthodox faith. Pray for me. I want to be able to say this again and again to everyone and anyone.

  13. Prudence True Says:

    I believe a living Faith comes from within after years of attention to the presence of God in every experience. This is not something packaged, purchased, or placed on the outside at a whim. Years of slow living, contrary to popular secular expectations of fast paced hurried productivity.

    Slow down, think, feel, and listen. And pray.

    Or, of course, God may grant you the express route,
    but I wouldn’t count on it.

  14. Bill Says:

    Thank you, Father.

    Do you think the delusion of “in between” comes from a lack of understanding about the Holy Spirit?

    What do you suggest as a resource to understand better the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit?

    Peace,
    Bill

  15. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    You said, “The struggle takes place within the heart, for it is there we will find the living paradise that is the hidden treasure of the Orthodox faith.”

    There is so much meaning and depth in what you said here. I have become increasingly aware of this inner struggle in its intensity. I especially experienced it just before I became Orthodox, such that if it had not been for the Holy Spirit and His protection, I would have given up. And by giving up, I mean both personally as regards the struggle, and corporately as regards being joined to the Holy Orthodox Church.

    To avoid the absolute necessity of struggle, specifically as in resisting Satan the deceiver, turning from worldly desires, and crucifying our flesh with its passions and desires, is to miss the whole point of being a Christian. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Even humanly speaking, anything worth something is worth fighting for; there will be a struggle in reaching that goal. Why is it then that the pervasive belief among so many Christians is that once you’ve “said the prayer” our salvation is a done deal? I have tried to understand this thinking for years, even before I became Orthodox. The conclusion I have come to is that salvation is regarded as something almost extrinsic to the person. And so it is that many would say to think we must struggle against sin is a view of trusting in our works to “get us to Heaven.”

    We must endure to the end to be saved. Enduring includes giving our will over to Him and picking up our crosses daily. I can’t see it any other way.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,
    Very well said.

  17. Seraphim Says:

    Carl,

    If I might just comment on your excellent question, below:

    “The New Testament seems to say that we can know that we have the Spirit. How do we know?”

    We know the Holy Spirit inasmuch as we know the Father and the Son. That is, we know that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father but is received by the Son.

    In the words of Vladimir Lossky, the “irreducibility” of Father, Son and Spirit cannot be understood (or even expressed) except in the relation of the Three (yet “three” is not an arithmetic number but an absolute identity).

    This knowing gives us our Christian identity, but Christ cannot be divided.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Seraphim,
    Very good point that I should have noted as well. In our experience of God, Christ is central. The Father makes Himself known to us in the Son through the Spirit.

  19. Rd Andrew of Homer, AK Says:

    Carl,
    This is Saint Nicholai’s homily from the Prolog for today (I hope it’s alright to copy it here):

    About the testimony of the Spirit of God

    “The Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, He will testify to Me” (St John 15:26).
    God’s Son sent God the Holy Spirit into the world to testify about Him until the end of time. “He will testify to Me.”

    How will God the Spirit testify about God the Son? God the Spirit will testify in many ways:

    By attracting the souls of men to Christ’s Church;

    By revealing to them the meaning of the Holy Scripture;

    By leading their minds to the commandments of Christ;

    By giving warmth, freshness, power and gentleness to the words of Christ;

    By converting repentant sinners into righteous ones;

    By fulfilling all the promises and prophecies of Christ upon men and upon nations and upon God’s Church;

    By strengthening the Church of Christ and holding it firm against all the tempest of times and all the evils of Hades and menthroughout the ages of ages.

    The Spirit which works in these and many other similar ways is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth, Good, Life creating and All-powerful.

    Not one of Christ’s words goes against the Spirit of God nor does the Spirit of God go against a single word of Christ. That is why when the Spirit of God pleases to enter into the heart of man, He becomes alive and becomes a true witness to all that Christ said and did. Then, man believes joyfully and unwaveringly. For how would he not believe the greatest and the most enduring Eyewitness and Participator of all the words, all the miracles and all the works of Christ?

    That is why, brethren, let us pray before all and above all that this Eyewitness and Participator, the Holy Spirit and All-powerful, settle in our hearts so that our faith may become alive, unwavering and joy-creating. O God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, come and abide in us.
    Hope this helps.

  20. Seraphim Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

    To say that Christ is the center of all things is also to say that God became like us, so that we could become like Him. I have not yet found a better way of expressing the powerful truths of the Orthodox message than this– it is unassailable.

    Borrowing from Lossky, the conflicts of the human person and the polyhypostasity of the created cosmos are resolved only in the “superessence” or perfect unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  21. Robert Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    You mentioned about in a comment above that, “the great temptation (particularly for those of us with secularized backgrounds) is to transform Orthodoxy into another brand of secularized Christianity.”

    Would you be so kind and explain (perhaps a separate post😀 ?) what you mean by this? How is this “brand of Christianity” to be avoided? What are the tell tale signs of such a brand? Why is this so important?

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert – I’ll do a separate posting soon on the topic.

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