And although in the course of their long history Christians have much too often forgotten the meaning of the cross, and enjoyed life as if “nothing had happened,” although each one of us too often takes “time off” – we know that in the world in which Christ died, “natural life” has been brought to an end.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.
By age 19 I was living in a Christian commune – with a “radical” take on the Christian gospel. These were the days of what the American media called “the Jesus Movement.” I was by no means alone in my view of the gospel. As protestants, those young men who comprised the commune to which I belonged, had great gaps in the understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly repeated many errors of the past. Among those errors was a commonly held assumption that we were approaching the end of the world.
For myself, I could not imagine that the second coming of Christ could be more than five years away. The nature of that error was its complete misunderstanding of the character of Christ’s first coming and the consequence it brought to the world. Like cultural protestantism, we assumed that time moved along in a linear fashion – simply the flow of history. That we thought such a flow was soon to end was not nearly so great an error as how we perceived time itself.
The experience, however, was not without insight. It was the first time in my life in which most material questions seemed nonsensical. With joy, we gave away whatever we had and practiced a level of hospitality that was truly evangelical.
My abandonment of that way of life changed the radical nature of my faith, and postponed my expectations of a soon end to all things. But, I maintained the same understanding of time itself. In the first case, my behavior was changed by the reality of my expectations. In the second, much less needed to change – with additional time it was possible in many ways to live “as though nothing had happened,” to take “time off” from radical expectations and settle in to a place within the American “religion scene” (I went to seminary and was ordained as an Anglican priest).
Fr. Alexander’s observation that with Christ’s death on the Cross, “natural life has come to an end,” is an example of an understanding of time that is deeply contrary to the linear, historical model that dominates modern thought. His observation is, in fact, the proper Christian perception, taught within the New Testament. The Cross of Christ has initiated or revealed a change that does not render a “radical” response absurd – within a proper understanding – such a response is demanded. If “natural life has come to an end,” then whatever life we now live is necessarily of a character that reveals such an end as well as revealing what has brought it to an end.
This very understanding can be seen many times in the New Testament. One of my favorite examples is found in Hebrews 12:18-24. Here the author, reflecting on Exodus 19, makes this observation:
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
His contrast of the followers of Christ with those who followed Moses is the contrast between the fulfillment and the promise, between reality and type.
Of particular note is the statement:
You have not come to the mountain that may be touched…but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn…to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant…
How can such a statement possibly be true? The text does not say that we will come to the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, etc. Instead, we are told that we have come. This can only be true if the end of all things has already come among us. And this is precisely the proclamation of the Christian gospel: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” That Kingdom is made present and breaks into our world with the Incarnation of the God/Man, Jesus Christ. Throughout His mystery, the “natural life” is constantly “ended” and transformed into the Kingdom. The lame walk, the blind receive their sight, the dead are raised, lepers are cleansed, sins are forgiven. In other instances, bread and fish are multiplied to feed thousands. The Sea of Galilee bears the weight of Christ (and St. Peter for a short time). With Christ’s death and resurrection all such things come to their fulfillment. He who is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, shatters and transforms even time itself. Forever after, His followers are invited into this reality which has been birthed among us.
It is in this context that the commandments of Christ begin to reveal their true character. Christ’s commandments are not a recipe for the good ordering of the “natural life.” They are commandments that indicate to us the life now to be lived on this side of His death and resurrection. They are the commandments of the Kingdom of God. Those who obey them reveal by their actions that they now stand at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, before an innumerable company of angels and the general assembly and Church of the firstborn.
Now that we’ve come to the end of the world, we forgive our enemies, we are kind even to the unjust and the evil. We take no thought for tomorrow. We give to those who ask without expecting in return. The martyrs who despised death and preferred it to the lies of tyrants reveal that the Kingdom is among us and has ended “natural life.” As Christ said to Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.” In short, the “radical” nature of Christ’s commandments are only radical if one perceives themselves as standing within the long span of historical time. But we have not come to such a place.
It sounds extreme to describe all of this as coming to the “end of the world.” I do not discount nor disbelieve the doctrine of Christ’s second coming. But when He appears in that manner, His coming will reveal the righteousness of those who have lived their lives as a foretaste and witness to what will then be manifest to all.
St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians is quite appropriate:
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.
Before the Cross of Christ, I pray for this assembly of the Church of the firstborn: that they may do all things without complaining and disputing – becoming blameless and harmless – holding fast the word of life. Such would indeed be the “end of the world.”