Between Christmas And…

The Feast of Christmas has, for many, come and gone. The eagerness of children for the day of their presents has now passed and, with it, some of their anxieties. Far from marking Christmas as “Twelve Days” (as the old English Christmas carol notes) many parts of the culture hurry forward, eager to put Christmas in the past. In my childhood, it was generally held within the surrounding Protestant culture that a Christmas Tree had to be removed before New Year’s Day, or the result would be “bad luck.” This eagerness to be rid of the feast is somewhat comically celebrated in the Elvis Costello/Paddy Maloney song, “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders”:

I knew of two sisters whose name it was Christmas
And one was named Dawn of course, the other one was named Eve
I wonder if they grew up hating the season
Of the good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen

For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
‘Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
And it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
And it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St Stephen’s Day Murders

The next great feast on the Church’s calendar is Theophany, the celebration of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. For a large portion of modern culture – the feast will pass without notice. Having left Christmas, the world moves back to its comfortable position of “ordinary time.”

The Christian year, in our modern experience, is filled with such stretches of ordinary time – the time between the feasts. It is not uncommon to hear theologians and clergy compare our lives 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, I have 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 haunts 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.

St. Paul says, “But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts – but this is the same Christ who is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to “abide with us.” We do not see Jesus “in-between” but rather as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Indeed, He is the Feast of feasts.

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18 Responses to “Between Christmas And…”

  1. Yannis Says:

    You wrote:
    “It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith.”

    Its pretty clear what an object of faith is, but could you expand on what you mean by “or subject” if you will and can? Thank you.

  2. Prudence True 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.”

    I love this quote, because it distills for me the essence of faith.

    A simple faith, that is not always so simple . . . or is it?

  3. Fr. Stephen Says:

    Yannis,
    I used both the words object and subject because I wasn’t sure that either one of them was correct. That with which we have communion somehow stands outside of the categories of subject and object. Language fails me…

  4. Darlene Says:

    “That with which we have communion somehow stands outside of the categories of subject and object. Language fails me…”

    Father,
    Thanks so much for clarifying things a bit. I was getting hung up on subject and object, trying to figure out exactly what point you were making. You are right – sometimes words do indeed fail to explain the mystery of our faith. But we do know when that faith is being lived out in a real, life-breathing example in front of us. No mystery there.

  5. Yannis Says:

    I don’t think that language failed you at all. In that case you meant object, it seems then. I asked because i read something in the parenthesised “or subject”, but wasn’t sure what i understood was what you really meant, hence the question. Just curious for the meaning – nothing more.

    You are right of course, that the spiritual goes beyond words, but that shouldn’t and doesn’t prevent those so inclined to use them to spiritual benefit. You certainly rank as one of them, and i am looking forward to the publication of your book in the coming March.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post.

  6. davidperi Says:

    The above picture says it all….as life goes on in this shop-a-aholic world. Scripture, the Philokalia and some of the writings of the desert fathers have helped me live.

  7. epiphanist Says:

    An old Bishop used to quote St Athanasius and say we are an Easter people. I am glad to get through Christmas again and officially back to Epiphany where I belong. Thank you for another great post.

  8. Paul Says:

    Father Stephen:
    Thank you for shepherding us through this blog. It is very helpful for my walk with the Lord.

    Paul

  9. coffeezombie Says:

    Father, thank you for this reminder!

    I do wonder, do you have any suggestions for how we, in our homes, can keep the rememberance of the Christmas fresh during this season? I generally keep our tree up (though the time for that is limited by the availability of the recycling services in our area) at least until Epiphany, and I believe it is customary (maybe this is incorrect?) to sing the Christmas troparion (“Thy Nativity, O Christ Our God”) in place of Our Father before eating, but it still generally feels to me like Christmas has simply come and gone (even with the lack of fasting).

  10. Bruce Says:

    The words of the opening prayer “O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things” came to mind as I read your post. The eyes and ears of faith are needed to find Him who is everywhere present. I think of my faith journey as simply to discover Him in new places….most commonly the places where I’m convinced He isn’t…my struggles and problems. I visualize a curtain which hides a spiritual, as you would say ‘one storey’ reality which I can only pull back with faith that what lies behind the curtain is present and real…often to be uncovered when I simply cooperate with Him by following his commands and instructions and sacrifice my way. Behind this curtain lie His Truth, His Life, and His Kingdom…now and always….if only I have eyes of Faith to see. I don’t comment often but I find your posts inspirational and great Lights for my own journey. Thank you!!!

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Coffeezombie,
    For one, do not “put Christmas away” until its season is complete. Attend as many of the services of the Church as possible. Continue to give alms in imitation of the Magi. Pray frequently. My wife sometimes says she has a sense that the saints draw near us in a special way on their feast days. Ask the prayers of the Shepherds in the fields – particularly to give help in singing “glory to God” with all your heart. Ask the prayers of the wise men for all those who are following “stars” (the delusions of false religion), that “by a star they may be led to adore Christ, the Orient from on high.” It is a great mercy of God. Young children delight in hearing the same story repeated many times. Don’t stop telling them the story of Christmas during the season. Remember the Holy Innocents and give alms for those who care for endangered children (such as your local Christian crisis pregnancy center). Many such things.

  12. pastorsonje Says:

    Where I live, almost everyone leaves the Christmas decorations up until after what is commonly called “Ukrainian Christmas” on January 6th. Many Ukrainians came to the Canadian prairies and this custom is a legacy of solidarity between people of different languages and ethnicities and churches.

    I know this is a little off-topic but your post made me think about it.

    Merry Christmas, Father Stephen and the rest of you, too.

  13. Yeamlak Fitur Says:

    Thank you Father for this. I always did not get it why people would like it to be over. The other day, I heard people saying they can’t wait till it’s over…We celebrate January 7 as well in our family and we do not want it to be over.

  14. John K Says:

    Hi Father Stephen,

    I read your posts everyday, and have benefited from them greatly. Thank you for all your words of wisdom. Sorry I know this is off topic, but I am a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and though I acknowledge there are some differences between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, I believe that we are still one. If you can pray for our brothers in Egypt and all over the world who are being persecuted by our Muslim brothers and sisters. (This is prompted because on New Year’s Day a suicide bomb in front of a church killed many Christians.) Thank you for you prayers.

  15. Barbara Says:

    Dear John,

    I was so saddened to hear about what happened in Egypt and have been praying many “Lord, have mercies.”

  16. Barbara Says:

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this reflection. As I have thought about your comparison of “living in-between” with “living in a two story universe” I have been struggling with way the Royal Doors have been explained to me. I have often heard the Royal Doors described as the “in between” place where we live – between the icon of the Theotokos (or the Incarnation) and the icon of Christ as Lord and King. I have liked this explanation because it did capture for me both the revelation and hiddenness of God, something we often experience as presence and absence. However, in thinking further about this in light of your post, I think the “in between” of the royal doors does capture the penetration of the Divine because it is a doorway – our entry through our hearts to the Kingdom of Heaven and Christ coming to us. I am wondering if you would have concerns about the Royal Doors being described as the “in between” place where we live. How do you describe them?

  17. Anna Says:

    Hi Father Stephen

    I just came in on this after listening to your podcast on this subject. I am working on a series of paintings based on the mid-day Holy Saturday Liturgy. Whenever I look at the introductory text “sung in anticipation”, it sends shivers through me! While I do love, and trust that the whole story is an eternal and ongoing story, I think there is something specifically about Holy Saturday that does speak to our life experience. We are time clad creatures, who do live “in anticipation”. Isn’t this also part of why we live through the biblical stories year after year?

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Anna,
    Yes, I would agree. The story is timeless, but we are “time clad” (what a wonderful expression!).

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