Fr. Maximos Constas is the Interim Dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. in Patristics and Historical Theology from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. He was a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, after which he became a monk at Simonopetra (Mt. Athos). He is the author of The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography (Brookline: Holy Cross Press, forthcoming 2014); an edition and translation of Maximos the Confessor, The Ambigua to Thomas and the Ambigua to John, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2003); as well as numerous articles and translations. His work focuses on the patristic and Byzantine theological tradition, Orthodox spirituality, the history of the reception of biblical and patristic sources in the late Byzantine era, and the theological study of Byzantine art, icons and iconography.
When we consider the hymns and readings of these initial days of Holy Week, we see that we are not just encountering the suffering and resurrected Christ, but the end of history itself and the end of the ages, when the Divine Bridegroom will return, and when the Bridal Chamber—which is the Kingdom of God—will be revealed at the end of the ages—both in view of our personal death and the end of time and history when the divine Bridegroom will return in glory to take us into his Eternal Banquet.
We heard this both last night and again this morning in the hymn: “When You will come in glory with the angelic hosts, O Jesus, and shall sit upon the throne of judgment, O Good Shepherd, do not separate me … do not give me over to punishment, though I be hardened in sin, but number me with the sheep at Your right hand, and save me, since You are the Friend of man.”
Both the Kontakion and Oikos identify the “Bridal Chamber” with the Kingdom of Heaven that will be revealed at the end of time, and these hymns are marked by an intense expectation of the coming of Christ. These themes are all connected to this morning’s Gospel reading, Matthew 24:36-26:2, which is dense litany of teachings, stories, and parables about the return of Christ and the final encounter with Him. This will be an ultimate encounter that will determine the nature of our relationship with Him, reveal what that relationship had always been, for the rest of time.
The life in Christ is a life lived in expectation, the intense expectation, of a final and ultimate encounter with Christ; it is precisely this closing note of expectation on which the Bible ends, which is not a closure but an opening: “Come, O Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). Without this expectation, without this hope, without this prayer, our life loses focus, we lose sight of our goal, and the mind of Christ, the spirit of Christ, is displaced by the spirit of the world.
“We are children of God,” yes, “but it has not yet appeared what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like him, because we will see Him just as he is” (1 John 3:2). This means that our life is hidden in the future, hidden with Christ in God, as St Paul says: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col 3:2-4).
Everything exists in some relation to God, and this relation is not simply to a reality that is present, but to a reality and a goal that is in the future, to a reality not yet fully realized; it is a relationship to something to and toward which we are hastening, and which at the same time is hastening to us. As such it is an experience of expectation and hope. It is not so much that time is simply going by, but that we are moving forward, step by step, toward the end for which we were created.
Whether we realize it or not, all of us are moving toward God as to our natural end, just like plants and trees naturally move toward the light. Christ will never allow himself to be reduced merely to the present moment; He will never allow himself to be reduced to our present concerns or fears, or to the anxious and confused agendas of the particular age we happen to live in.
If there is one Church Father for whom the idea of our goal in God is absolutely central, it is Saint Basil of Caesarea, whose Liturgies we have been celebrating throughout Lent, and we will celebrate two more of them before the week is over.
All of Basil’s writings are imbued with the idea of the end, the aim, the goal – “It’s as if we’re on a ship,” he says, “rushing to its destination; and even if some of the people on the ship are sleeping, and totally unaware of its movement, this does not mean the ship isn’t moving forward.”
For Basil, the end is always closely connected to the idea of accountability and judgment, and thus to ethical and moral conduct, and thus to the whole rhythm and organization of the Christian way of life. It is only when we live with a strong and vital awareness of the end that we can know how best to organize our lives; it is only through knowledge of our goal that we can make the most of our time, and be able to prioritize things properly. The moment this awareness is lost, we lose our perspective on everything.
As Saint Basil’s image of the ship makes clear, this world is not our destination. There are no finalities in this life, nor are we to seek finalities here. Every life is an opus imperfectus—we all will leave this life having done very little, we will leave it having left many things undone, perhaps not even having begun the work of repentance and transformation. At the very moment of his martyrdom, St Ignatius of Antioch said: “Now I begin to be a disciple.”
What we have now is but the pledge of a future consummation. In describing the nature of our life, St Paul uses the word ἀρραβών (arravon), which means a pledge, and earnest, including the sense of being engaged to be married. This is now the time of the engagement, not the consummation. Identifying Paul’s language with that of Christ as the divine Bridegroom, St Basil asks us: “If you were engaged to be married, how would you conduct yourself? If you were truly looking forward to that moment of consummation,” he asks, “would you be thinking about other people, or other things?”
Think about the kinds of things you do when you are expecting an important visitor, or someone you love, perhaps to stay with you for a few days. You’ll clean the whole house, you’ll prepare special dishes, you may even go out and buy nice new things for the house. All of your thoughts, all of your concern, everything you do, is all for the guest whom you will be receiving. You can’t think of anything else. This is how we should live our lives, in loving preparation and readiness for Christ.
But is this how we think, is this how we experience our life? Most of the time, we are people of the moment, absorbed in present and everyday concerns, tied to machines and subject to endless distractions, slaves of the 24-hour news cycle, absorbed by the cares of life, and thus always in danger of forgetting the future—not that future which is simply a temporal progression and extension of the present, but the reality of our final and ultimate encounter with God.
As we get older, the greater part of our life seems to be behind us, and less of it remains ahead. We like to reminisce about the past, about what it was like when we were younger, pining away for our lost youth; or about how much better things used to be in the old country—as if the past were some sort of golden age, as if our present life were but a shadow of what once was, when instead our life should be a stretching forward, a reaching out to God, like St Paul says: “I do not regard myself as having already taken hold of it yet, or that I have already obtained it, or am already perfect … but forgetting about what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-14).
The physical, architectural “orientation” of our churches to the east is a symbol of this, since this is the symbolic direction from which the Lord will come. But what is true of our buildings is not necessarily true of us.
Only a mind turned to Christ, awaiting Him with intense longing and desire, only a way of life organized by the expectation of our ultimate encounter with Christ the Bridegroom, can help to break our fixation on the present, can free us from the bonds of the earth, from the passions of the world, and make us see that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek for the one which is to come” (Heb 13:14), a city that “has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:23).