Glory to God for All Things

The American Apocalypse

americanapocalypseAmerica was founded by religious people – their imagination became a nation. Among their most powerful ideas was an apocalyptic hunger: they believed God was doing something new in the world and that they were its harbingers. One visionary described his colony as “a city set on a hill.” It’s a heady thing to invent a nation.

Nothing is more “modern” than the belief in “something new” coming. Progress is the unceasing movement towards the better. On the level of technology this belief is mildly entertaining, and even beneficial. But this fails to capture the deeper currents of the apocalyptic hopes (and fears) of the American heart.

In its most extreme form, the American apocalyptic mind is deeply fearful. The dark images in the Book of Revelations and Daniel provide a wealth of material that feed our anxieties of things to come. A large proportion of the population fully believes that the present world will end in disaster. American foreign policy in the Middle East for the past half-century has drawn on a well-spring of popular support that is rooted in specific beliefs regarding the nation of Israel’s role in an apocalyptic future (as well as the belief that we are already entering that future). There is now an entire subculture in America known as “Preppers” who are making practical plans and stockpiles of materials in order to survive a coming apocalypse. Americans are also quite vulnerable to political promises: the New Deal; the Great Frontier; the War on Poverty; the City on a Hill, etc.

A downside to this popular Apocalypse is the deafness it creates to the true Apocalypse within the Scriptures. What is it that is to come?

The word “apocalypse” simply means “to reveal.” It is to take something out of hiding and show it to others. Thus we have in the Scriptures (and a number of other books) accounts of “hidden things” being shown to certain individuals: Enoch, Ezekiel, Daniel, St. John.

Their writings are about “what has been shown” to them.

Though St. Paul never describes a journey into the heavens with an angel guiding him around (like St. John), he nevertheless makes reference to such a thing:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago– whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows– such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows– how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2Co 12:2-4 NKJ)

In a less dramatic form, St. Paul describes his entire teaching in the same manner:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:7-8 NKJ)

And also:

To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; (Eph 3:8-9 NKJ)

This is the very heart of Christian teaching. It is not an exposition of a body of doctrine taught by Christ to His disciples, nor is it reasoning based on certain well-established principles. The teaching of the Christian faith is the revealing (apocalypsis) of a reality that has been hidden, but is now being made known. As such, it is not a collection of ideas, but an active and living reality that is even now breaking into the world of which the world itself is but a reflection. The mystery that was hidden from before all the ages reveals the true meaning of all things that have taken place, are taking place and that are yet to come.

And there is one alone who is able to make known this mystery:

And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it. So I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it. But one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.

St. John’s vision is the “mystery” which St. Paul preaches. It is the “Lamb who was slain,” that is able to open the “sealed book” and make known what has been hidden. Indeed, He alone is able to make it known.

but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co 1:23-24 NKJ)

Orthodoxy continues to have a “piety” that reflects this “apocalyptic” character of the gospel. It loves to “hide” things and then “reveal” them. The liturgical drama involving the opening and closing of doors, the drawing of curtains and the veiling and unveiling of the gifts, all stem from an inner sense of this “hidden” character of the gospel and its coming to us as “revelation” (apocalypsis).

Indeed, the “mysteries” themselves (the sacraments) have this same character. Thus St. Basil’s Eucharistic Prayer (the Anaphora) has an apocalyptic formula of consecration:

We implore You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show… this bread + to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ…

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, sacraments do not make things to be what they are not – it reveals them to be what they truly are. This is true of the Christian faith: it reveals the truth of all things.

That truth is made known to us by the only one who could open the “sealed” mystery: the “Lamb who was slain.” It is Christ crucified, at the very heart of St. Paul’s gospel, that is the revelation of the eternal purpose of God. The crucified Christ is not a salvage operation on God’s part, launched in order to rescue a world gone wrong. The Lamb was slain, “From the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

The mystery of Christ’s crucifixion reveals that God purposed through the humility of the Cross to reconcile all things to Himself – to unite all things, “things in heaven and things on the earth.”

It is this same hidden mystery that is revealed in the Holy Eucharist – in which we “proclaim [καταγγέλλετε] the Lord’s death ‘til He comes.” This “proclamation” is only rightly understood in the context of that which was hidden. It is the revealing of the Lamb of God, the present manifestation of the eternal Son of God, crucified in time and yet already slain before the foundation of the world. Those who reduce the Liturgy to historical remembrance destroy the true apocalyptic character of the Christian faith. It is little wonder that they have created a time-bound expectation of future events. They watch the newspapers for the coming of Christ and dismiss his true parousia even as the religious leaders of Israel two-thousand years ago failed to understand the mystery that was present in their midst. 

The apocalypse is now.

27 Responses to “The American Apocalypse”

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  1. Dino says:

    There is an astonishing thought to be found in the Fathers (especially Saint Symeon the New Theologian), they speak of the Apocalypse as nothing more than the revelation of what is already clearly seen by the saints. They declare that there will be “no revelation” (in a certain sense) for the authentic faithful, since it has happened for them already – as far as they are concerned, they have seen the True Light which will be revealed to all in the end.

  2. fatherstephen says:

    Dino,
    I have, in a similar manner, contemplated Christ’s statement, “Now is the judgement of this world…”

  3. Dean says:

    Father Stephen…
    The very last part of this posting really struck me beginning with: ” Those who reduce the liturgy to historical remembrance….” You go on to note that as the religious leaders failed to notice the mystery within their midst (Christ) and the kingdom which came with His presence so too today they dismiss His true parousia as He comes in the sacraments, especially in His body and blood. For those with eyes to see the Messianic banquet is even now spread for us in every liturgy. This being so our eyes are fixed on Christ the Lamb now and not on some supposed future prophetic event.Thank you so much for your clear and wise teaching.

  4. fatherstephen says:

    Dean,
    When we bold Christ in the Eucharist we indeed see the future among us. For Christ Himself is “He who is to come.” Indeed, we ourselves stand timelessly in the time of the future when we are in the Liturgy. The parousia of Christ reveals us to be His people, part of the many voices which St. John heard in Revelations. For that heavenly liturgy is the same liturgy in which we share. One and the same.

  5. Dino says:

    I have also often encountered (and admired profoundly) in the Elder Aimilianos’ words, the all-pervading concept that a genuine believer, constantly stands at the eternal vantage point of the eschata even now and translates all of history through it.

  6. Gene B says:

    Although I agree completely with what you have written here, this is only one dimension of the Apocalypse and Orthodox Eschatology. Orthodoxy has a very great and rich history of our elders and saints providing accurate prophecies for the future. For example, the following page contains dozens of prophecies – some of them recent – about Russia and the current modern situation:

    http://thesobornost.org/2014/01/prophecies-about-russia/

    I think it is important we do not forget them. They are often very negative about the Modern Project and America in particular. Many of them come from Mt. Athos.

    Many Russian prophecies clearly described the Russian Revolution and the subsequent return to Orthodoxy, which is still ongoing. Many see the acceptance of abortion and homosexuality as clear Apocalyptic signs, as these have been foretold by our Elders many generations ago.

    In my recent travels to Greece and Turkey, the Russians and Greeks I spoke with were actually very familiar with these topics. Very few American Orthodox are. Many do believe America is that “City on a Hill”, particularly those who have benefited from moving here after fleeing their communist homelands.

    As a first generation American, this is difficult. For me, as I move ever closer to the Orthodox reality of life – the true reality of life, I have come to understand both views of the Apocalypse and of Eschatology. I am no longer worried. It is important not to be afraid, but to pray instead. God is With Us!

  7. David says:

    Father Stephen –
    Thank you for your articles. I have been following your blog now for about 3 years and have done a lot of follow up reading of various Orthodox writers. It was after seeing the reference in your blog that I read Father Schmemann’s book on the Eucharist. I have been Roman Catholic since I was 11 and now, in my 50’s, am really struggling with some of the issues like the Filoque, and even the understanding of the sacraments. It seems to me that Orthodoxy has developed a much fuller understanding of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and it’s centrality to our very identity as “Church”. The quote that you included in this article from Father Schmemann cuts right to the chase on what seems to have gotten lost in our understanding of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. I want to be clear that I am not disparaging the Catholic Church and don’t want to go “Church shopping”, but seem to be very drawn to Orthodoxy. Do you have any suggestions on what steps I could take to explore this more thoroughly??
    Thank you for your consideration.

  8. Robert says:

    I’ve been fascinated with this passage from the Divine Liturgy for several years; “Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross,the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and
    the second and glorious Coming:”

    The “second and glorious Coming” being referred to in past tense. I think you may have written about this in the past, but I can’t be certain. This must relate to the topic at hand in some way.

    I would be most appreciative if you might offer a thought on this.

  9. fatherstephen says:

    David,
    Do not be anxious about it. Pray. Visit an Orthodox Church when you can. Not as shopping but listening – including for what is not said. God will give you grace.

  10. Dean Arnold says:

    (different Dean and Dino)

    I’ve always enjoyed the first line of the last book of the Bible: “The revelation of Jesus Christ … ”

    Apparently, it is meant to be a play on words and can mean both an unfolding of ideas and events or, what you emphasized here, a revealing of the majesty of Christ himself. When I grasped the latter meaning, the book became ten times more interesting for me, even though cool futuristic stuff is already darn fun.

    I am still working on tapping into the “now-ness” of the liturgy, but I did get a similar glimpse a couple years back during a baptism service. It became clear to me that the service was just as much being performed so that I could be reminded that I need to “die daily” today, as much as it was being performed for the convert.

  11. fatherstephen says:

    Robert,
    To a large extent, the linear view of time, the world, our lives, etc., is simply not true – it’s something of a delusion within a fallen nous. I have come more and more to think that it’s not “both and” (linear and something else). I don’t think the Kingdom of God is “and” to anything. It reveals things to be what they are.

    There has always been a huge pull on the Eucharist to render it into a linear event. In most of modern Protestantism they have completely achieved that and jettisoned the Kingdom of God from this world. They have replaced it with psychological experiences and morality.

    Even in Classical Christianity (Orthodox and Roman), there has long been a pull to historicize things, with a sort of “special” category for the Eucharist. Thus the service is treated like a linear event with a miracle on the altar. Schmemann wrote vehemently against this, in what are, I think, his best moments.

    To a large extent, I think, we will never really see Christ in the Liturgy until we can see Him everywhere else. It’s the same eyes – the same Christ. If He is there (on the altar) for someone – but not everywhere – then I seriously have to question what they think they are seeing in the Liturgy.

    Time is largely a mental construct. In christ, all things are now.

  12. Nicholas says:

    That is one terrifying graphic.

  13. Meg Photini says:

    Yes indeed! Father, excellent choices on the pictures for this post and the last one.

  14. fatherstephen says:

    It is interesting to me, by way of reflection, that when I write posts on topics like hell and the atonement, the readership soars. When I post things like this – not so much. But this, on the nature of true apocalyptic, related to mystery, to the One-Storey Universe, to allegorical reading, etc., is absolutely at the heart of what I want to say when I write. So, I keep writing, and occasionally the coin drops for someone. Also, occasionally, I find right words. That, indeed, is my struggle.

  15. Chuck says:

    “The things of the past are shadow; those of the present icon; the truth is to be found in the things of the future” – St. Maximus the Confessor

  16. Margaret says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! I know God is with you as you write and He has blessed my life through many things you have written over the years and I have passed many and varied articles to friends and family from various Christian denominations and they have been blessed also in believing that God is drawing them closer to Himself. And He is. I would also like to add the book “Bread, Water, Wine and Oil” has one of the best explanations of the Mind and the Heart and the Sacraments that I have ever read being a layperson and not a trained theologian. God bless you always!

  17. Anna says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder of what is is real. I serve with a large evangelical ministry and became Orthodox a couple of years ago. It has been a fascinating journey to grow “more Orthodox” while remaining in leadership in a parachurch ministry at a time of great cultural transition. I spoke about my joining the Orthodox church with a colleague and she asked me what the biggest change was for me as I “left” Protestantism. I told her that my conception of time was the most striking change–going from a linear future orientation (God will make all things right) to an awareness that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and the God has made, is making, and will continue to make, all things right. And even more exciting than the prospect of divine “justice” – the fact that in Orthodox worship we get to enter in to an ongoing, cosmos-wide, epoch-spanning worship experience. It has completely transformed how I understand life. And, in my better moments, I’ve found that this new way of seeing the world has greatly reduced the anxiety I tend to feel toward the future.
    One observation I have toward converts to Orthodox is that we can tend to be an insufferable bunch, always talking about how transformative becoming Orthodox has been to our worldview, etc. So I try not to bring it up explicitly more than I need to in my office. But I do have to say that in my work, it is starting to seep in, and I am delighted whenever a certain “original” concept that I’ve picked up from my experience in the Church, is able to address a certain theological question that we are dealing with in our ministry. Father, your writing is a significant part of my growth, and I want to thank you for it. You are influencing many more people than you may realize.

  18. Brian says:

    “When I post things like this – not so much.”

    Father,

    Sometimes this is because you have expressed it so well and it is understood so clearly that there is simply nothing to add.

  19. Michael says:

    What shall we say about statements of saints such as this one…which there seems to be many of?

    St. John Maximovitch 1896-1966
    There will be a mass falling away from the faith; even many bishops will betray the faith, justifying themselves by pointing to the splendid position of the Church.
    A search for compromise will be the characteristic disposition of men. Straightforwardness of confession will vanish. Men will cleverly justify their fall, and an endearing evil will support such a general disposition. Men will grow accustomed to apostasy from the truth and to the sweetness of compromise and sin. (Homily on the Last Judgment)

  20. fatherstephen says:

    Michael,
    I think it agrees with my comments.

  21. Lynne says:

    American apocalypse, or history repeats itself:
    I was amused last year to read comments at an art exhibit about Rembrandt and his followers. The curators said “The Dutch saw themselves [in the 1600's] as the new Israelites. They believed their independence from Spain was miraculous. They thought their victory was because of their honor, piety, and obedience to the word of God. They believed they were God’s chosen new people.” (at the Frist Gallery, Nashville)

  22. Drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    “When I post things like this – not so much.”

    It is definitely something interesting to contemplate. I believe that though there are many elements to the answer, one of importance is that people yell the loudest when you touch their sore (or happy) spot. Much of North America is just starting to contemplate things like hellfire and brimstone, what it means to be good, why they should live their lives a certain way.

    I myself have had revelation as a theme of my life ever since I started reading your blog (perhaps coincidentally) but I don’t think most people are to that point yet; they are too busy having revelations and learning to open their eyes rather than examining the ideas of revelation and the what it means to spread and live the gospel.

    Even those of us who now understand that we’re actually in a one-storey universe are still living day-to-day as if there are two. Slow to change.

    Keep revealing. Keep sowing. You may not be around to see many of the sprouts pop through the soil, but this changes nothing about the quality of your work. Keep sowing.

  23. fatherstephen says:

    I don’t I mean to lament my readers – I am very grateful for them. I suppose what I wanted to do was underline the present article (as well as others).

  24. mary benton says:

    Fr. Stephen – I, for one, am glad you are not writing about hell. Not that it isn’t a worthy topic on occasion but I have found some of your less “popular” topics far more enlightening. What draws a (modern) crowd is not always what we most need to hear.

    As I am moving through this time leading to and following my father’s death, I am finding many of your words relevant for reflection. There is something about the dying process that impacts our experience of time profoundly. I’m sure it is different for everyone, depending on relationship, nature of death, etc. but it inevitably changes the way the movement of life/time “feels”.

    If I might share a bit…when I first learned that my father was dying (not unexpected, given his age, but never fully expected either), my sense of the linearity of time was immediately disrupted. It was like entering a sacred place where nothing else moved in the same way it did before. When it was apparent that death was not as imminent as first thought, I had to force myself back into linear time – to continue my responsibilities as a person in the world.

    As the days continued, I sometimes heard or sensed from others a message that I should hurry and travel quickly to be by my father’s side (he lived quite a distance from me). I did not feel that urgency and I know it must have seemed odd to others. I felt a deep closeness to my father, so this was not an indicator of some problem between us. It was more as though I were already there with him.

    To hurry would suggest that we were apart and I had to try to be there before he died – and that my success or failure to accomplish this was going to have a major consequence for his spiritual peace and my subsequent grieving. And yet it was impossible for me to know when he would die. His condition was such that he might have died within the hour or he might have lasted several weeks.

    The most painful part of this experience (so far, anyway) was when I allowed myself to slip into this hurrying/fretful perspective, forgetting that I was already with him in the eternal now. I began struggling to find linear solutions (should I book an earlier flight?) and thirsted for information (how is he today compared to yesterday?).

    I now understand this slipping with a fresh perspective on our sinful condition. And what saved me from it (the passions that were gripping me) was the call that my father had died. I was then given the gift of peace – a sense that my father was at peace in Christ as well as a sense of peace within me. I could let go of the linear and return to the sacred place to be with him and then, geographically, join my family.

    I share all of this not to focus on my current personal experience as much as to note what may be “revealed” at certain times in our lives or through certain life events. Certainly the “eternal now” has always been there – but, through grace, I became able to see its reality at moments and, in my weakness, turned away from it at others. It was no less real when I turned away but I could not see it because of my struggle.

    How much there must be that we cannot see when we are lost in our passions and sin. How much more that must be for us to see when we allow God’s grace to fill us and reveal.

    To Him be glory always and in all things.

  25. fatherstephen says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for sharing that reflection on your father’s death. I think you are right – that dying, and being with the dying, can change our perception of time. The two years I worked as a hospice chaplain was very profound in its effects on my sense of time. I had “rounds” to make, sometimes at great distances – my “territory” stretched for about 100 miles, and it was in the mountain regions. The temptation to just “do” my rounds was always present – but the nature of what I was doing – paying attention to someone’s dying and to their needs in that process, forced me to slow down. Someone told me, “Always accept the cup of coffee.” It sometimes came at the end of a visit, or what I intended to be the end, and it always provided an occasion for a greater encounter. As I told my bosses – sometimes you can’t keep a schedule – what’s needed requires hours instead of minutes.

    The fathers teach us “keep death always before your eyes.” Sometimes we treat that in the most morbid sense possible – perhaps because we’ve never attended a death. It is not morbid – it is sobering – in the proper sense of the word “neptic.”

  26. Michael Bauman says:

    There is in the dying of a loved one a greater sense of the Resurrection than I normally experience. The longer I am Orthodox, the more I see that as normal.

  27. Daniel says:

    Gene B,

    Thanks for providing that link. There’s some great stuff on that site, especially the area on asceticism.

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