The Word within the Word – The Sacrament of Time

Perhaps the most beautiful passage in all of Scripture is the prologue of St. John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men…

In classical theology the passage is understood to be speaking of the “pre-existence” of Christ. God the Son, the Word of God, exists from all eternity with the Father. Everything is made through Him. It is an utterly essential understanding of the Christian faith. For many, this “pre-existence” means little more than that Christ is “Divine.” He is God as the Father is God. However, for these same Christians, Christ remains hidden from view until His birth. He is absent from the stage of history until the first Christmas day. In this understanding, the God encountered in the pages of the Old Testament is God the Father. The Old Testament is seen as the history of the Father’s dealings with the world and with His chosen people Israel. The Son remains hidden – though occasionally hinted at in the prophesies of a messiah who is to come.

This “historical” approach to God is the view that I learned as a child. It was the culturally assumed world-view of my Protestant childhood and remains the dominant view of Evangelicals today. The Old Testament is holy history, the revelation of the Father’s actions in creating the people of Israel from whom He would bring the Messiah.

This view is not untrue, but neither is it true. It misses the point and certainly fails to understand the meaning of St. John’s prologue. The Word, who exists from all eternity “in the bosom of the Father,” also exists within the words of the Old Testament – and not simply as a referenced future. He Who Is to Come, is already He Who Is.

One of the great problems with the modern historical model (and thus a potential problem in the historicist reading of Scripture) is that in modern theory, history is opaque to itself. The time of the past and the time of the future are somehow exclusive of one another. Even the mention of things that “will be,” brings a hint of things that “must be,” and are thus felt to be a limit on the freedom of the world. The meaning of the Old Testament, therefore, can easily be reduced to the “lessons of history.” We conclude that God is like this because He did that.

But the pre-existence of the Word makes history transparent, or at least iconic. It is no longer the record of things that have been done, but also the arena of Him Who Is. Christ, the Logos, is the logos of history as well. As such, history itself tends towards Christ. He is the fulfillment of every legitimate hope.

It is this presence of the Word in the word that underlies the New Testament’s reading of the Old. Christ is the Old Testament Lamb of Passover. And here details become important. The New Testament will not say, “Christ is like the Passover Lamb.” He is Christ our Passover.

The New Testament uses words such as shadow and type to describe this indwelling of Christ in history. The sacrifice of the Passover Lamb is both the sacrifice of Christ and not yet the sacrifice of Christ. It participates in the one sacrifice of Golgotha.

This distinction (between being like something and actually participating in something) may seem minor at first. But it has to do with our own time and history as well. Like all of creation, time is sacramental. The opening chapter of Genesis is replete with this reality. God not only creates all that is – He does so in days – and the numbering of the days is significant. The patterning of time in the beginning of creation (seven days) shapes the life of Israel and the Church. That Adam sleeps on the Sabbath (the 7th day) and that Christ sleeps in death on the Sabbath (Saturday) is seen as deeply significant in the writings of the fathers and in the patterning of the Church’s prayers. The time of creation was patterned on Pascha from the very beginning. It is the logicity and iconicity of time.

The liturgy of the Church also understands that the End of time is not the end of a linear stretch. The End of time is the fullness and fulfillment of time. It is Christ Who is the Beginning and the End. Where Christ is, there also is the End. It is for this reason that the liturgy of the Church is filled with treatments of time that do not fit within a linear, historical view. In the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest gives thanks for “all those things which have come to pass for us….the glorious Second Coming.” How do we give thanks for what has not come to pass saying that it has come to pass? The liturgy does not stand outside of time but stands at the End of time as well as in its historical moment. Thus the Eucharist is the Passover, the Manna in the Wilderness, the Feeding of the 5,000, the Sacrifice on Calvary, the Entering into Hades, the Resurrection of Christ, the Mystical Supper of the Bridegroom, the Meal at the End of the Age, the Second Coming.

For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Note that St. Paul writes in the present tense: things to come are yours.

Time is a sacrament. History is filled with Christ who has shaped all things according to His Pascha. The book of Jubilees, echoing Exodus 12, describes Passover as an eternal feast.

For it is an eternal ordinance, and engraven on the heavenly tablets regarding all the children of Israel that they should observe it every year on its day once a year, throughout all their generations; and there is no limit of days, for this is ordained for ever (Jub. 49:8-9).

The wonderful mystery of time, like all of creation, holds the image of Christ within it. In a culture mired in the rush of life – one where we seek to manage time (like everything else) – it is good to stop and participate in the reality which it bears.

All time is present.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



13 responses to “The Word within the Word – The Sacrament of Time”

  1. dinoship Avatar

    Oh! Father! what a beautiful study on our joyous and cosmic faith…
    It is not for no reason that this same Gospel passage from St John is the one we read during the Paschal Liturgy, and not any of the resurrection passages!

  2. PJ Avatar

    “For I want you to know, brothers,a that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

    I’ve always wondered when exactly, in our reading of the Old Testament, we are encountering the Word. Certain New Testament statements would lead us to believe that man only knows the Son. Is it the case that the Father has never revealed Himself?

  3. Fr Jakob Avatar

    I do not mean to be inpolite but I think that it is danguerous to ask for exactness when pondering mysteries. Scriptures & Tradition & Creation as a whole reveals the mystery of the Trinity. The New Testament passages that I suspect you are talking about will only be misintepreted if one isolates them from the whole process of revelation.

    “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” John 1:18 KJV

    “Jesus said unto him, Have I been so long a time with you, and yet have you not known me, Philip? he that has seen me has seen the Father; and how say you then, Show us the Father?” John 14:9

  4. PJ Avatar

    Fair enough. I just didn’t know if this was a settled doctrine.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodox icons of creation always show Christ as the creator. Some Orthodox are quite strict about non-depiction of the father iconically, for the Scriptural reasons noted above, but there are others who argue that the tradition has not been quite so rigid.

  6. CR Avatar

    I just wanted to thank you briefly. Your writings have been a true blessing to me and have stretched my mind in many positive ways.

    “He Who Is to Come, is already He Who Is.” and “All Time is present.”. Wow. Thank you for making me think.

  7. Diakrisis Avatar

    With an inner smile within my heart, I thank you. Pray for me a sinner that I do not squabble my “time” here

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would like to add a note on the photo accompanying the article. It is a painting depicting Lazarus the Serb (or of Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos – Лазар Хиландарац) who built the first mechanical clock in the Kremlin in 1404. It’s worth clicking on and enjoying.

    From a Serbian Orthodox site: In 1404 Grand Duke Vasily Dimitriyevich commissioned a Serbian monk from Mount Athos to build the first striking clock in the Kremlin. According to the Chronicle the clock did not have figures but letters written on the rim, which turned around instead of hands. Lazar was the inventive monk, who also constructed a bell and a mechanical map for the clock. Each hour on the hour the rim moved one twelfth of the semi-circle and the mechanical man hit the bell with the hammer that he held in his hands. There were daily and night hours, the first beginning with the sunrise, and the hours of sunrise and sunset were rest each fortnight. The clock was a great wonder to Muscovites, who could not understand how the mechanical man could be so precise, and do his job without being told or pushed by anybody. Then it was agreed that the gadget was “somehow the product of man’s dexterity and governed by his wits.” Before he left Moscow, Lazar trained a Russian watchmaker to service the clock and twice a month to make the necessary time adjustments.

  9. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you for this Father. You forced me to think!:

    The prologue of St. John is beautiful precisely because it is Paschal not historical. St. John tells us absolutely nothing about how (or even why) things were made. For these indeed are the things that are self evident.

    In much the same way, St. Paul, who certainly was not present at the Lord’s ascension, does not write the icon of some cosmic spaceman (cf Eph 4:9) the unknown God who must be consigned to the imagination of man (Acts 17:23).

    Super clock, thanks again! 🙂

  10. davidp Avatar

    I always have liked word studies or word pictures. Here is one on John 1:1


  11. Andrew Avatar

    Thank You 🙂

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