The Eschatological Quest

I had not read Fr Jonathan Munn’s article Etymological Episcopalian Eschatology? when I wrote my piece this morning around the theme of monastic spirituality.

We have already arrived at the second Sunday of Advent, well, almost. This “little Lent” is a time I treasure, with the sublime prophetic texts from the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. We wait joyfully for three comings of Christ: in the crib of Bethlehem, in the Sacraments and the Church, and finally at some unknown time when he will come to judge both the quick and the dead, whose Kingdom hath no end as we recite in our Creed.

The final coming has not yet happened, and yet happens all the time, and has happened since the beginning of Church history. The Eschaton is timeless and outside time, time itself being an illusion. As in history the “big one” was still awaited, those who would have been martyrs in an earlier age become monks and retreated to the desert and the Church finally became a state-supported institution. From time to time in history, things go so badly in the world that the prophets of each age would announce man’s greatest fear – death and the end of the world. Even secular man has this theme in mind when producing films like Armageddon with Bruce Willis and 2012. Inevitably, the worst did not happen, any more than the all-out nuclear holocaust we all feared during the Cold War and which gave me nightmares as a child. But, one day, the end will come without our being forewarned of it – For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. I might venture to speculate that this sounds like a giant meteorite or a comet such as might have destroyed the dinosaurs, but it probably has several layers of meaning as biblical texts often have.

What is more likely is that we will die before such an event happens. Our lives are brief, and we have more to be concerned about this than an event that will probably take place long after we are gone from this earth. That is the “end of the world” we have to prepare for as Christians.

Reading Fr Jonathan’s article, I have the impression that he might have been reading my blog over the past few days, though he is an acute ad independent thinker. We both know how words can be understood in different ways, like any kind of humanly devised symbol. He is a mathematician and I am not. Words are less universal than numbers and are full of ambiguity. I have always been fascinated by words and language, by etymology and where our words came from, whether from Greek, Latin, German, French or any number of sources. Over the years, I have acquired the use of the French language, and that also has its subtleties and different meanings discerned from the context. It would be the same thing if I improved my German and Italian…

He is going the same direction as I: problems between Christians are invariably caused by people not understanding words in the same way. They mean different things to different people. Two words we use to describe our Church are a case in point – Anglican and Catholic. Some of our readers and commenters would like to dismiss us as neither and therefore unworthy of existence. Others are more sympathetic because they are aware of difficulties caused by imperfect communication and the use of analogy. When I was at university, our dogmatic theology professor explained to us an agreed statement between Pope Paul VI and the Coptic Church, where it was clearly shown that their understanding of the relationship between Christ’s human person and divine person is identical in spite of the traditional differences of language as used by the Council of Chalcedon. This fact impressed me and demonstrated the limits of human communication.

Fr Jonathan raises another point, which I have also been thinking about – our understanding of history and our assumption that the past was good and the present is bad. Perhaps I have given the impression of nostalgia for parish life in the fifteenth century, but there was not only the Sarum (or other local) liturgy – but also the Plague and the Inquisition. If you were at the bottom of the social ladder, you were in bad trouble. Chances were that the priests you came across were having it away “on the side”, getting drunk and were only interested in making easy money. I can only speculate that parish life was pious and healthy in some places and horribly corrupt and decadent in others. Documents and written accounts do not make history. They only convey a superficial understanding. He also understands the role of myth. Myth is not necessarily a work of fiction, but a literary genre to convey an allegorical truth. We take documents too literally, and this leads us to false judgements and errors.

History is probably 90% unknown, gone and forgotten. Does this deny the Church or any particular expression its existence? What is important is to get what we can from history – the notion of Tradition – but with that to live in our own time, just where we are. We are Catholics when we sincerely desire to be in communion in time with the whole history of the Church. Father Jonathan’s final paragraph is the most touching:

Our identity lies not in who we were, nor in who we are but in who God wills us to be and, if we continue in His Will in service and obedience to Him and the generous service and love of all men, that is where we will be. Our true identity as Christians is eschatological, our present identity merely an approximation. Until then, I will walk as humbly as I can (and my hubris often prevents me) as an Anglican Catholic thanking God for the spiritual direction that this body gives me as I walk into Infinity and in the hope that this little part of God’s Church will thrive in His Life.

Our true identity as Christians is affirmed by our short earthly pilgrimage before being given the privilege of passing on to where there will be no more time, pain and problems of communication. From that point, our worldly reason has nothing more to say…

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