Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Last Things First: The Eschatological Community of the Parish

By Fr. Stelyios Muksuris

A danger all of us face as priests of God is to approach our liturgical ministry in our parishes with a lukewarm and disinterested disposition. Working long hours and late nights in the service of God’s people, accompanied by the stresses these situations typically bring, may often incapacitate us spiritually, even physically at times. This may lead to a mechanical, unconscious execution of the Divine Liturgy and our ecclesiastical services, the likes of which is not merely perceived by our flocks in attendance but, sadly, is also emulated by them and labeled as the norm for Orthodox liturgical life. We often urge our parishioners to participate meaningfully in the Holy Liturgy; however, the underlying question is: do we do as much?

Meaningful participation on both sides of the altar screen presupposes certain factors, chief of which I submit is how we perceive the local Eucharistic community of the parish and what we understand the overall celebration of the Divine Liturgy to signify. When the periodic act of “going to church” becomes habitual, without a proper cognizance of who we are as a community of faith and what we hope to achieve in our worship, the liturgical experience can seem tiresome if not irrelevant. And like anything in life, one only reaps as much as he sows (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6). Thankfully, the reapers in our communities are both plentiful and faithful; however, the question is what seeds do they have at their disposal to sow and make their spiritual harvest an abundant one? A refreshingly new look at the liturgical commentaries of St. Symeon of Thessalonike may help.

Symeon of Thessalonike (+1429 A.D.), a staunch hesychast within the Palamite tradition and an even more faithful adherent to the Areopagitical corpus of writings by Pseudo-Dionysios, is arguably the most underestimated of all patristic commentators on the Divine Liturgy. Sadly, his important contribution On the Sacred Liturgy, which appears as a chapter in his Treatise on the Sacraments, and his stand-alone Interpretation of the Divine Temple and Liturgy, have not been translated into English. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, the former text presents the most unique vision ever recorded of the completed prothesis rite, an image that answers who we are as the Church and what we should be accomplishing when we gather for worship together.

The hallowed Archbishop of Thessalonike, more so than his contemporary St. Nicholas Cabasilas, is the only Byzantine liturgical commentator who engages in such a lengthy description of the prothesis rite, quite simply because by the fifteenth century, the rite had reached the degree of intricacy it more or less possesses today. What originally began as a simple eucharistic offering of bread and wine has by this time developed a profound theology that has elevated the completed prothesis into a vivid icon of the Lord flanked on all sides by His Holy Church. This is what Symeon has to say:

But let us also see how through this divine model and the work of the holy proskomide we perceive as one Jesus and His Church, in the middle Him the true light, from whom the Church requests life eternal, illumined by Him and ongoing. While He is in the middle through the bread, His mother [is present] through the particle on the right, the saints and the angels on the left, and below everyone who has believed in Him, the pious gathering. And this is the great mystery: God among men and God in the midst of gods, observed by Him who is God by nature and who was truly incarnated for them. And this is the future kingdom and the commonwealth of eternal life: God with us, both seen and partaken of. (Peri tes Theias Mystagogias = On the Sacred Liturgy 94; PG 155.285B; translation mine)

St. Symeon presents a resplendently powerful cosmic image of the Kingdom of God, the united Church of heaven and earth. The centrality of Christ in history and in the Kingdom, which is manifested fully in the local parish, is abundantly clear. What is also vividly evident is the special place occupied by the faithful, who join the celestial orders in their worship of God. The characterization “God in the midst of gods” builds upon the Eastern theology of theosis, or deification, developed in the fourth century by St. Athanasios of Alexandria in his renowned treatise Last Things First: The Eschatological Community of the Parish. The local community of faith then, every time it gathers together for the periodic celebration of the Eucharist, realizes itself to be what it already is in the eyes of God — the redeemed Kingdom (cf. Luke 23:42-43), the banquet hall (cf. Luke 14:23-24), the family reunited once again to its Father (cf. Luke 15:32) and to one another. In this Last Things First: The Eschatological Community of the Parish, or “pious gathering,” the walls of discord and separation are torn down indefinitely; there is complete transparency, total accessibility to God, and full comprehension of one’s place in the economia of salvation. Judgment and criticism are seized from man and redirected to the One who alone possesses this prerogative. And in Symeon’s vision, equality is of paramount importance between the living and deceased, with the hierarchy of progression stemming from the Lamb to the orders of saints and angels, and through them to the members of the ecclesia militante and triumphante.

Symeon’s vision of the ecclesia at prayer is predominantly eschatological. It is a miniaturization of the Holy Liturgy, which in turn is the inchoate celebration of the eternal liturgy of God’s Kingdom. The continual partaking of the fullness of Christ through the consecrated elements mirrors the complete permeation of God in man and man’s full participation in the life of God at the eschaton. And it is this eschatological Kingdom to which all Orthodox Christians belong from holy baptism and to which they draw closer at each Eucharist, not to mention at every moment throughout their lives.

All these considerations are helpful in assisting us servants of God’s holy altar with attaining an eschatological orientation not only in our celebration of the Divine Liturgy, but also in daily life. The eventual formalization of the prothesis rite into a privatized and “clericalized” service, however, has not helped matters, as over the centuries our faithful have been excluded from such a wealth of mystical theology. Perhaps consideration may be given though to an occasional “public” execution of this once very public act, with the only difference being the exposure of our people to the heightened liturgical mystagogy that began developing by the first quarter of the seventh century, as evidenced in the writings of St. Maximos the Confessor. The contemplative value of the prothesis rite has always belonged to the clergy; perhaps it may be time for it to be shared by our laity as well.

Symeon’s eschatological vision of the redeemed Kingdom can guide each of us, clergy and laity, to a deeper appreciation of what the Church at prayer is and does. We are the universal and local eschatological community, made up of eschatological beings, living the eschaton in the present and preparing for it at the end of history. In our own day-to-day routines and in those of the members of our faith communities, it behooves all of us to prioritize the eschatological Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33), to place the last things first and to structure our lives — our words and our behavior — in accordance with future expectations. Perhaps here lies the key that unlocks the mystery to a blessed, tranquil, and fulfilled life. Needless to say, however, such a disposition is required of everyone.

It has been said that older generations, deep-seated in tradition, have always hailed the past, while today’s fast-paced, hedonistic society bases its savoir vivre on the here and now. St. Symeon reminds us that for the Orthodox Christian, one’s orientation can only come from the eschatological future.