Jun 1, 2023
“We are not midway through the second act of a mystery play called Salvation… Brunhilda has sung; we just need to applaud!”
Christian eschatology is organized around two key concepts: Apocalypse and Parousia, ancient Greek words commonly translated as ‘revelation’ and ‘coming’ respectively. Such translations are not wrong, but neither are they optimal.
Apocalypse primarily means ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ It can convey a sense of revelation, not in the way that one might ‘reveal’ a secret, but rather in the way one might ‘uncover’ something hidden beneath a surface. Think of the bride’s face that is ‘revealed’ at her ‘unveiling.’
Parousia, in turn, means ‘presence;’ it is derived from another Greek word, parontes, that means ‘near’ or ‘at hand.’ In special contexts, it can have the sense of ‘coming’ (coming to be present) but ‘presence’ is the core concept here.
Because of suboptimal translation, Christian eschatology has been understood as the revelation of future events, the most important of which is the second coming of Christ. This misunderstanding has inflicted untold misery on the Church. For example, New Testament texts are almost unanimous in their portrayal of Parousia as imminent; how then can it be that we are still waiting…2,000 years later?
Likewise, the understanding of Apocalypse as related to future events has led to gross misinterpretations of history: the world will end on Christmas Day, 1285…or is it 2185? Is Hitler ‘the beast?’ Or Stalin, ‘the anti-Christ?’ And where does Nostradamus fit?
How different would the development of Christian eschatology have been if we had properly understood Apocalypse as ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling’ and Parousia as ‘presence!’
We would never have lost our way in the forests of the future; we would always have known that we were talking about something that already is. Apocalypse is simply the ‘unveiling’ of Parousia, Christ’s ‘presence.’
Jesus’ words at the close of Matthew’s Gospel (28: 18 – 20) testify to that presence: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Tellingly, Jesus did not say, “All power in heaven and on earth will be given to me someday…and then I will be with you.” We are not midway through the second act of a mystery play called Salvation. The play is already over, Brunhilda has sung; we just need to applaud!
Consider Jesus’ final words at the moment of his death on the cross, “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30), not “We’ve only just begun” (Carpenters). Then check out Matthew’s account of the crucifixion: “…Jesus cried out again in a loud voice and gave up his spirit. And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mt. 27: 50 – 51)
The ‘sanctuary’ Matthew refers to is the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple; the ‘veil’ is what hides God’s dwelling place from human eyes. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil is torn in two, revealing God’s dwelling to the world, and therefore revealing God’s universal presence.
Sidebar: Torah conflates God’s dwelling place with God’s presence. The splitting of the veil makes it clear: God’s presence is no longer hidden; the ‘Holy of Holies’ is now the universe.
This quite literally is the Apocalypse! But in a broader sense, Apocalypse can be understood as a process. It begins with creation and continues uninterrupted to the end of time. Law (Written and oral Torah), history, wisdom and prophecy all work together to reveal Christ’s presence in the world.
There is no contradiction here. William Blake properly understood the relationship between the immediate and the eternal: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour.”
Apocalypse assumes a special focus and a new intensity in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ Nativity, Baptism, and Transfiguration, his parables, miracles, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, all work toward a single end: the manifestation of Christ’s presence (Parousia).
And who is this Christ who was present then, is present now, and will be present to the end of time? “When everything is subjected to him (Christ), then the Son himself (Christ) will be subjected to the one (God) who subjected everything to him (Christ), so that God may be all in all.” (I Cor. 15: 28)
The eternal, universal presence of Christ (Parousia) is indicative of a God that is all in all. But the apocalyptic process does not abruptly end with Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent ascension. On Pentecost, Christ sends his Holy Spirit into the world, perpetuating the Apocalyptic Age until the end of time.
The Church itself and each of its sacraments point to Christ’s presence. The Church is Christ’s “mystical body” (vs. his biological body), and Christ himself is in every sacrament, but in a special, material way in the Sacrament of Eucharist.
“This is my body…this is the cup of my blood…do this in memory of me.” With these words, Jesus consecrated and then distributed the ‘bread and wine’ ritually consumed at the Passover meal. By this act, Jesus assured his disciples that his material presence was not confined to his biological body and that it would not vanish with the destruction (or ascension) of that body. Through the Sacrament of Eucharist, Jesus demonstrated that his physical presence utterly transcends the limitations of mortality.
Christ is present everywhere and at all times (God is all in all). But the Eucharist demonstrates that Jesus’ presence is at least potentially material at any place and at any time. Through the Sacrament of Eucharist, transubstantiation occurs many times every day all around the world. Each time, Jesus is present. But his presence is not merely spiritual; it is just as physical after transubstantiation as the bread and wine were before.
The Sacrament of Eucharist is the real physical presence of Christ in the world but, like all sacraments, it is also a sign. Eucharist symbolizes nothing less than the ultimate transubstantiation of the entire material world into the body and blood of Christ “…so that God may be all in all”.
Therefore, the Sacrament of Eucharist, every time it is celebrated, is “Apocalypse Now!” It constitutes Parousia, and it reveals Christ’s material presence.
Traditionally, folks have thought of Apocalypse as synonymous with the end of the world, as something that happens at the ‘end of time’ (like Douglas Adam’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe). But Apocalypse is not something that will happen billions of years from now; it ‘is now and ever shall be.' It exists outside of space and time, and so is co-present with all things at all times in all places.
In Eucharist, the elements retain the appearance of bread and wine, but they are substantially transformed into Christ’s body and blood. ‘Attributes’ create the appearance of bread and wine, but the ‘substance’ is Christ.
British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, presents a detailed model for the process by which conflicts become contrasts which in turn harmonize into new unities, “so that God may be all in all”.
But we can find a similar but simpler model in each of the seven sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Matrimony, et al. Each brings about new unity out of what was previously an isolated or conflicted state. Christ is present in the sacraments because the sacraments effect the harmonization that is his essence.
Commutatively, the sacraments effect unification and harmonization precisely because Christ is present. This is true for Eucharist, of course, but it is also true for each of the other sacraments. But Eucharist is really three sacraments in one because it effects that harmonization in three distinct ways:
(1) It builds community through the common meal (‘messe’ or Mass).
(2) In communion, the consumption of the so-called ‘bread and wine,' materially integrates Christ into the body of each communicant.
(3) But by ‘commutative topology,' each communicant is simultaneously integrated into the body of Christ (so that God may be all in all).
In Eucharist, not only is Christ present as the agent and the product of harmonization, but Christ is materially present in the transubstantiated elements which merely retain the appearance of bread and wine. Eucharist truly is Apocalypse Now!
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.