The Time is Out of Joint

As the Divine Liturgy is beginning, the deacon says, “It is time for the Lord to act.” For one having grown up in evangelical churches, this sounds like a very curious thing to say. How many sermons have we heard that discuss worship as “liturgy” as, that is to say, the “work of the people”? How carefully are worship services crafted so that the music, the visual presentations, the message, all coalesce together in rhetorical and emotive influences so as to move the worshippers in some way: to repentance, to conversion, to action? And yet here, as the Orthodox are preparing to hear the Gospel and its preaching, and to consume the Body and Blood of Jesus, in the altar is declared the fundamental truth: in this worship service God will act. God will enter our time, uniting it with eternity, and engage in mighty works.

No wonder the impulse to prostrate oneself can be so strong.

Annie Dillard, in Holy the Firm, writes of this sense of fearsome wonder:

I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.

There certainly can be a sense of “the usual,” of something of a sense of inattentive carelessness, in worship. But if one attends to it, one might simply stand speechless and awestruck.

One might think, for example, of the words prayed prior to the epiclesis, that point in the Liturgy in which the priest and the people ask the Holy Spirit to transfigure the Bread and Wine. Having just recited Christ’s words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, the priest prays,

Having in remembrance, therefore, this saving commandment, and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Grave, the third day Resurrection, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand of the Father, and the Second and Glorious Coming, Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto thee, on behalf of all and for all.

It is a pious practice among some Orthodox that at this point in the Liturgy, the worshipper may offer to God his heartfelt requests, laying aside all care that he may receive the King of all. Note that the priest calls to mind “all those things which have come to pass for us” and all of them in the list, from our vantage point in time, are in our past. Except for one. Christ’s Return in glory. And yet, it is clear that the priest refers to this as something that has come to pass.

Our minds are brought to full stop. How can something future be spoken of in the past tense? Dutifully we bring to bear notions of realized eschatology and all the theological niceties that take away the mystery and awe, the motivation to wonder.

But our hearts long for this wonder. “It is time for the Lord to act.” Indeed. “Thy Kingdom come,” we pray. Eternity is joined with time. All our cares are laid before the Lord, we release them, and we open our arms, our hearts, to receive the King. Yes, the consummation is not yet. But the “Kingdom is within you.” And: “The Kingdom is among you.” We take into our bodies the Body and Blood of the Lord. We take into our persons the divine Life. Our souls, spirits, and bodies, all that we are have been offered to him, and we receive infinity into finite vessels.

Awe-full things happen. The Lord acts. Time is wave and particle, linear and circular. The past, future and present are joined. C follows A follows B. Our cares are answered, our needs fulfilled there in that very moment–even if in our lives of time those answers and that fulfillment is still located in our future.

Contemplated from the standpoint of time, this is vertiginous and unsettling. But anchored in the center of eternity by means of time-born bread and wine, transfigured by Life amidst death, we take this firm anchor and hold on. We give thanks for all the things not yet fulfilled, all these things that have already come to pass for us.

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