Sunday, January 30, 2011

Looking Over the Horizon

“Eschatology” is the word for today, meaning “study or consideration of the last things,” by which could be meant the end of one’s life, the end of the world or the return of Christ.

I bring it up because, in spite of the references to the “last things” in our liturgy, we pay it only fleeting attention. Perhaps it’s because we are put off by those who project their faith entirely into the future, to the neglect of present discipleship and past traditions—sometimes designated as “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye”—making worship detached from the real world.

Worship is a here-and-now experience. Nevertheless, Christian liturgy is founded on the experience of the past. It is also filled with hopes for the future.

Christians look back to see the life, teaching and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ as recorded in Holy Scripture. We experience the risen Christ, as he promised, now in our midst when we gather in his name. Both these are plainly obvious in our worship. We tell the old story over and over, celebrating it on an annual pilgrimage we call the Year of the Lord. We pray in Christ’s name, and we experience his presence with us in the Eucharist as we recognize ourselves to be the Body of Christ.

Yet we are hesitant to even peek at the future. What God has in store for us is not yet in view, it is over the horizon. We don’t know exactly what is coming, and have no idea when whatever it is will arrive. Yet there are divine promises that what is headed our way is Good (with a capital “G”).

Enter eschatology. The core of Christian understanding of the last things, the end of life, the culmination of history, is the return of Jesus Christ to establish his rule in the world. We know Christ from the witness of biblical record and our own personal encounter, so we are not exactly clueless as to what his return would mean. Hard as it might be to look over the horizon, our vision of faith does give us glimpses, hopeful, happy glimpses.

Our liturgy witnesses to what is to come with frequent brief, pointed reminders of Christ’s imminent return, imminent because it could happen any moment. And these reminders are couched in hopeful, even longing terms.

Both the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds give witness to the second coming of Christ:
In the Nicene Creed, we affirm together, “…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
The Apostles’ Creed has it tersely, “…and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

It is in the Eucharist Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, that we most often find sentences and phrases that lift our sight to the vision of Christ’s return:
“We praise you that Christ now reigns with you in glory,
and will come again to make all things new.”
“Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.”

The brief acclamations to be used in the midst of the Great Thanksgiving consistently move from past to present to future, as in this example:
Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.

And the Thanksgiving comes to a close with:
“Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm.”

And we should not forget the petition in the Lord’s prayer:
“…your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.”

At the end of the Words of Institution, the following is said:
“Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes.”

Finally, in the Prayer After the Supper, we find:
“Loving God,
we thank you that you have fed us in this Sacrament,
united us with Christ,
and given us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet
in your eternal kingdom.”

The importance of all this is to remind us that we are not stuck in the present. On the contrary, the One who makes all things new is leading us toward a new world.

Our encounter with God on a Sunday morning inspires us to lift our sights to see over the horizon. Our present living should not only reflect where we’ve been, but where we’re going. With the vision of faith, we glimpse the fulfillment of God’s promises coming our way: a new world where Christ rules in grace and love and peace and justice, and all people join in singing his praise and living out his teachings. Our lives then are turned in the direction of God’s future, so we shall become champions of all that God has promised.

What does it mean to you to live now in the light of the coming of Christ? How does it show in liturgy? In hymns? Have you heard a sermon recently on Christ’s return or the fulfillment of Salvation History or the end of time?

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