Thursday, December 25, 2014

In the Fullness of Time

Christ came in the "fullness of time", wrote St. Paul to the Galatians. The sermon preached during the vesperal Divine Liturgy last night began with an explanation of this unusual phrase. Modern readers will see "fullness" and assume it means something like "fulfillment," something positive that ends a process. The phrase means nothing of the sort. It is a Greek idiom which could be translated literally as "when something is so filled up it explodes" and dynamically as "when the stuff hits the fan" or "hitting rock bottom."

The Jews of Christ's time long ago hit rock bottom. Christ came to earth during the pax Romana, the Roman peace that pervaded the Empire and made it "the most civilized portion of mankind" in the words of Gibbon. Modern admiration of the pax Romana misses the point of the peace. The Romans accomplished their peace by smashing local governments and cultures, dissolving their governments, inserting puppets, and assimilating the people to the Roman culture. Rome's servant Herod ruled from Jerusalem without the slightest regard for religion or state welfare, killing the Holy Innocents and two of his own sons. The priests of Temple, the center of Jewish life, were "on the take." Above all, the people suffered the consequences of ignoring the prophets for a millennium. The Maccabean Revolt was the "last hurrah" for devout Jews, but the Revolt itself spawned Pharisaical Judaism, the tradition of favoring the letter of the Law over its spirit. Jewish life was sterile politically, culturally, and religiously. Jerusalem Jews tended not to believe in an afterlife or soul, writing off both as Hellenistic intrusions. This is the world Jesus entered.

In coming He did not perform any of the imagined Messianic tasks. He did not restore the presence of God in the Temple, nor did He drive out the Roman masters, nor did He unite the people of Israel. If one lived twenty miles outside of Jerusalem, one could conceivably have been born before Christ and lived after Him having never known of the carpenter-turned-rabbi. The angels sang "Glory be unto God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will," but nothing approaching an earthly peace, a Jewish version of the pax Romana followed. Christ planted a seed with twelve men, one Pharisee, and a few women which would flourish throughout the world. It has not yet taken root throughout the world and the world has done its best to trim the branches back, but it persists in growing. Followers congregated around the Apostles a few at a time until there was a church in a town. The churches grew locally until Christianity constituted nearly half the Empire and many communities in the far east. If in the age of Athanasius the world "groaned to find itself Arian" then in the age of Constantine it awoke to find itself Christian.

The peace Christ brought and of which the angels sang at His birth in Bethlehem is the reign of God everywhere, in the heart, in the household, in the parish, in the community, and in the world at large. It is not the absence of war. This peace only perfectly exists in heaven, however it can exist in a great way on the micro levels and occasionally appear on the macro level. Yet none of this happens instantaneously. The saints we remember during Christmas season—Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon the Just—did not endeavor to restore the Davidic kingdom or the Temple as it existed during the reign of Solomon. They were people singularly focused on doing what God wanted them to do as best they could. The Virgin's shock and confusion at the Annunciation reflects a very normal daily life in her household until she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Simeon, who carried our Lord in the Temple, prayed for such a favor all his life; he did not enjoy casual acquaintance with the supernatural. A lifetime of devotion seems to culminate in one definitive act of cooperation with the great, well paced and slow Divine plan for mankind. The same was true of Christ Himself one could say.

We are all worried about the Church and its sixty, one hundred, five hundred, or two thousand years of malaise. Do not worry. Realize that Christ came in the "fullness of time" to bring a peace that we can welcome by doing what He wants. In doing so we will serve the Church that only He can "fix." Like peace, the Church can be in a better or worse state on earth, never perfect until reaching heaven, His ultimate goal for us.

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