Thursday, July 21, 2011
The Forgotten Parousia
All the secular Greek dictionaries define parousia, "presence;" most Biblical dictionaries also hold as at least the primary definition of parousia as "presence." But a strange thing has happened and now, somehow, the word means "coming" and "coming" has replaced "presence" as the primary association in the minds of people.
The truth is that too many Christians regard Christ as largely absent from their lives and absent from life in general. He can be called upon but He is not present until He is bidden. In a recent Bible study I asked who is in charge of this world and nearly all uniformly said "the devil." The usual image is that we live as Christians alone in a world which is our enemy, ruled by the devil, waiting for Christ to come and usurp the devil from his throne. Well, what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday? What happens every Sunday? While this confusion might be somewhat understandable among Christians who have no sense of God's presence through the means of grace, it is not acceptable for Lutheran Christians to speak in those terms.
We do not live in a world where Christ is absent. We live in a world where Christ's presence ("Lo, I will be with you always even to the end of the age") is hidden and not obvious -- it is seen with the eyes of faith and not so easily with the eyes in our head. Christ IS present. He has not left nor has He abandoned us, for whom He suffered, died, and rose again. He is present in His fullness -- as King, as Lord, as Prophet, as Priest. Where? In the Eucharist.
Before he was made Benedict XVI, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger once wrote "Liturgy is anticipated Parousia -- the 'already' entering our 'not yet." Where is our Lord? We have taught our children wrongly to point to heaven as if Christ were absent when we ought to be pointing to the altar where Christ is present according to His promise, hidden in bread that is His body and wine that is His blood.
There is in LSB a couple of wonderful collects that put it just so:
Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son's body and blood. Keep us firm in the true faith throughout our days of pilgrimage that, on the day of His coming, we may, together with all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Lord Jesus Christ, Your time has come, for You have traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover from death to life. Help us to live knowing that the time of our redemption is at hand as You continue to dwell among us at the feast of Your very body and blood, a foretaste of the feast to come; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In addition, the same theme is present in hymn/song 955, Let the Vineyards Be Fruitful:
Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord,
And fill to the brim our cup of blessing.
Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown,
That we may be fed with the bread of life.
Gather the hopes and the dreams of all;
Unite them with the prayers we offer now.
Grace our table with Your presence, and give us
A foretaste of the feast to come.
Sadly, the richness of this truth too often passes over our heads. The Eucharist is then merely a nice little add on to the worship of God's people, an optional extra not essential to us. The Eucharist is the means of Christ's presence to us and for us and it is here in this Sacrament that we encounter the promise kept ("I will be with you always..."). Right here and right now in the Eucharist, our Lord gives Himself to us and in this communion we both glimpse and anticipate the heavenly banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom without end. Christ brings heaven down to us on earth, complete with the apostles, saints, angels and archangels (as the Preface reminds us).
I wonder if this could explain the hesitance of some Lutherans to embrace the weekly Eucharist, the frequent communion, and the piety which has both its source and summit in the Lord's Supper. In the Eucharist we see by faith and receive in the holy eating and holy drinking the heavenly glory hidden in the earthly element, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the mundane that is made sublime. When we realize what Christ has given to us in the Mass, this heaven on earth experience, our sacramental communion with the Divine, we will experience with full effect that of which St. John speaks of "in the Spirit in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day." Then and maybe then, we will learn to pray with renewed fervor before we present ourselves as the baptized to receive the things of God prepared for us:
Lord Jesus, You invite all who are burdened with sin to come to You for rest. We now come at Your invitation to the heavenly feast, which You have provided for Your children on earth. Preserve us from impenitence and unbelief, cleanse us from our unrighteousness, and clothe us with the righteousness purchased with Your blood. Strengthen our faith, increase our love and hope, and assure us a place at Your heavenly table, where we will eat eternal manna and drink of the river of Your pleasure forever and ever. Hear us, Jesus, for Your own sake.