Overcoming the Tyranny of History
By Fr. Stephen Freeman, August 10, 2015
History is tyranny.
A seemingly inescapable part of human life is its history (and the baggage it brings with it). So much that shapes our identity: language, culture, economics, health, personality (and the list goes on), are largely products of history. As such, all of these things are outside of our control, not a part of our choosing. I am white, Anglo-American, lower middle class, with high blood pressure and attention deficit disorder. None of these things were chosen by me – and sometimes I would like to have chosen otherwise. But history would seem to be destiny.
However, history as destiny is heresy, or at least a marriage to the devil. History is the stuff of which we are made, but it is not the stuff of God’s making. History is the collection of dead things, events and people who have passed into dust. We remember almost nothing. Of the trillions and trillions of things that take place in any one moment, we generally mark but one as significant. Yet it was itself but a small sample of things that happened in that moment.
We experience history as tyranny. Many of the struggles of nations and peoples are a constant reliving of history’s fortunes: the land for which my fathers died; the land for which my fathers killed your fathers; the land for which you are prepared to kill me; and so the history we have lived becomes the present we are living, and too often the future we shall live.
True Existence Is from the Future
But this is not the Christian faith. The Church is called, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” And although some will describe it as the “historical” Church (for it has existed since the beginning), it is actually nothing of the sort.
St. John Chrysostom offers the correct Christian understanding of human existence:
It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.
The verb tense in this statement is extremely important. Though it was God who brought us into existence, it is we ourselves who fell away from the existence for which we were created. We became, if you will, “historical” creatures. But St. John notes that God “raised us up again” (past tense), and did not cease to do all things (past tense), until He had brought us up to heaven (past tense!), and had endowed us with His kingdom (past tense) which is to come (future).
It is a strange mix of tenses. We have been brought up to heaven! He has endowed us with His kingdom! We have been endowed with something that is to come!
This strange mix makes sense only when we realize that our existence in Christ is not historical, per se. We live in “history.” But we are creatures of the kingdom which is to come. Theologically we say that our existence is eschatological. The life that I am living day by day, is being created from the future.
The Scriptures say the same thing:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2 NKJ)
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4 NKJ)
The true self, the man who I am becoming, is the free gift of God. History meets it and history is overcome (for you died). The true self is created and refashioned in the image of Christ (we shall be like Him). In that Kingdom, it is possible to say:
There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:11 NKJ)
Indeed, it is only in this eschatological form of existence that it makes sense to say there is neither Greek nor Jew…slave nor free…. My past is not the Lord of the present nor that which shapes the future.
The Eschatological Connection
We are all connected. We share a common history and we suffer for it. I stand by my father’s grave and note beside him his father’s grave. There are two empty plots beside my parents (one for me and one for a brother). My future was planned and paid for long ago. A small 3×6 plot of land in Pelzer, SC, is the world’s final word on my history. And I am right to stand by that plot of earth and rail at its tyranny. Death is an enemy.
But there is a greater connection and a true hope. The connection with the past is death. My life is my connection with the future, as the future is defined and created in the Risen Christ. Christ as the “End of all things,” is the proclamation of the gospel and the cornerstone of theology.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8 NKJ)
And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. (Rev 21:6 NKJ)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” (Rev 22:13 NKJ)
The word-play with verb tenses is similar to that of St. John’s. Christ does not say, “I was the Alpha, I will be the Omega, etc.” He is the beginning – He is the end.
The Sacrament of the End
To participate in Christ is to participate in the End. This is an utterly foundational understanding of the sacraments. The Eucharist is the Messianic Banquet. It does not remind us of something that happened, or make us think of something that will happen. In the Holy Eucharist, that which will be already is.
This is the healing connection. It is our mystical participation in the true life of Christ, that which was and is and is to come, that which overcomes history – a history that was and is no more. It is this healing connection that lies behind the types and allegories of the Old Testament. The Passover of the Jews does not merely “foreshadow,” the Pascha of Christ: it is the Pascha of Christ, hidden beneath the forms of history. For the Pascha of Christ was already before the Passover, because Christ, in all His fullness, was before the Passover. He is the “Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Every lamb ever sacrificed after that has some participation in The Lamb. The End was present in the beginning and has been shaping the world since its foundation. Christ is truly the Logos of all things, and the fullness of the Logos is only made known eschatologically. It is Christ as the End of all things that reveals the presence of Christ in all things.
Tradition and the End
History is tyranny. In its changelessness it refuses to forgive. What has been done has been done. But, again, the Scriptures are clear: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (ἐλευθερία)” (2 Cor. 3:17). The work of the Spirit is always inherently eschatological – wherever the Spirit is present – the freedom created by union with the End (Christ) is made present.
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…. Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you shall be truly free (Jn. 8:32 and 36).
The truth is eschatological in nature as well, for the truth of anything is only known in its end.
This is the strange aspect of Tradition that many do not understand. Tradition is not a function of history, but a work of the Spirit. The Church is not called to a conservative position – to guard its history with care. We are called to hold fast to that which was “once and for all” delivered to the saints. It is given “once and for all,” not as an aspect of history, but as the work of the Spirit, where history’s tyranny cannot reign. Thus the knowledge and truth given to the Church is not subject to the fading memory of aging history. Tradition is the very presence which makes all things continuously new. Those culture forces that others tout as “new” and “progressive,” are but the latest effects in history’s chain. They invite only bondage. Tradition, rightly understood, alone sets us free.
The healing we find in Christ, triumphant over history itself and the tyranny of cause and effect, is always the healing of a new creation. The Church lives the Divine Life of Christ in this world. That life, revealed in its fullness at the End of all things, is always, wherever it is present, already the End of all things. Tradition is not the shape of the past, but the shape of the future which ever draws us towards that final union.
Then comes the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death…. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:24-28 NKJ)
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/08/10/overcoming-the-tyranny-of-history/