APOCALYPSE NOW!

No, not the movie…the Eucharist!

Much of Christian eschatology is organized around two concepts: Apocalypse and Parousia, ancient Greek words commonly translated as “revelation” and “coming” respectively. Such translations are not strictly speaking wrong; but neither are they optimal.

Apocalypse really means “uncovering” or “unveiling”. It does convey a sense of revelation, but not in the way that one might reveal a secret, rather in way one might uncover something hidden behind a surface. Think of the face that is ‘revealed’ when the bride is ‘unveiled’. Translating ‘apocalypse’ as ‘revelation’ suggests surprise, even magic, when in fact it’s just a matter of looking behind a surface to see what’s been there all the time.

Parousia really means “presence” and it is derived from another Greek word, Parontes, that means “near” or “at hand”. In special contexts, it can have the sense of ‘coming’ as in “coming near” or “coming to be present” but those are secondary meanings. The underlying concept is simply ‘presence’.

Because of these less than optimal translations, Christian eschatology has understood itself as the ‘revelation’ of future events, the most of important of which is the second ‘coming’ (or return) of Jesus Christ.

This misunderstanding has inflicted untold misery on the Church. For example, New Testament texts are almost unanimous in their portrayal of Parousia as something immanent; how then can it be that we are still waiting 2000 years later?

Likewise, the understanding of Apocalypse as somehow related to future, or at least historical, events has led to ridiculous predictions and gross misinterpretations of history: The world will end on Christmas Day, 1285…or is it 2135? Is Hitler ‘the beast’ or Stalin ‘the anti-Christ’?

How different would the development of Christian eschatology have been if we had correctly understood Apocalypse as ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling’ (instead of ‘revelation’) and if we had correctly understood Parousia as ‘presence’ (instead of ‘coming’)! We would never have been concerned with future events or cosmic time scales; we would always have known that we were talking about something that already is. Apocalypse is simply the ‘unveiling’ of Parousia, Christ’s ‘presence’.

Jesus’ words at the close of Matthew’s Gospel (28: 18 – 20) testify to that presence: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (time).” Tellingly, Jesus did not say, “All power in heaven and on earth will be given to me someday…and then I will be with you.”

We are not midway through the Second Act of a Mystery Play called Salvation History. The play is already over; we just need to applaud!

Consider Jesus’ final words at the moment of his death, “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30) …not “we’ve only just begun!”

If yet further confirmation is required, check out Matthew’s account of the crucifixion (Mt. 27: 50 – 51): “…Jesus cried out again in a loud voice and gave up his spirit. And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.”

The ‘sanctuary’ Matthew refers to is the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple; the ‘veil’ is what hides God’s dwelling place from human eyes. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the ‘veil’ is torn in two, ‘revealing’ God’s dwelling place, and therefore ‘unveiling’ God’s ‘presence’, to all humanity. This quite literally is the Apocalypse. Whether you understand Matthew’s account literally or metaphorically, there can be no doubt that he say Jesus death on the cross as ‘apocalyptic’.

But in a broader sense, Apocalypse is a process. It begins with Creation and continues uninterrupted to the end of time. Natural law, historical process, morality (Torah), wisdom and prophesy (in the Old Testament and elsewhere) all work together to unveil Christ’s presence in our world.

Apocalypse takes on a special focus and a new intensity in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The annunciation, the visitation, the nativity (angels, shepherds and magi included), Jesus’ Baptism, his Transfiguration, his parables, his miracles, his crucifixion and his Resurrection all work toward a single end: making manifest Christ’s Parousia (‘presence’).

And who is this Christ who was present then, is present now, and will be present to the end of time? “When everything is subjected to him (Christ), then the Son himself (Christ) will be subjected to the one (God) who subjected everything to him (Christ), so that God may be all in all.” (I Cor. 15: 28)

The eternal, universal presence of Christ (his Parousia) is indicative that God is all in all.

But the apocalyptic process does not abruptly end with Jesus’ Resurrection and subsequent Ascension. On Pentecost, Christ sends his Holy Spirit into the world, ensuring the perpetuation of that apocalyptic process to the “end of the age”.

The Church itself and each of its Sacraments all point to Christ’s presence. The Church is Christ’s “Mystical Body” (vs. his biological body) and Christ himself is present in every sacrament. But Christ is present in a special, material way in the Sacrament of Eucharist.

“This is my body…this is the cup of my blood…do this in memory of me.” With these words, Jesus consecrated and then distributed bread and wine ritually consumed at the Passover meal. By this act, Jesus assured his disciples that his material presence was not confined to his biological body and that it would not vanish with the destruction of that body. Through the sacrament of Eucharist, Jesus demonstrated that his physical presence utterly transcends the limitations of human mortality.

Christ is present everywhere and at all times (God is all in all). But the Eucharist demonstrates that Jesus’ presence is at least potentially material at any place and at any time. Through the sacrament of Eucharist, transubstantiation occurs many times every day all around the world. Each time, Jesus is present. But his ‘presence’ is not merely ‘spiritual’; it is as physical as bread and wine are physical.

The Sacrament of Eucharist is the real physical presence of Christ in the world but, like all sacraments, it is also a sign. Eucharist symbolizes nothing less than the Transubstantiation of the entire material world into the body and blood of Christ “…so that God may be all in all”.

Therefore, the Sacrament of Eucharist, every time it is celebrated, is “Apocalypse Now!” It constitutes Parousia and it reveals Christ’s material presence to all who partake.

On this site (see especially the essays organized under the ‘Parmenides’ tile), we have frequently discussed the dual, complementary aspects of reality – aspects which Parmenides named Aletheia (Truth) and Doxa (Appearance) respectively. Apocalypse (Eucharist) then is the uncovering or unveiling of Aletheia from the perspective of Doxa.

Traditionally, folks have thought of Apocalypse as synonymous with the end of the world, as something that happens at the ‘end of time’ (like the ‘restaurant at the end of the universe’). In a sense this is true if by ‘world’ we mean the space-time realm of Doxa; Apocalypse does mark the limits of that world.

But Aletheia is not something that will happen billions of years from now; it is right now and always has been. It exists outside of space and time and so is co-present with all things at all times in all locations. Apocalypse simply pulls back the veil of Doxa to ‘reveal’ it.

Use of words like ‘appearance’ and ‘veil’ may suggest that Doxa is a realm of illusion superimposed on the real world of Aletheia. That is NOT our position. Doxa and Aletheia are equally real. They are complementary ways of viewing, understanding, and experiencing the phenomenon of Being.

How does this relate to Eucharist? In Eucharist, the elements retain the ‘appearance’ of bread and wine but they are ‘substantially’ transformed into Christ’s body and blood. Attributes in the realm of Doxa create the ‘appearance’ of bread and wine; but the ‘substance’ in the realm of Aletheia is Christ’s body and blood. In fact, that’s what Aletheia is, the body and blood of Christ (‘everything is subjected to him…so that God may be all in all’).

As far as we know, Parmenides conceived of Aletheia and Doxa as epistemologically incompatible, as constituting different logical orders. Therefore, the two realms could only be related through complementarity.

Aletheia and Doxa are co-present and since Aletheia is “ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete…all together, one, continuous…(indivisible),” Aletheia is co-present with every event in the realm of Doxa.

Parmenides’ view permits us to say that Christ is co-present with every event that occurs in the realm of Doxa. However, it does not allow for the ‘transubstantiation’ of events in Doxa into substance in Aletheia. For Parmenides, any communication between Doxa and Aletheia is ontologically impossible.

But the Judeo-Christian tradition offers the possibility of a different interpretation: Doxa is perpetually emerging out of Aletheia (Creation) and merging back into Aletheia (Eschaton) as conflicts (distinctions) arise and are resolved or subsumed in broader unities.

In an earlier essay, Creation, we noted that Doxa differs from Aletheia by the presence of opposites (conflicts). The same paradigm is found in Norse Mythology: a huge void is bordered by a realm of pure fire on one side and a realm of pure ice on the other. Creation (Doxa) occurs when sparks from the realm of fire float into the void and encounter mist blown from the realm of ice. The interplay of opposites is what constitutes the phenomenal world.

In Doxa, all process is transformative (Heraclitus): the conflicts that give rise to Doxa and sustain it are gradually transmuted into contrasts which in turn become harmonies. As the universe “expands”, conflicts become contrasts and eventually harmonies in ever widening contexts. In Christ, all conflicts are resolved and all contrasts harmonized so that God, the ultimate harmony, indeed the very principle of harmony itself, “may be all in all”.

British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, presents a detailed model for the process by which conflicts arise, evolve into contrasts and harmonize into new unities, “so that God may be all in all”.

But we can find a similar but simpler model in each of the seven sacraments. Baptism, Penance, Matrimony, et al. each brings about new unity out of what was previously an isolated or conflicted state. Christ is present in the sacraments because the sacraments effect the harmonization. Commutatively, the sacraments effect the unification and harmonization precisely because Christ is present.

This is true for Eucharist as it is for each of the other six sacraments. But Eucharist is really three sacraments in one because it effects harmonization in three distinct ways:

(1)   It builds community through the common meal (‘messe’ or Mass).

(2)   In communion, the consumption of the ‘bread and wine’, the present Christ (God is all in all) is materially integrated into the bodies of each of the communicants.

(3)   But by the commutative topology peculiar to cosmic ontology, each communicant is simultaneously integrated into the body of Christ (so that God may be all in all).

In Eucharist, not only is Christ present as the agent and the product of harmonization but Christ is materially present in the transubstantiated elements which merely retain the appearance of bread and wine. For this reason, Eucharist truly is “Apocalypse Now!”