The Eschaton Has Been Immanentized II: The Church is the Continued Presence of the Eschaton in the World

The Eschaton Has Been Immanentized II: The Church is the Continued Presence of the Eschaton in the World August 23, 2009

One of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith is its eschatology. We experience the eschaton, for the eschaton has come among us, the eschaton has been immanentized and yet the world has not ended. Indeed, it should be clear to anyone looking out into the world that it has not ended, but it continues on, seemingly unaffected by Christ.[1] To explain this paradox, it is typical for theologians to talk about how the eschaton is “already and not yet,” that is, that the kingdom of God is both present among us today and yet the world has not yet completely entered into the kingdom of God. The preaching of Christ, as we see in the Gospels, proclaimed the entrance of the eschaton into the world: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15). And yet, when we look around us, to the world beside us, do we see the kingdom of God? No, we see a world engulfed by sin, a world where the devil seems to maintain control. How then are we as Christians to believe that the kingdom of God is here, amongst us, when we see the world in such dire straights? It is because we are the presence of the kingdom in the world, and we are called to take the grace of Christ into the world and to work for its transformation, even as we have been transformed by Christ.

The Church is the body of Christ. Through our baptism we are united with him and his work, and we find the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, now dwells in us even as it did Christ, to help us continue the work of Christ in the world. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Cor 12:12-13). The Church is where the kingdom of God is found in the world, and it is through the Church, which is the Body of Christ, that the world can be united with Christ and find its place in the eschaton. The Church is a sacrament – in her, the grace of God is found immanentized. Indeed, because it is in the Church there is salvation, her very nature is eschatological, as Alexander Schmemann properly points out: “She is a sacrament in the eschatological dimension because the original world of God’s creation, revealed by the Church, has already been saved by Christ.”[2] Schmemann explains this comes from the fact that all sacraments have eschatological dimensions to them: “A SACRAMENT IS BOTH COSMIC AND ESCHATOLOGICAL. It refers at the same time to God’s world as he first created it and to its fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”[3]

Sacraments, by their eschatological nature, reflect the immanence of the eschaton, that it is now among us, that we have become one with it when we partake of them. When we are baptized into the body of Christ, we become one with Christ. When we partake of the eucharist, we continue our reception into Christ, for we become partakers of immortality through communion. “When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?— even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.”[4]

A denial of the immanentized eschaton is a denial of the sacraments. This should not surprise us at all. This is exactly the denial we find in history by the Gnostics, especially as is found in their rejection of the eucharist. They denied communion because they did not believe that the eschaton can be, or has been, immanentized in the flesh; they denied the incarnation because they wanted to keep the spiritual and physical realms distinct. “They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness.”[5]

Yet, the incarnation, as the eschaton immanentized, was done for our sake, so that we can partake of the divine mysteries and become one with the eschaton. “For He was made man that we might be made God ; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”[6] The Word of God gives us his flesh and blood as the medicine of immortality. By partaking of them, we find ourselves united with Christ; the Church is constituted as the Body of Christ through the Eucharist. “Historians of theology have many times noted that in the early patristic tradition we find no definition of the Church. The reason for this, however, lies not in the ‘lack of development’ of the theology of that time – as several learned theologians suppose – but in the fact that in her early tradition the Church was not an object of ‘definition’ but the living experience of the new life. This experience – in which we find also the institutional structure of the Church, her hierarchy, canons, liturgy, etc. — was sacramental, symbolical by its very nature, for the Church exists in order to be always changing into that same reality that she manifests, the fulfilment of the invisible in the visible, the heavenly in the earthly, the spiritual in the material.”[7]

The Church finds its mission to be the mission of Christ to the world, to show the world the love of Christ in order to transform it. We are the ones who make the not yet become a part of the “already” as we do the work of Christ by being his continued presence in the world and bring more and more of the world into Christ. A denial of this ends up being a denial of the eucharist, a denial that we partake of the body and blood of Christ and become one with Christ. “But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body.”[8]

The world is divided in many different ontological categories (such as creature/creator; visible/invisible; animate/inanimate; rational/irrational; male/female, et. al); through the fall, those categories are not mere distinctions, but points of rivalry and contention; in and through the work of Christ, and thus, in and through humanity as it is united in Christ, these hostilities are to be overcome. That we are partakers of immortality through the eucharist means we are to be as the immortal one, we become deified through the Spirit, and, having become one with Christ, we are sent back into the world to unite it with us so as to make it our gift of thanks to the Father. “For humanity clearly has the power of naturally uniting at the mean point of each division since it is related to the extremities of each division in its own parts. Through that capacity it can come to be the way of fulfillment of what is divided and be openly instituted in itself as the great mystery of the divine purpose. It proceeds harmoniously to each of the extremities in the things that are, from what is close at hand to what is remove, from what is worse to what is better, lifting it up to God ands fully accomplishing union. For this reason the human person was introduced last among being, as a kind of natural bond mediating between the universal poles through their proper parts, and leading into unity in itself those things that are naturally set apart from on another by a great interval.”[9]

We are a microcosm of the world, and we find the ontological divisions in the world as having a reality in our existence as human persons; in this way, it is understandable and fitting for God to become one of us, to heal the world through us. But he does it in a divine way, that is, in and through love, a love which lifts us up and deifies us and through us, the world around us. “Because of this, the Creator of nature himself – who has ever heard of anything so truly awesome! – has clothed himself with our nature, without change uniting it hypostatically to himself, in order to check what has been borne away, and gather it to himself, so that, gathered to himself, our nature may no longer have any difference from  him in its inclination. In this way he clearly establishes the all-glorious way of love, which is truly divine and deifying and leads to God.”[10]

God’s love is the vehicle for the incarnation, for the lover gives themselves over to the beloved, and a perfect lover (God) gives themselves completely over to their beloved (as was shown with Jesus on the cross). And it is through such love, when we receive it in ourselves, we find ourselves joining in the work of Christ and becoming lovers of the world, giving ourselves over to the world for its transformation. This is the work the Church is called to do in history. We are each given our own unique call, our unique mission in the world, which is what Paul is telling us in Romans: “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom12:4-5). Vatican II reminds us that this call is real, and we must not excuse ourselves from following this call to work for the salvation of the earth just because we are waiting for heaven. “It is a mistake to think that, because we have no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come, we are entitled to evade our earthly responsibilities; this is to forget that because of our faith we are all the more bound to fulfill these responsibilities according to each one’s vocation.”[11] Thus, as the continued presence of the eschaton in the world, we are reminded: “That the earthly and heavenly city penetrate one another is a fact open only to the eyes of faith; moreover, it will remain a mystery of human history, which will be harassed by sin until the perfect revelation of the splendor of the children of God. In pursuing its own salvific purpose not only does the church communicate divine life to humanity but in a certain sense it casts the reflected light of the divine life over all the earth, notably in a way it heals and elevates the dignity of the human person, in the way it consolidates society, and endows people’s daily activity with a deeper sense of meaning.”[12]

The Church as the Body of Christ is itself the realization of the immantentized eschaton; it seeks to bring the world into itself, to transfigure it in the uncreated light of Tabor. This is possible only because the Church truly guided by the Spirit of Christ, and, through that Spirit, truly takes the things of this world and transforms it into Christ, incorporating it into the Body of Christ. “In other word, where the Holy Spirit is, there is the kingdom of God. Through his coming on the ‘and great day of Pentecost’ the Holy Spirit transforms this last day into the first day of the new creation and manifests the Church as the gift and presence of this first and ‘eighth’ day.”[13] We now do the work of Christ in the world, and continue the work of the eschaton immanentized in the world. This means, of course, we are called to be the workers of healing and of peace, even if the world itself will put on us the cross as a response. “Christ’s example in dying for us sinners teaches us that we must carry the cross, which the flesh and the world inflict on the shoulders of any who seek after peace and justice.”[14] We are to die to the self, to crucify ourselves, so that we can indeed be transformed by the kingdom of God and find ourselves one with it. For the kingdom of God is amongst us.

But for those who deny the immanentized eschaton, what is left for them? There is no Christ, there is no incarnation, there is no eucharist, there is no church; there is only the realm of chaos unaffected by Christ. That is, there is only hell.


[1] Of course, the world and its history has been incomprehensibly affected by Christ; this is why it must be said it only seemingly appears unchanged. Thus, as GS teaches, “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of humanity, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations,” Gaudium et Spes 45 in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996), 216.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist. trans. Paul Kachur (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 35.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] St Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.3 in ANF(1):528.

[5] [5] St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrnaeans VII in The Apostolic Fathers I, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 259. This was one of many texts St Ignatius wrote against the Gnostics. See also St Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans II, V; to the Trallians X; to Ephesians VII, et. al.

[6] St Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54.3 in NPNF2 (4):65.

[7] Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, 35.

[8] St Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.2 in ANF(1):528.

[9] [9] St Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 41 in Maximus the Confessor. Trans. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 157.

[10] St Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2 in Maximus the Confessor. Trans. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 91.

[11] Gaudium et Spes 43 in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, 211.

[12] Gaudium et Spes 40 in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, 207.

[13] Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, 36.

[14] Gaudium et Spes 38 in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, 203.

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  • Heaven has come to Earth, indeed. It indeed remains here in the Eucharist. But it doesn’t take a degree in theology to know that the eschaton (the last things) has not come to pass. Doesn’t the eschaton refer primarily to the return of Christ to Earth, the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead? And hasn’t none of these things happened? Andd isn’t this good reason to “Deny [at least in some way] that the eschaton has been immanetized”?

    Or am I insane?

  • Zach – You’re not insane, but you have a very one-dimensional understanding of the eschaton which understands it only in terms of events that are forecasted. In Catholic eschatology, the eschaton is not merely an event or set of events in the future, but we believe that the future has broken into the world in Jesus Christ and continues to break into the world in a variety of ways, including the sacraments, Christ’s ongoing presence in the Church, in the struggle for justice, etc. In Catholic theology, indeed in Paul’s theology, the Kingdom is “already and not yet.” We are living in the overlapping in-between times. As members of Christ’s Body, we are to prefigure the Kingdom in history, today. Of course we don’t do that in the fullest sense. Sin still affects our efforts. The Kingdom is still coming, but it is also here, at hand.

    You tend to focus on the “not yet.” So does that Jesuit you like to read… what’s his name… the one who doesn’t like liberation theology. The problem is that this understanding of the Kingdom is useful to those in power and is used to support injustice. Gotta keep them both in view: the already and the not yet.

    No matter what kind of static understanding of reality is pushed on us, though, we followers of the Autobasilea know that the Kingdom is coming because we have seen it present in the struggle for justice.

    • Zach, Michael is quite right, the “already and not yet,” which is what I started with here, is important, and the “already” part is so often forgotten. People think of the eschaton in a temporal sense, when it is in reality, the kingdom of God– and that kingdom was established by Christ on the cross. The relationship between eternity and time, and Lubac puts it well:

      “For in truth the hereafter is far nearer than the future, far nearer than what we call the present. It is the Eternal found at the heart of all temporal development which gives it life and direction. It is the authentic Present without which the present itself is like the dust which slips through our hands. If modern men are so absent from each other, it is primarily because they are absent from themselves, since they have abandoned this Eternal which alone establishes them in being and enables them to communicate with one another” de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 362.

      Schmemann finds one of the great problems is that we have lost this eschatological notion of the church, and this leads to all kinds of denials, such as sacramental denial, in history. It is also used, as you have said, to ignore the responsibility and work which we are called to do in history by transforming history and bringing it into the eschaton — that is what it means to be a Christian, to be one of the royal priesthood – Schmemann even puts it that our very partaking of the eucharist is primarily not for ourselves but for the world.

  • Wasn’t it St. Catherine of Sienna, Doctor of the Church, who said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”?

    Then we have the rather common, “Every thing is grace.”

    I suppose you could as well have used the first or second quote and said, simply, “Ditto.”

  • The funny thing is I don’t think I disagree with anything written in these comments. Thank you all for the respect.

    If I could pick one thing, I would perhaps prefer a different emphasis in the following passage: “we are called to do in history by transforming history and bringing it into the eschaton”

    It is not us, but Christ works in history and Christ will usher in the Eschaton. We participate in this work insofar as we share in His life. We share in his life insofar as we give ourselves to Him. We each share in His life insofar as we are open to receive Him, and this is also to say we are not all equally open. Sanctity is intensely personal and also therefore the in-breaking of the Kingdom depends on the response of each person.

    And yes, I tend to focus on the “not yet” when I’m talking about politics because politics includes people outside the Body of Christ. I don’t think this understanding helps to support people in power; I think it is inclusive and better reflects the demands of justice.

  • Zach – If we are truly sharing in the life of Christ, then there is no competition between his work and ours. Christ works in us. There is, in fact, no other way for him to work but through us.

    It is important to consider whether or not one’s “different emphasis” is becoming a distortion…

  • Michael – I did not posit “a competition” between Christ’s work and ours. Christ’s work is good and when we do good we participate in his work. I simply said that our work is doing His work.

  • I simply said that our work is doing His work.

    Of course our work is his work. So let’s not have any more excuses about how the Kingdom is “not yet.” The Kingdom, yes the eschaton, is now if we participate in Christ’s work in history.

  • I’m coming back to this, because I think you are wrong.

    The Kingdom is not yet, not complete and perfect like it will be. Heaven is not Earth.

  • The Kingdom is not yet, not complete and perfect like it will be. Heaven is not Earth.

    I do not disagree with this. Obviously the Kingdom is not complete.

    Zach, the eschaton is already and not yet. This is clear from both scripture and tradition.

    As a side note, for as much as liberation theologians are criticized for “immanentizing the eschaton,” their sense of the pervasiveness of human sin is obviously a strong point in their theologies. For as much as they stress the possibility of building the Kingdom in history, they make it quite clear that the anti-Kingdom reigns a lot of the time.

    Look, this is one of the major sticking points of Christian theology: which do you emphasize, the already or the not yet. But you have to keep both in mind, or else there will be distortions.