Monday, July 13, 2009

A Far Green Country

At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Frodo boards the ship at the Grey Havens and sails off to the "undying lands" along with the Elves. Peering into the western horizon, Frodo gazes upon the following sight:

And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

To a certain extent, Christians can, at times, deserve criticism for fixating on the afterlife in an almost "escapist" fever pitch. However, it is also integral to the Christian experience to long for the world that is to come as well. As a theological aside, the evangelical theological construction of dispensationalism often comes under a great deal of scrutiny and scorn, but it should be remembered that all Christians are "dispensational" to some extent. How ever many "dispensations" one constructs in their theology of history, or however clearly they can be demarcated is a matter of debate. What is arguably universal though, is that all Christians hold to at least three "dispensations" (epochs of God's administration of his reign over all that differ with one another). These three are:

  1. Past tense - the way things were when they were as they are not right now, nor were they then as they are right now. This is seen in Creation, pictured as a garden, anthropologically seen as a period of innocence, and seen theologically as a time before redemption was necessary because sin had not yet infected all. This period was inaugurated by God in creation and concluded by God in the expulsion of humankind from "the garden."
  2. Present tense - the way things are that are not as they once were, nor as they will be one day. The state of the present world is clearly not enjoying universal innocence, nor is it yet experiencing universal redemption. The present world is broken, and therefore differs considerably from the world that was not yet broken (past tense) and the world that will be totally repaired (future tense).
  3. Future tense - the way things will be that are not as things are right now. The promise of a world in which the present "wrongs" are made right is a recurring theme throughout the Christian scriptures (both Old and New Testaments). This is a period wherein redemption is completed at every level of creation. What is currently broken is fixed. What is currently crooked is made straight. What is currently ugly is made beautiful. What is currently hoped for is realized.
Again, specifics within theses categories may remain points of debate within Christian circles. My personal preference is not to argue for more specific categories than I have outlined above. Certainly the above list places me in continuity with the ancient Church and in communion with the global Church as well - thus it is a "catholic" view of history. Divisions in the Church have often resulted from demanding greater specificity than this. Biblically, I do not see how greater specificity is necessary to grow in Christ.

Nevertheless, it is the third category to which I now turn.

When we reflect on symbols of beauty around us in times of worship, we must be thinking more of the world that is to come than of the world that was, because the one that is to come gets FAR more space in the Scriptures than the world that was. The new creation must occupy our mind more than the original one if only for this reason: the Scriptures invite us to.

When we enter the place of worship (and I'm thinking of our experience at the Church of the Holy Communion), there are so many elements designed to invoke the beauty of creation. The flowers on the altar, the carvings of grapevines and flowers on the tables and pews all point toward the bounty and beauty of God's creation (and also can point toward Christ being the "vine," and the "rose" of our redemption). Nevertheless, these are eschatological symbols of the world that is to come. Stepping into sacred space is to show up to "rehearse" one's reaction to the presence of God that will one day be unfiltered.

Holy Communion, itself, has an eschatological component in that we have the opportunity to participate in "the marriage feast of the Lamb" now that will have its fullest expression in the world that is to come. In fact, singing points toward the angelic choruses in which we will participate. I have little doubt (and evidence of this is found in John's Revelation) that the redemptive acts of Christ will be recounted then as well. For this reason the various readings are also rehearsal for what will be an eternal practice. The practice of worship is not a collection of misguided believers pining away for the "sweet bye and bye." It is the process of entering into "postcards of Heaven" in the present. In essence, the mentality necessary for Christian engagement in worship is to accept God's invitation into his transcendent reality that blurs the past, present and future together. Thus the Gloria Patri recited in morning and evening prayer seems less like poetic language, and more like a forensic disclosure of reality:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
(emphasis added - from the Book of Common Prayer)

Stepping into the place of worship is like rehearsing one's entrance into Heaven. The former creation is gone and cannot be reclaimed. However, the re-creation (restoration through redemption) is the more appropriate focus anyway. Not only is it given more space in the Scriptures, but the redemptive work of Christ will make it far better than what was before. One may be created in the "image of God," but is it not far greater to be conformed to the "image of Christ?"

Therefore, when we enter the place of worship, adorned with flowers, gathering the rays of sunlight, we journey to "a far green country." We taste in part the presence of Christ that we will one day enjoy to the full. We behold his beauty in preview. We touch the petals of his garden carved into the sides of pews. We smell the sweet incense of prayers offered to the Father when such practices are woven into liturgical worship (I'm among those hoping to experience it sometime soon - CHC does not presently include it). The "far green country" is not all that far away after all, for the liturgy and sacred space invite us to enter the "far green country" brought near. This must inform sacramental worship as well. Consider such overtones found in the Lord's prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom c
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,

for ever and
ever. Amen.
(emphasis added)

Indeed so much of the eschaton is pictured in the liturgy, and through the beauty of symbol throughout the worship space, that I, for one, am not above imagining the music from the Lord of the Rings playing in the background as I approach my pew, genuflecting as I turn to enter it.
I approach to encounter the Christ who will one day welcome me in full. I approach to touch the heaven I expect to see immediately after my mortal eyes close for the last time. I approach to accept God's invitation to season my "present tense" with the future. Gandalf is right to comfort with words of the "far green country," for indeed it is not as far away as even he supposes.

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