Within the Pangs of a Dying World or, The Hope of Sabbath

DSC01993St. Augustine’s City of God stands as a centerpiece within the annals of Western Christianity. One can easily say that within City of God Christianity officially moved West and became a type of its own brand, away from the prolific East (I leave it up to the reader to decide whether that is a good or bad thing). What is often ignored in the many debates caused by Augustine’s is the backdrop to why he wrote the book. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 – a relatively tame sacking comparatively speaking – causing panic and uproar within the Roman Empire. It would be akin to a foreign army of untrained soldiers attacking New York City after defeating the US military to get there; the shock would be beyond belief. Augustine was writing to the suffering inflicted, but to promise them that though violence may reign now, peace holds eternity (hence his title, “City of God”).

As I type this, millions of people around the world are suffering. One of the greatest realities of suffering, and possibly its saddest, is that the majority of these people are children. An estimated 1-3 million children worldwide die from malnutrition and starvation every single year, and that number is actually down from just a few decades ago. Of course, much of the malnutrition and disease is a side effect of manmade wars. In Syria alone, millions of people are displaced, and this is not to mention the ongoings in Iraq. In this violent upheaval families are displaced, they mourn the loss of those closest to them, the most unfortunate being the lone survivors of a narrow escape, the ones who live with survivor’s guilt.

Of course, I speak of survivors as though one can survive violence; the thing about violence is that what it cannot extract from the body it will most certainly rob from the soul. We think of soldiers coming back from a war with a “thousand yard stare.” Even soldiers in the most justified of wars are still casualties of that war in a way, having seen things no one ought to see. We don’t even need to go to foreign lands to see the impact of violence and PTSD; occupying the headlines are tales of various NFL players abusing loved ones (and sometimes loved ones defending the abuse), of college campuses having to define rape – a violent act – because apparently somehow rape is ambiguous. That we even have to define that “no means no” (contra Rush Limbaugh) shows that we live in a violent culture, even if we have to hide our violence behind sexuality.

The Western world feels like something is underfoot, that we’re on the verge of collapse. It’s as though we’re simply awaiting the Visigoths to arrive and send our world into a tailspin, as the modern day barbarians of al-Qaeda and ISIL have already done in the Middle East. With the events in the Middle East quickly getting out of hand, Russia’s not-so-secret invasion of the Ukraine (as well as flying its bombers near Swedish and US airspace), the fact that South America has quietly become the most violent region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa on the brink of another genocide, and the seemingly weakening social structure of Europe, it is a wonder that more people have yet to embrace nihilism. Considering the status of the United States is only worse as its infrastructure is falling apart, its middle class might go extinct long before the polar bear, its police are becoming more and more violent against citizens (all while most citizens capitulate out of necessity), and “Land of the Free” is used more for irony than patriotic statements. 

Sadly, what we are experiencing worldwide is nothing new. The world has always been a violent place; our scientific advancements and “enlightened” goals have only made us more creative in how we kill and torture each other. Liberals like to say we’ve progressed, that we’re getting better and moving toward a golden age. Conservatives like to say we’ve regressed, that we used to be better, and we’ve left our golden age. A liberal looks forward to a better age to come while a conservative looks backward to an age that was, but both conveniently ignore reality. There is no golden age, no real Pax Romana; we’ve always been bastards and we will always be bastards.

Is there anything as stupid as violence? As the taking of another’s blood? We’ve overcome living in caves, mastered the seas, left the bonds of our planet, found cures for deadly diseases, expanded the human lifespan to greater limits, and invented new technologies that ancients could never fathom. Yet, we’ve never overcome our thirst for blood. We’ve heard the cries of the orphans, seen the tears of the widowed, watched as fathers and mothers buried their sons and daughters, and still our appetite for destruction has never found satisfaction. Violence, even when used to prevent further violence, is surely the most disgusting thing we can do to each other.

How is it that we are not nihilists, every one of us? How is it that we still continue to hope when we live within such a hopeless situation? How is it that we continue on living, oblivious to the reality of our world, that we are all passengers on the Titanic as the band plays its last song, and yet we’re glancing through the stores deciding on what to buy? The world rumbles; the hunger pangs of starving children turn into silent cries fall upon working ears, but broken hearts. Our television blasts the ever-present reality of men and women suffering as their country is overrun by violent beasts who seek to eviscerate these innocent people, and we take part in this violence by changing the channel and eviscerating them from our minds. A woman cries out that she’s been abused or a victim of sexual violence and we continue her torture by questioning her, implying she must have deserved it, robbing her of the last bit of dignity left. How is it that in all of this, we can have any hope?

Enter the reality of Sabbath. Transliterated from Hebrew it’s shabbath, with its root being shabath. It means “to cease,” or “to rest.” It is to sit down and be still. Sabbath is the ultimate destination, the ultimate hope, of creation. The Bible has much violence within its pages, of various wars between Israel and the nations. Yet, in all the apologetic defenses and/or attacks over these passages, what is often ignored is the subtext; that none of this violence, none of the deaths, none of the ruined lives is within God’s overarching plan or desire. There is the ideal and the real, the violence is the reality that God is working with, but it is not his ideal.

Take Psalm 45 (46):

God is our refuge and power; a help in afflictions that severely befall us. Therefore we will not fear when the earth is troubled, and when the mountains are removed into the hearts of the seas. Their waters roared and were troubled; the mountains were troubled by His might.

The torrents of the river gladden the city of God; the Most High sanctified His tabernacle. God is in her midst; she shall not be shaken; God shall help her early in the morning. The nations were troubled; kingdoms fell; He uttered His voice; the earth shook. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our protector.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, the wonders he wrought on the earth. When he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth, He will break the bow and shatter the weapon; and he will burn up the shields in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our protector.

God serves as our protector. Now, I am not one to try and explain why God has allowed evil to continue; I am a student of philosophy and theology and if I chose to, I could give a solid argument explaining how the existence of evil does not necessarily and logically contradict the existence of God. I could give a great theodicy, but ultimately such things are mere vanity.

The answer to the problem of evil isn’t found in a clever syllogism or in a preacher’s aphorism, rather the answer is a Man; the ultimate answer to the question of evil, the best theodicy one can give, is a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

Whatever our suffering, we know that a time exists where violence, fear, death, and pains hall be nothing more than things of an infinitely distant past. A paradise awaits us, a rest. Christ says as much in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Christianity isn’t a response to paganism, it isn’t a response to Islam, it isn’t some enhancement to a political view, it isn’t some cry to war, it isn’t even about being “saved” or going to church. The core of Christianity, the very center of the Gospel, the entire reason Christ died, is to bring about eternal Sabbath, to throw down violence, to render all weapons useless, to bring peace to the whole world. And the Paradise to come, the eternal Sabbath, is beautiful. St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote:

In Paradise the cripples, who had never walked, leap around; the deformed, who had never even crawled, fly about through the air; the eyes of the blind and deaf, who had yearned from the womb, hungering for the light which they had failed to see, now rejoice to behold the beauty of Paradise, and the mighty sounds of its harps gives comfort to their ears…None toil there, for none go hungry there; none endure shame there, for none do wrong there; none feel contrition there, for there is no cause to repent there. Those who run the course find rest and quiet. None grow old there; for none die there; none are buried there, for none are born there. They know no worry, for they have no suffering; they have no fear, for no snare awaits them; they have no adversary, for they have passed through the contest. They count themselves blessed unendingly, for their warfare is over; they have taken up their crowns and found rest in their new abodes.

Heaven isn’t a place of golden streets or angels on clouds playing harps. It isn’t some vain image of a “party” or “worship rock concert,” nor is it some glorified worship service. Rather, Heaven is Sabbath. It is peace, it is rest, it is the extirpation of all evil and violence.

The simple truth is we don’t know what Paradise will hold because all the Scripture concerning it is written in hyperbole or metaphor; Paradise is too great for any human tongue.

What we can know is that Paradise will be far greater than anything we can possibly imagine. When Christ describes it as a place with streets of gold we know that he is being hyperbolic; he’s saying it’s a place of wealth beyond our wildest imaginations. After all, in our world gold is rare, so rare that we’d never think about using it to build a road. But on the new earth, gold (or money) will be so inconsequential that we’ll simply use it as a commodity. While I may not know the details of what such a metaphor means, I do know that Paradise is beyond any attempt to explain it.

The simple truth about Paradise is that our minds can’t fathom the glory that awaits us. We are like little children on Christmas eve, looking at a present and trying to decipher what it is. But no matter how much we guess, we’ll never fully understand what it is until we open it. Turning to the poet Ephrem again and his description of Paradise, we read,

The tongue cannot relate the description of innermost Paradise, nor indeed does it suffice for the beauties of the outer part; for even the simple adornments by the Garden’s fence cannot be related in an adequate way. For the colors of Paradise are full of joy, its scents most wonderful, its beauties most desirable, and its delicacies glorious.

We don’t know exactly what Paradise will be like because it’s too glorious for us to understand in our current state. Right now we think of everything through a fallen paradigm. We see everything as racial, or in terms of class, or in terms of gender. But such issues simply won’t exist in Paradise; but beyond these generalities we can know nothing. Paradise is too glorious for our tongues, too good for our thoughts, but it is a reality that we will one day experience.

It is because Paradise is ultimately a mystery that it does us no good to dwell on it. Though we look forward to Sabbath and look forward to the new earth, we must live in the now. After all, Heaven is not the end of the Christian faith. The new earth is not our goal. Our goal is a relationship with Jesus Christ, one that is manifested in all that we do; Heaven just happens to be included in a relationship with Christ.

We must never forget that we are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). That means we should live as though we have already been to Heaven and come back. We should act like we are citizens of Heaven and not citizens of this earth (1 Peter 2:11). The Paradise that is to come ought to be lived in its fullest now.

The great thing about Christianity is that we can live a paradoxical life; we can hope for the Kingdom of God while living in the Kingdom of God. Though we have not fully experienced the coming of his Kingdom, it has come and we can live in it. This might seem like a contradiction, but it’s not. His Kingdom began to come with his conception in the most holy and ever-virgin Theotokos and will culminate with his eventual return. While we hope for better times and hope for the hastening of His return, we also recognize that we are to live as though he has returned.

We cannot keep our heads in the clouds and live in some Christian bubble, waiting for Christ to return. Instead, we must go out into the world. The hungry will feast in Sabbath, so we should bring them a feast now. The sick will be healed in Sabbath, so we should do what we can to heal the sick now. The homeless will be given a mansion in Sabbath, so we should give them shelter now. The unloved will be loved in Sabbath, so we should love them now. The orphaned will be given a Father in Sabbath, so we should be a father to them now. The oppressed will be liberated in Sabbath, so we should liberate them now. We are citizens of a superior nation with superior laws, so let us follow those laws as they will make us better citizens of our respective nations on this earth. But let us work to bring Paradise to earth in the now as much as we possibly can, for even if we cannot achieve it, just a little is better than nothing.

What we should learn from Paradise is that everything is ultimately reconciled. In the resurrection humans find that they are no longer separated from themselves. On the new earth we will build new cultures, showing that we are reconciled to each other. In Paradise we will work the fields, but without toil, indicating that humans and nature will be reconciled. Finally, we will worship God in perfection, showing that we will be reconciled to him. In all of this, we should live for eternity now because we are eternal beings. We do not wait for eternity, but instead we recognize that we currently live in eternity.

The invitation of Sabbath isn’t an invitation into a bunch of “do’s” and “do not’s,” but rather an invitation into a relationship. We enter into a relationship with Christ and with his body, the Church. In so doing, we begin to live as though the Kingdom has come. This relationship is more than the following a moral code or saying a prayer for the forgiveness of our sins and then hoping for Heaven; certainly these are a part of the relationship, but they do not summarize the entire relationship. A honeymoon is only part of the married life; it is an important part, but not the entire thing. Likewise, asking Christ to forgive us our sins and walking the “straight and narrow” is a part of being a Christian, but not the entire thing. We obey Christ out of love, not out of obligation.

To be a Christian, to be a follower of Christ, to be a citizen of Heaven, is to work with your entire being to bring about Sabbath in the now. It is to stand against violence, not with more violence, but with resistive and subversive love. It is to fight for our nation to allow us to harbor refugees from a violent world. It is work against the violence of poverty. It is to seek out the darkness of violence in this world and drown it out with the light of hope. It is to walk into a loveless world and display God’s love through our actions.

God’s love for us transcends time. He loved us before he created us (1 Peter 1:18-20). What sinner would dare dream of a God who would love us before we even existed? God is what sinners dare not dream. Everything in Scripture points to God’s working toward the fulfillment of his love in Christ on the cross. His plan is what we could never fathom. His love is eternal and we can never be separated from it. What better way to conclude with a passage from Paul (Romans 8:18-39):

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May it be so as we pursue the Eternal and seek to be with him in Sabbath unto ages of ages. Amen.