Friday, August 08, 2003

Byzantine Liturgies and the Eternity of the Saints


I went to Divine Liturgy on Tuesday night for the vigil of the Transfiguration. Fr. Steven Hawkes-Teeples S.J. of the Pontifical Oriental Institute was in for a visit, and he preached on the structure of the anaphora or eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom. Of all the interesting things he said, one struck me as worth blogging. He noted that in the Eastern Liturgy, we don't just pray for the dead, but we pray for the saints!

Here is the text from the anaphora: "Moreover, we offer to You this spiritual sacrifice for those who departed in the faith: the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every just spirit made perfect in faith." So we pray for the saints. But there is more: "We offer this spiritual sacrifice especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary." We even pray for Mary, the mother of God! How can this be? Aren't the saints already in heaven? What do they need our prayers for?



To answer this question one must look at the nature of eternity and time. Time is the succession of change in things susceptible to change. Eternity is, as Boethius calls it, the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life. This can perhaps best be understood by comparing it with time. You and I live in time, which means that we don't experience our lives all at once. I am typing this blog now, at 6:27 in the morning. I remember what I was yesterday, and I anticipate what I will be tomorrow, but yet I am not yesterday or tomorrow, but only now. Edith Stein describes the now as the peak of a wave through
which the future runs to the past. The now is present, but it is never complete, since what is in the past can only be remembered but not lived again.

In other words, as Bilbo Baggins would put it, our lives are stretched like too much butter on toast. We don't have all the butter at once, but only that little bit which the now touches.

God lives all at once. He is in complete possession of his entire essence now. There isn't a past or future. It would be like living all of your 30-40 years of life (I'm guessing) at the same moment. This sounds strange, but is actually an improvement. To live partially, stretched from moment to moment, is not as perfect as to live completely, concentrated, without passage of time.

Further, if God experienced time, that would mean he was imperfect. Time is a measureof duration, of things that happen to you. In order for things to
happen to you, you must have some capability of being affected by things. God, however, is totally perfect, and hence can't be changed or affected by things.
God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In order for this to be true, he must be outside of time. How can we picture such a thing? Imagine an ant crawling on a map. The ant can only see what is in front of it, as it crawls. This is our perception of time, bit by bit as we crawl through it. God is like you or me standing over the ant, seeing the whole map all at once.

So much for the eternity of God. What about the saints? What good could our action here do for the saints in heaven? Certainly they share somewhat in the eternity of God, since they are given eternal life. But, and here's the thing to think about, are they without change? Aquinas seems to think that in fact they are without change. In I.10.3 of the Summa he says: Some again, share more fully than others in the nature of eternity, inasmuch as they possess unchangeableness either in being or further still in operation; like the angels, and the blessed, who enjoy the Word, because "as regards that vision of the Word, no changing thoughts exist in the Saints," as Augustine says (De Trin. xv). Hence those who see God are said to have eternal life; according to that text, "This is eternal life, that they may know Thee the only true God," etc. (Jn. 17:3). The saints, according to him, have both eternity of life, since they will never die, and unchangeableness in operation, since they do nothing but contemplate God. So the saints do share in eternity.

But think what would have to be true for this contemplation of God to be unchanging, which is the true measure of eternity: the saints would have to be perfect. In other words, their work of contemplation would have to be complete--they would have to have exhausted the subject of God. But how can this be? God is infinite, and we are finite. How could we ever be done thinking and loving God? Rather, in heaven we will indeed enjoy eternity of life, and unchangeableness of operation (contemplation of God), but that contemplation could never be complete. So heaven, according to the Byzantine understanding, is a constant process of becoming closer to God. Theosis doesn't stop when we die, but continues throughout eternity. Consider the image of heaven from C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle: the continual progression into the joys of heaven is a very Byzantine thought.

So, the liturgies we offer here are offered so that the saints too will grow in love. An interesting thought, don't you think?


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