“My Kingdom is not of this world …” (Jn. 18:36).
The “world is the general name for all the passions, when we wish to call the passions by a general name, we call them the world,” teaches St. Issac the Syrian.
Thus, the Kingdom of our Lord is not OF this fallen order of sinfulness. One of the primary messages of true Christianity is that this “world is passing away, and the desires of it” (1 Jn. 2:17). In striving to follow after Christ the Lord, a person begins to leave behind the system of this fallen world. Our Lord Himself sets this as a cost of discipleship, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn. 17:16). And again, “You are not of this world – but I chose you for Myself out of the world – therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19).
The Holy Apostles James puts it in these terms, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world is rendered an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Indeed, very heavy words.
It is abundantly clear, therefore, that as Christians we are even now leaving this world, indeed this is a commandment. We do not look simply for a Kingdom that is yet to come, but one that is already revealing itself to those who have hearts and eyes to see.
St. Paul tells us, “But you have come,” that is by entering into Christ we are entering into His Kingdom already, now, “to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, a heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, a festal assembly and the Church of the firstborn ones who have been registered in the heavens, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22-24).
St. Symeon the New Theologian confirms this spiritual reality when he writes, “Do you understand which Kingdom it is that He says we are to seek? The one which is high up in Heaven, which is going to come after the general resurrection, which, as it were, is in some time and place far away – is it this Kingdom which He tells us to seek? Not at all!” The saint goes on to instruct that it is by faithful following of the Lord’s commandments by which Christ is indeed now reigning (cf. On the Mystical Life, Vol. I pg 137ff).
The saint tells us that in doing so, “Human beings become like cherubim in this world, bearing aloft on the backs of their souls Him Who is God above all” (ibid). And this is precisely the imagery used in the Divine Service of the Liturgy when we sing, “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim ….” If, generally speaking, the whole of the Christian life is the act of coming to the Kingdom of God, now, here, and in the coming age, then in an unparalleled and focused manner the Div. Services, most of all the Liturgy, are the mysterious acts of making present now the reality of the Coming Kingdom; to such an extent that while we are in the Div. Liturgy (striving to cultivate the proper spiritual state in our person) we are indeed in the very image of Heaven itself.
The whole of the true Christian Temple and the totality of the God-revealed service which is offered in it are indeed actual participation in the things of Heaven and not of this fallen world. St. John of Kronstadt writes, “In the temple, in its arrangements and parts, in the icons, in the Divine services, with the reading of the Holy Scripture, the singing, the rites, the entire Old Testament, New Testament, and Church history, the whole Divine ordering of the salvation of mankind is emblematically traced, as upon a chart, in figures and in general outlines. Grand is the spectacle of the Divine services of our Orthodox Church for those who understand it, who penetrate into its essence, its spirit, its signification, its sense!” (My Life in Christ, Holy Trinity Publications, p. 394.). May we be given to understand it!
St. Sergius (Srebranski), echos the Scriptural reality proclaimed in Hebrews when he teaches, “When you come to church for prayer or to serve or to read or sing, always remember that the church is a visible heaven, paradise, the house of God. As it says in the sacred book: ‘Standing in the temple of Thy glory, we seem to stand in heaven’. You came as a guest to your Father’s house; therefore be attentive to everything that is going on there. The holy Master of the house receives you, talks to you, teaches you, comforts and delights you, satiates you with the immortal Supper – His Body and Blood. (Excerpted from “Grand Duchess Elizabeth”, by Lubov Millar, pp. 369). Take note that it is Christ Himself Who is serving in the temple, most of all in the Liturgy.
The holy temple as “a visible heaven, paradise, the house of God,” is, it seems, set clearly beyond the confines of this corruptible world. The temple is a potent manifestation of the fact that a believer “has come” to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The temple is a physical manifestation of Christ’s Kingdom.
Again it is testified to by another holy one, Pavel Florensky, for our benefit, that “The services of the Orthodox temple are the way of ascent … As it has been said before, the temple is Jacob’s ladder, leading from the visible to the invisible.” Speaking with great wisdom on the truth of the temple he teaches, “The whole altar is (in its wholeness already the place of the invisible the area set apart from this world, separate, withdrawn, dedicated. The altar in its wholeness is heaven as sensible, as mind-apprehendable.” The saint clearly teaches that in this case the altar is absolutely a visible revelation of the Heavenlies and is “not of this world.”
As is fundamental to Orthodox Christianity, the whole of the temple is a material manifestation of the Kingdom of Christ now. It is the icon-matter by which we, as still yet predominately physical in our existence, truly encounter the truth of the Kingdom of Christ on earth, here, now, to which we have come.
St. Pavel continues, “Iconostasis is vision. Iconostasis is a manifestation of saints and angels – angelophania – a manifest appearance of heavenly witnesses that includes, first of all, the Mother of God and Christ Himself in the flesh, witnesses that proclaim that which is from the other side of mortal flesh. Iconostasis is the saints themselves. If everyone praying in the temple were wholly spiritualized, if everyone praying were truly to see, then where would be no iconostasis other than standing before God Himself, witnessing to Him by their holy countenances and proclaiming His terrifying glory by their sacred deeds.”
The truth is evident, when we enter the temple we have left the “world” and entered into the Kingdom of Christ, into, if we had the eyes to see, as the saint says, a direct encounter with God Himself.
The saint elucidates further, “But because our sight is weak and our prayers are feeble, the Church, in Her care for us gave us visual strength for our spiritual brokenness: the heavenly visions on the iconostasis, vivid precise, and illumined, that articulates, materially cohere, an image into fixed color.” Indeed the whole, the totality of the temple and the services are there illumine “the Mystery of the altar, [it] opens for [the believers] an entrance into a world closed to them by their own stuckness, cries into their deaf ears the voice of the Heavenly Kingdom.”
And so, the material reality of the temple is such that it icons the existent truth that Christians are no longer of this world. That the believer has “come” to the Kingdom of Christ, which is being revealed as much as we can bear it. Yet, when the mortal span reaches its limit, set by the Providence of God, then the material will unite in fullness to the Heavenlies, then we will see with eyes truly illumined by the Spirit, “we will contemplate, in pure love, the immortal glory of God.” (All quotes from St. Pavel are from the book “Iconostasis.”)
May we never forget that our work, Liturgia, as Christians is “not of this world.”
(For more articles on the Divine Services and Orthodox Worship, click here.)