“Maranatha”: Praying in the New Year with Sergius Bulgakov

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

“Come, Lord Jesus!” Maranatha, in the Aramaic and transliterated into Greek, is the conclusion of the whole Bible and of the New Testament in particular. The response given to “the Spirit and the Bride” is “surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:17,20). The early church understood this quickness in coming as ushering in the end of all things. According to Sergius Bulgakov, for us who live two thousand years after Christ, this coming “quickly” must be regarded ontologically rather than chronologically.[1] I believe this prayer calls for the Parousia, that is for the presence of Christ in the world even before His second coming.

This is a prayer of turning the world into the New Jerusalem, the Church. The prayer is both personal and cosmic, to “let God be all in all” in me and the world.[2] Christ is present in the Church, but at the same time is called on to come. The second coming of Christ is not merely a future event or goal. This coming of Christ into the world is an avocation or calling for all Christians. This eschatological event is to shape the direction of our life and it captures the meaning of time and history. Christ is coming, and Christians and the Church are ushering in Christ to the world. John tells us in Revelation history has an eschatological goal, and we are to play our creative part in this goal. History is a means of fulfillment of an eschatological anticipation, which human effort and individual and corporate human lives are bringing about. “Come Lord Jesus,” is our effort and prayer. The immanent outworking of our time, our lives, and of history, is the means of the coming of Christ. The coming of Christ is being realized not only beyond history, but also through history. The prayer “Maranatha” is not a task beyond our strength, it is an inner conviction prayed in unison with the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “come and dwell within us.” Through this eschatological understanding, history is seen not merely as a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ. Rather, history is a positive path, which has to be walked. History, therefore, is determined by the “readiness” and “expectation” of what is already present but still to come. We are living in this tension of now, but not yet.[3] “Come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!” This prayer for salvation implies both the end of the world and the way to this end. We are to bring about and accomplish this end in our lives.

The entire creative activity of life, that is, the whole of human history to which God called the human race is accomplished by this creative inspiration. Our prayer, our life, our creativity, moves history toward eschatology, but at the same time does not deny history, but serves as its inner fulfillment.

As we usher out the old year, the year having passed through infancy to old age in the popular image, we are struck once again with the rapid movement of time. How do we view our time, our history, or history in general? Most of human history is tragic. Hegel calls it a slaughter bench, and Hegel of course, is the one who imagines that through this slaughter, progress occurs. Not an eschatological progress toward a transcendent goal, but an inner, closed, progress within time and history.  

As we pass through the feast of the slaughter of the innocents, a modern-day Herod is slaying the children of Palestine. As we witness the slaughter in Gaza, the slaughter in Ukraine, and remember the slaughter of Vietnam, Korea, the Great War, the Second World War, the Russian Revolution, the Maoist Revolution, the totality of which resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths, we recognize history is tragic.

I have just read a history of the American West, in which General Sherman, who conducted a scorched earth policy in the Civil War, and who was assigned finishing the Indian wars, describes the tragedy of history at a speech he gave at West Point: 

War is written into the human soul. Wars have been, are now, and ever will be as long as man is man. You cannot prognosticate that we are to be wiser and better than those who have gone before us, and that because there is now or in sight no just cause for war, that we are therefore to be forever exempt. Wars do not usually result from just causes, but from pretexts. There probably never was a just cause why men should slaughter each other by wholesale, but there are such things as ambition, selfishness, folly, madness, in communities as in individuals, which become blind and bloodthirsty, not to be appeased save by havoc, and generally by the killing of somebody else than themselves. This should not be, but is the fact, and we are no exception to the general rule.[4]

If corporate history is read as tragedy, we know that the senselessness of life can also be overwhelming on an individual level. As William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes (1:2): “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”

History is not simply meaningless tragedy, as we know Christ has broken into history, bringing God’s eternal purposes into time, but we understand how a closed view of the world conveys this. A secular understanding, without recourse to what lies beyond history, cannot account for any apparent meaning in history, though this is the temptation. Examined within its own boundaries, even within its achievements, history turns out to be a great failure.  Christ’s entry into time and history and its rescue, is our story, the story of the Church. In the description of Bulgakov, as an inner force within history, the Church is the place for the realization of salvation – the realm of divine-human reality being joined. This reality is the moving force of history; it drives history towards its fulfillment in eschatology. Time is not “an empty passage into eternity, but is the Church’s development and completion.”[5]

History, we recognize in Christ, is open ended. It is continually open to eternity. But it is this same fact that establishes the tragedy of history when it is approached from the point of view of the expectation of its own inward progress. So too, our own lives. From one perspective every life is tragic, but from the eschatological perspective we understand life as ushering in the Parousia. History is going through a process of creation just as an individual life does. Ironically, the tragedy of life is felt because we are made for eternity. The tragedy of time is felt from an eternal perspective.

The New Testament expresses this in the notion of Kairos, the time for salvation. In Greek, the moment of Kairos was considered a particularly opportune moment for action. In Christian thinking, time is the opportunity for eternity. There is a fullness of time, a purpose for time. In Mark 1:15, for example, it is written: “And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Similarly, in II Corinthians 6:1-2: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain— for He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation”” ‘The time has come’ or that ‘time is at hand’ in which eternity is breaking into time. Both imply an apocalyptic context. Our history is open to eternity, and our history is a part of the movement of Christ.

Another way to state this is, the First Adam is being fulfilled by the second Adam, and this is the meaning of history. It is the meaning of my history and corporate history.

For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:17-19)

All humanity shares in the first Adam. All share in the effects of the fall, all share the propensity for sin, and all share the Adam nature. There is a mystical unity of all humankind in the first Adam. In the second Adam, starting with the Incarnation, this mystical humanity is elevated to the notion of the Church as Christ’s Body. Every child of Adam shares a nature, which is made for redemption. This is simultaneously individual and corporate. We can glimpse how our individual humanity participates in corporate humanity and corporate salvation. We are both the subjects and objects of history.

A concrete human being cannot be conceived independently from humankind. Every human being possesses and lives in his/her own individuality and at the same time also possesses humanity in common with others, living in tension between these two realities. The human being is “as much an individual as a social being.”[6] The existence of humankind as one human family is an important presupposition for the understanding of human history as a whole. The human being is seen not only within the closed boundaries of his/her own being or as a “self-enclosed microcosm.” Rather, human beings are “a part of the whole, and form a part of a mystical human organism.”[7] Thus, Paul speaks of all humanity as the first and second Adam.

“The idea of the Church in this sense is applied to the whole world in its real foundation and aim.”[8] The Church is the meeting point of the first and second Adam, history and eschatology, that is the presence of Christ in history. But the Church exists in tension: it is within historical reality, within the first Adam, but equally in the process of transfiguration into the second Adam. This transfigured life is accomplished in history and through history. On the way to the eschaton, human history becomes the history of the Church. Not the church as an institution, but as the spiritual force of the Parousia being worked out in history. Eschatology, the coming of Christ, the coming of the Spirit, functions as the realization of history and its inner fulfillment.

As Bulgakov describes: “The Church has no continuing city on earth, but seeks one to come. Orthodoxy implies inspiration, the eros of the Church, her yearning for the Bridegroom, the feeling proper to his Bride. It is creativeness directed towards the final goal, the expectation of the End.”[9]

Thus in this new year, we pray, and creatively live out the prayer, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.”

[1] Bulgakov, Apokalypsys Ioana [The Apocalypse of John]: http:// www.krotov.info/libr_min/b/bulgakovs/00_bulg.html. Quoting from Marta Samokishyn, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History” (Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 49 (2008) Nos. 3–4, pp. 235–262), 255. https://www.oocities.org/sbulgakovsociety/samokishyn.pdf

[2] This is Samokishyn’s characterization of Bulgakov’s work. “Bulgakov’s main ‘theological slogan,’ I would say, can be expressed in the words: ‘let God be all in all.’” Ibid. 255.

[3] Bulgakov, The Apocalypse of John. Cited from Samokishyn, 257.

[4] H. W. Brands, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo, and the War for America (New York: Vintage Books, 2023) 362.

[5] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii: Sozertsanie I Umozrenie [Unfading Light] (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1999), 185. Quoting from Samokishyn, 249.

[6] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 345. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[7]Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 346. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[8] Sergii Bulgakov, “Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodox Theology,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 280. Quoting from Samokishyn, 258.

[9] Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes” in Sergius Bulgakov: A Bulgakov Anthology, 19. Cited in Samokishyn, 260.