Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church;
and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
— Jesus to Peter, in Matthew 16:18
Peter, in his First Letter, defines the experience of time proper to the Church as ho chronos te paroikias (1 Peter 1.17), — the time of the parish, or parochial time. Originally, “parish” (from para– “besides” + oikos “house”) meant the “sojourn of a foreigner”. In Greek, the term paroikousa — “sojourning” — designates the manner in which dwell foreigners and those in exile. Paroikein — to sojourn as a foreigner — is the word that designates both 1) how a Christian is to live in the world, and 2) the way a Christian experiences time; it is opposed to katoikein, a verb designating how a citizen of a city, state, kingdom or empire dwells.
The term “sojourn” does not refer here to a fixed period of time, a chronological duration. The sojourning of the Church on earth can last — and indeed has lasted — millennia.
The parochial time of the Church — the only time that really defines it and is one with it — is opposed to a common error among Catholics, often called a “delay of the Kingdom of God”. According to this error, the initial Christian community, expecting the imminent Second Coming of Jesus (and thus the end of time, the eschaton), found itself confronted with an inexplicable delay. In response to this error, there’s a movement within the Church aiming at reorientating the bark of Peter to stabilize its institutional and juridical organization, — pushing the Church to cease to paroikein, — to sojourn as a foreigner in this world — so as to katoikein instead, — to live as a citizen of the world and thus to function like any other institution of this world.
The parochial time of the Church cannot designate a chronological period. We can not speak of a chronological delay in the context of the Messiah as though we are speaking of a train being delayed, because there is no place in parochial time for a fixed and final habitation (oikos); there is no time for delay.
It is with this in mind that Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “About dates and times, my friends, we need not write to you, for you know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5.l-2).
In this passage, the verb “comes” — erchetai — is in the present tense, just as in the Gospels the Messiah is called ho erchomenos, ‘He Who comes’ — that is, He Who never ceases to come, and just as Walter Benjamin writes in his thesis on history, “every day, every instant, is the narrow gate through which the Messiah enters.”
The messianic time is not the end of time but the time of the end. It is very different from the apocalyptic time, from the last day, from Judgement Day. What is messianic is not the end of time but the relation of every moment (every kairos) to the end of time and to eternity.
What interests Peter and Paul is not the final day, the moment at which time ends, but the time that contracts and begins to end — the “time that remains” between time and its end; it is nothing less than a radical qualitative change in how time is experienced: as a foreigner in a foreign land.
To live in “the time that remains” between time and the end of time — to experience “the time of the end,” — means a radical transformation of our experience of time. We cannot conceive of it as that segment of chronological time extending from the Resurrection of Christ to the Apocalypse. What is at stake is neither the homogenous and infinite line of chronological time (easy to represent, but empty of all living experience) nor the precise and unimaginable instant where it ends. No. What is at stake is a time that pulses and moves within chronological time, that transforms chronological time from within — like a thief in the night entering through the narrow gate of every day, every instant.
On the one hand, the messianic time is the time that takes time to end. On the other hand, it is also the “time that remains” — the only time we have and will EVER have. It is the time which we need to end time, to confront our customary image of time and to liberate ourselves from it. Chronological time — the time in which we wrongly believe we live — separates us from what we are and transforms us into powerless spectators of our own lives. The messianic time-of-now is the only real time of experience, and to experience this time-of-now implies an integral transformation of ourselves and of our ways of living.
“But this I say, my brothers,
time has contracted (ho kairos synestalmenos* esti).
While it lasts,
those with wives should be as those who had none (hos me = “as not”),
those who weep as though they wept not,
those who rejoice as though they rejoiced not,
those who buy as though they possessed not,
and they that use this world, as not abusing it.”
— I Cor. 7.29-3 1
*The verb systellein indicates both the clewing up of a ship’s sails and an animal’s gathering of its strength before pouncing.
Just as messianic time transforms chronological time from within, rather than abolishing it, the messianic vocation (klesis), — thanks to the “as not,” — revokes every vocation at once; it voids and transforms every vocation and every social condition so as to free them for a new usage (“make use of it”):
“Let every man remain
in the calling in which he was called.
Were you called as a slave? Do not be troubled.
But if you can become free, make use of it.”
(I Cor. 7.20-22)
Under the “as not,” one life cannot coincide with itself, and is divided into a life that one lives (vitam quam vivimus, the set of facts and events that define one’s biography and positions) and a life for which and in which one lives (vita qua vivimus, what renders life livable and gives it a meaning and a form).
To live in the messianic time, within the parochial Church, means to revoke and suspend — every day, every instant — every aspect of the biographical life that we live. It also means to make the life for which we live appears within it. Paul calls it the “life of Jesus” (zoe tou Jesou — zoe, and not bios):
“For we which live
are always delivered unto death for Jesus’s sake,
that the life also of Jesus
might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.”
— 2 Corinthians 4:11
To live the life of Jesus is to live the impossibility that life might coincide with a predetermined social position, or biographical narrative. It means the revoking of those aspects in order to open one’s life to the zoe tou Jesou.
“Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
–Matthew 6:24-34 (Luke 12:24-27)
The verb oikonomein acquires the meaning of “providing for the needs of life, nourishing”: the Acts of Thomas paraphrase the expression from the parable in Matthew 6:26 “your heavenly Father feeds them” about
the birds of the sky as ho theos oikonomei auta.
For Paul, the time of the Messiah cannot be a future time; he always uses the expression ho nyn kairos, the “now time” to defines it. As he writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Idou nyn, behold, now is the time to gather, behold the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
Paroika and parousia, the sojourn of the foreigner and the presence of the Messiah, have the same etymological structure, expressed in Greek through the preposition para-: a presence that distends time and space; an “already” that is also a “not-yet”; a “here” that is also an “not-here”; a delay that does not put off until later but instead produces a disconnection within the present moment that allows us to grasp time; an ultimate that is also a “non-ultimate” — e.g. a penultimate, a next-to-last.
Just as messianic time is not some other time but an integral transformation of chronological time from within, an ultimate experience (an experience of the last things) would entail, first and foremost, experiencing penultimate things differently.
Real eschatology is nothing other than a transformation of the experience of penultimate realities. Yet the evocation of final things to come, of ultimate realities (such as the Kingdom of God), has so completely disappeared from the statements of the Church that it has been said that the Roman Church has closed its eschatological window. “Christ announced the coming of the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church,” wrote Alfred Loisy.
What is at stake here and now is the Church’s ability to read what Matthew (16.3) called “the signs of the times,” (ta semeia ton kairon). To live in the time of the Messiah means to read the signs of His presence in history, to recognize in the course of history the signature of His economy of salvation. If the relation of history to the Kingdom of God is penultimate, the Kingdom nevertheless is to be found first and foremost in that history. And in the eyes of the Church Fathers, history is presented as a field polarized by two opposing forces: the katechon and the Church.
In a passage of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul calls katechon the first of these forces. The katechon defers and holds back the eschaton — the advent of the Kingdom of God, the full presence of the Messiah, and thus the end of this world. The katechon maintains and ceaselessly defers the end of time along the linear and homogenous line of chronological time. The katechontic force does it by placing origin and end in contact with one another. And doing so, the katechon endlessly fulfils and ends time. And as it is, this force is dedicated to the indefinite and infinite governance of this world; so let’s call it the State.
As for the second force of history, let’s call it the Church, or the Messiah. Its “economy” is the economy of salvation, and by this token is essentially finite.
The only way that a community can form and endure in time is if these two poles are present and a dialectical tension prevails between them.
Yet this tension seems today to have disappeared from every institutions of this world. The sense for a finite economy of salvation in historical time is weakened; and the infinite economy of the State extends its blind dominion to every aspect of our biographical and social life.
The Church has almost abandoned its eschatological exigency, and this exigency is being recycled and reactivated in a secularized and parodic form — not only in the occult sciences that have rediscovered the gestures of the prophet of doom, and announce every sort of irreversible catastrophe, but also within the State: the permanent crises, the states of permanent exception and emergency that the governments of this world continually proclaim are a secularized parody of the Church’s incessant deferral of the end of time and the Last Judgement.
With the eclipse of the messianic and parochial experience of the Church comes an unprecedented hypertrophy of the State — one that, under the guise of a permanent crisis, betrays its illegitimacy through executive excess and the indefinite suspension of the Rule of Law.
Nowhere in this word today is a legitimate power to be found. Even the powerful men of this world are convinced of their own illegitimacy.
The complete juridification and commodification of human relations — confusions between what we might believe, hope and love and that which we are obliged to do or not do, say or not say — are the signs of the times, not only of a crisis of the State and of the Rule of Law, but also, and above all, a crisis of the Church.
The Church can be a living and legitimate institution only on the condition that it maintains an immediate relation to its end, its finitude, which is the salvation of souls.
According to Christian theology there is only one institution which knows neither interruption nor end: Hell. The paradigm of contemporary politics — which pretends to be an infinite economy of this world — is thus effectively infernal.
Jesus has promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church; so the Church has not and will not lose itself completely in time; it will not curtail its original relation with the paroikia; it will not lose its messianic vocation of salvation; it has not been swept away by the disaster of illegitimacy menacing every government and every institution of this world. But it has become very weak and corrupt; the parochial and messianic Church is shrinking; and we should work with that diminishing Church to help it grasp again the historical occasion of now. And to do so, we must remember that the present history of humanity is not an interim founded on the delay of the Kingdom of God.
What is at stake here is the nature and identity of the katechon, the force that defers and eliminates the end of time, in order to perpetuate the penultimate time of the end.
For some Catholics, the main sign of the katechon is the Empire, the sovereign power of the Christian empire:
“The belief that a restrainer holds back the end of the world provides the only bridge between the notion of an eschatological paralysis of all human events and a tremendous historical monolith like that of the Christian empire of the Germanic kings.”
For others, the katechon coincides with the Jews’ refusal to believe in Jesus Christ. They go so far as to believe that the historical existence of the Church is founded upon the suspension of the Kingdom due to the Jews’ failed conversion. For them, the Church can only exist because the Jews, as the people elected by God as the representative of mankind, have not believed in Jesus. Not all Catholics are antisemitic, but the specificity of Catholic anti-Semitism is defined by those two suppositions relating to the historical existence of the Church (the foiled conversion of the Jews, and the delay of the Kingdom of God). According to this error, the existence of the Church founds itself on the endurance of the Synagogue, — and given that in the end “all Israel will be saved” (Romans II:26) and the Church must give way to the Kingdom, Israel will also have to disappear.
What is crucial here is the reactivation of a philosophy of history oriented toward salvation, in order to resist the infernal economy of the State and the extermination of the Jews. One heresy is threatening the unity of the Church today: the belief that at the point where the economy of salvation had reached completion with the Resurrection of Jesus, an event took place (the failed conversion of the Jews, or the Christian empire) that had the power to suspend the eschaton.
If the eschatological advent of the Kingdom will become concrete and actual only after the Jews have converted, then the destruction of the Jews cannot be unrelated to the destiny of the Church. The deportation in Rome, on October 6, 1943, of a thousand Roman Jews to the extermination camps that took place with the silence of Pope Pius XII points to the ambiguity of a theological thesis that tied both the existence and the fulfillment of the Church to the survival or the disappearance of the Jews. This ambiguity will possibly be overcome only if the katechon — the power that, postponing the end of history, opens the space of secular politics — is returned to its original relation with the salvation of souls and the glorious Kingdom of God.
The action of the powers of this world is eschatologically irrelevant, here: what acts as katechon is not the political power of the State, but only the Jews’ refusal to convert. Historical events — from the World Wars to totalitarianism, from the technological revolution to the atomic bomb — are thus theologically insignificant. All but one: the extermination of the Jews. This false belief is leading many to negate the relation between the time of now and the ultimate apocalypse, and thus to transform the chronological time of history into a suspended time, in which every dialectic tension between the Church and the State is abolished, and the Great Inquisitor watches over so that the full presence of the Messiah is not produced in history.