The return of the Incarnate Christ in glory inaugurates the apocalyptic transfiguration of the universe. This “return” does not imply that our Lord ceased to be present to the world after his exaltation. The words of Jesus stand:
I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Matt 28:20).
I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. (John 14:18-19)
These promises have been fulfilled, and are being fulfilled, in the eucharistic life of the Church. Yet, as Sergius Bulgakov observes, the ascension did mark a change in Christ’s presence to the world, a movement into a different mode of presence and hiddenness: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The “departed” Christ continues to abide with his Church by the Holy Spirit; but he is no longer seen and heard as he had been during his earthly life. In manifold ways Christ Jesus ministers to his people and empowers the mission of the Church:
The Pentecost became possible only in connection with the incarnation of Christ. It is on this (ontological) basis that Christ implores the Father to send down the Holy Spirit and that He Himself sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. The Holy Spirit eternally rests upon the Son in the Holy Trinity, and since after the Incarnation the entire world becomes Christ’s receptacle, belongs to His humanity, there is already a place in the world for the Holy Spirit’s descent and presence. This place is the incarnate Son Himself, the world as the body of Christ, which, in the Pentecost, also becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. But having ascended in glory to heaven, Christ left the world in a certain sense. Although, spiritually, by the action of the Holy Spirit, He did not “leave” the world, this merely spiritual and mysterious presence of His in the world deprives it of his glory, manifesting Him as if He were still in a state of kenosis. (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 423)
The kenotic nature of the Lord’s present self-communication is preeminently displayed in the Holy Eucharist, in which, as the Apostle Paul teaches, the Church proclaims “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26):
Accessible to the senses and certified spiritually, this presence of Christ in the flesh remains mysterious or even mystical. In this presence one sees only the matter of this world, sacramentally transmuted into the Body and Blood of christ, though inaccessible to sense perception. The presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements is both visible and invisible, mysterious. His departure from the world is thus overcome, for the communion establishes a living union (John 6:54), which is a eucharistic bridge between heaven and earth, as it were. Christ becomes accessible to the world in His flesh, in His glorified body. But this takes place sacramentally through communion, whereas His own life remains hidden in the heavens.
The Divine Eucharist is a gift and fruit of the eternally abiding Incarnation, which the Ascension does not annul. However, the Eucharist does not abolish the Ascension, for, in it, Christ does not return to the earth as He was during the days of His earthly ministry, or as the angels promised on the mountain of the Ascension. Although the eucharistic presence of Christ on earth does have an element of the parousia, not only does it not annul its future accomplishment, but it even summons it. The fullness of the promise to return refers to a presence of Christ “with you in all the days” that is not only sacramental and hidden but also evident. The prayer, “even so, come” was born of the ardent eucharistic feeling of the early Christians. One can say that the Eucharist and the parousia are linked in this sense as the promise and the accomplishment of Christ’s coming into the world. (p. 391)
All forms of Jesus’ contemporary presence are informed by the experience of absence and expectation. Even our Lord’s presence in his sacramental Body and Blood intimates and points to the final parousia. The Church yearns and prays for the return of her Lord, for his bodily presence in fullness, power, immediacy, and universality. “Men of Galilee,” the angels declared to the disciples, “why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
When Christ Jesus returns in glory to consummate the transfiguration of the world, he will be visibly seen by human and angelic beings alike. The time of kenosis will be at an end. No longer will there be a possibility of encountering the risen Lord on a road to Emmaus and not recognizing him. “In the parousia,” Bulgakov writes, “His appearance will be universal and blaze like lightning. It will be impossible not to see and recognize it” (p. 392).
Bulgakov is acutely aware of the limitations of our “helpless language” to express the transcendent event of the parousia. Short of remaining completely silent, though, we have no choice but to employ extravagant symbolism and apocalyptic narrative to speak the unspeakable.
The essential characteristic of the parousia is the appearance of Christ in glory, in direct contrast to His first coming into the world in humility. In His first coming, He was born, virtually unknown and unnoticed, in a manger in Bethlehem on a winter night. But now He comes on the clouds of heaven, seen by all the tribes of the earth. In His first coming, only the angels in the heavens praised Him, but now He comes in glory, surrounded by all the holy angels, visible to all people. One must remember that this meeting with Christ will take place beyond death or “change,” that is, in “clear sight” of the whole spiritual world. And so, the presence around Him of the angels, as well as, of course, of the saints, “Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23), will be evident to all. Also evident to all will be the flaming sign of the Son of God, which is also the “sign of the Holy Trinity,” the Cross. …
The appearance of Christ in the parousia does not know any limits. It is universal, omnipresent, and omnitemporal. He is seen by those who rejoice in Him and by those who tremble in fear of Him, by those who love Him and by those who hate Him. This universality has an absolutely compelling evidentness, analogous to that of the existence of God and of the whole spiritual world in the afterlife. This appearance of Christ is described, in anthropomorphic symbols, as his coming on the clouds of heaven. All of these expressions that link His appearance with a definite place and time are obviously inadequate, since this temporality and this spatiality are other than our own, if indeed it is at all appropriate to speak of temporality and spatiality here. Christ’s appearance in the parousia takes us, in general, beyond the limits of this world: it is metaphysical or metacosmic. This “meta” eliminates the threshold between the two states of the world’s being. In the parousia, Christ will not appear within the limits of this world; He will not appear beneath this sky and upon this earth and before this humankind. Humankind will see Him in a new world, and this appearance will already constitute a radical change in the relation between God and the world. (pp. 394-395)
The second coming of the Son represents the cessation of hiddenness. In his first advent Christ put aside his glory and subjected himself to the conditions of the world, assuming to himself human nature and living and dying as a mortal being. His manifestation as a creature granted to all men an epistemic freedom and distance. It was possible to know Jesus intimately and yet not know him truly, possible to hear his teachings and infer that he was a false prophet, possible to witness his miracles and conclude that he was Beelzebul. Only to Peter, James, and John did Jesus directly reveal his divinity:
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it. (Troparion for the Transfiguration)
In the resurrection God restores to the Son of Man the celestial glory that he possessed “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Except for the few, we do not presently encounter Jesus in his resurrectional glory and effulgence. Perhaps one might even say that the purpose his ascension was to keep his glory temporarily hidden, thus giving the Father time to work out the salvation of humanity in and through the Church. What would happen if the incarnate Son were to unveil himself in the full intensity of his uncreated radiance? How could humanity withstand “this appearance of the Lord in glory,” asks Bulgakov, “without becoming blind, without being burned by the light of divinity?” (p. 399). The universal manifestation of the glorified Christ must entail nothing less than the eschatological recreation of the cosmos, a baptism by fire and divinity.
But what is the divine glory? Bulgakov invokes two verses from the Gospel of John:
Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made. (17:5)
Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. (17:24)
The divine glory, proposes Bulgakov, is the Holy Spirit himself:
Glory in the Holy Trinity corresponds to the revelation of the Third Hypostasis in the dyad of the Father’s self-revelation: the Word of all words, the Truth of all being, actualized by the Holy Spirit reposing upon the Son. The Son and the Holy Spirit as the self-revelation of the Father are united without separation and without confusion. Resting upon the Son as the hypostatic Glory of God, the Holy Spirit is precisely the glory to which He attests [in John 17]. (p. 396)
The eschatological revelation of the Son in glory is simultaneously the eschatological revelation of the Spirit who eternally reposes upon him.
[Originally published on 6 July 2014; mildly edited]