…to the ages of ages.
This familiar phrase concludes just about every prayer that we offer to God, whether in church or at home. It is a direct English translation from the ancient liturgical languages: in saecula saeculorum (Latin), eonas ton eonon (Greek), and y vo veki vekov (Church Slavonic). It is a phrase that we use so often that it just comes as second nature, and the words roll effortlessly off our tongues.
But what does it mean?
Well, it comes from a Hebrew literary device used to illustrate the superlative: something that is the greatest among and even beyond a certain category. We see it used in Holy Scripture, where the Saviour is referred to as “King of kings” and “Lord of lords” (Apocalypse 19: 16). That is to say, He is the King above all kings, and the Lord above all lords.
Ages of ages applies the same device to our concept of time.
We human beings exist within physical creation, where science explains to us that the movement of the heavenly bodies in relation to each other generates what we perceive as time. We know time. We think in terms of the past, the present, and the future. We remember what we did yesterday (or then, perhaps we might not, depending on how much we had to drink), our today is still unfolding, and we might have plans for tomorrow.
Our entire life, knowledge, and experience is limited to this context. There are certain things we would love to do if only we had enough time. Our school and working day, as well as our social lives, are governed by time, and from one culture to the next, we have highly developed rules of etiquette related to time.
For us even to imagine a state of being where there is no time – no past, present or future; no before or after – but simply an eternal “now”, is very difficult indeed. It is impossible for us to comprehend.
Yet this is the state of being of God, and our worship of Him, our praise of the Trinity, stretches throughout time as we know it, but also extends beyond our experience of time and into that time that is beyond time, or “to the ages of ages”.
Earlier this evening, we prayed Vespers for the Final Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday when we focus on the end of time, the consummation of the ages, when time as we now know it will be no more.
The way we understand our existence is so heavily dependent on time that there has been considerable fascination over the centuries to do with its end, and much speculation over when it will be and what it will look like. Every few years, we hear about another apocalypse cult which people have joined, having been led by some prophecy or other to believe that the end of the world will be on a particular date. They may abandon their families, leave their jobs and homes, and go to live on mountainsides or caves, awaiting the end of the world. Then the date comes and goes, and there is much confusion and disillusionment.
This cult model forms the basis for the story of the protagonist in one of my favourite television comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the story of a young woman who tries to rebuild her life after escaping the clutches of such a cult, as well as the quirky coterie of friends that she makes along the way.
In a sense, this fascination with when the end of time will be is the adult version of the children’s mantra on a long car journey:
Are we nearly there yet?– almost every child in a car.
There is an almost innate curiosity that means that we want to know, and we may feel a great sense of being unsatisfied if we do not. Yet this is not something that has been revealed to us, and the Saviour Himself tells us in the Parable of the Virgins that it is not granted for us to know the day or the hour (Matthew 25: 13).
So we must refocus our longings, and instead of speculating about the date, we should instead turn our efforts to conforming our lives, our hearts, our words, and our actions to the will and love of God, so that whenever the Bridegroom arrives, we may be found ready to greet Him.
Today is the final Sunday of the Church’s year. The new year begins during this coming week and, next weekend, we shall mark the First Sunday of Advent, when holy Church teaches us to prepare and wait rather than to guess and speculate.
Let us embrace this holy season in prayer and fasting, as we await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.