Unto Ages of Ages
Mr Alexander Titus
We frequently hear about the “secular” worldview, “secular humanism,” or simply “secularism,” set in contradistinction to the “religious,” “faith-based,” or, as is the typical case in the West, “Christian” worldview. However, it’s always extremely important to define our terms carefully, especially when dialoguing with those whom we disagree, lest we talk past each other. With this in mind, I actually think it’s this very word, “secular,” that can help us understand the place of the Gospel in our ever-changing world. In short, I want to suggest that the term “secular” is in reality a deeply Christian word, and one which we shouldn’t let so easily go to the media pundits.
Etymologically, the word “secular” derives from the classical Latin saecularis, the adjectival form of the noun saeculum, the rough equivalent of the English “age” and the Greek αἰών (from which we also get “aeon”). Thus the formula in saecula saeculorum is the literal Latin translation of the Greek εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, or in English, “unto the ages of ages.” The phrase, besides serving as the conclusion to the most common and recognizable Orthodox doxology (“Glory… now and ever…), finds its origins in the letters of St Paul. Unfortunately, many Biblical translators seem to believe that it is merely a poetic way of saying “forever and ever,” and render it as such in English.
While it’s certainly true that “ages of ages” has the sense of “eternity,” the more literal meaning also contains a connotation of immediacy. That is, when we glorify (“doxologize”) God using this language, we aren’t simply making a declarative statement about his “timelessness.”Rather, we are formulating, in a sense, his glory as an evangelical proclamation in our own saeculum and in every saecula. In other words, we call ourselves accountable to make God’s glory, mercy, and love known in and throughout every age. Similarly, the Gospel, as the annunciation of this glory in the world, is not only “timeless” but fundamentally “timely.”
Our God of course isn’t one content to “exist” in timeless eternity, but one who makes himself known in his creative activity and throughout history. So too the Gospel cannot simply “exist,” but requires the participation of human beings to become manifest at all times and in every place. I would contend, therefore, that Christians are called to be “secular” precisely in this sense: not of the world, but in the world, timely as well as timeless. We are the midwives at the Nativity in saecula, the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula, and the Apostles sitting beneath Pentecostal tongues of fire in saecula.
Yet what could this look like in specific, concrete terms? When I was the OCF director at my home parish before I came to seminary, I tragically never thought to implement the idea which I’d like to suggest now to any young adults, and especially college students:
Many suburban and urban college campuses have a large block of public space, usually a grassy quad, which, if memory serves, is heavily populated during typical weekend evenings with people going to and from various bars, clubs, and parties. If this is the case, consider gathering together on Friday evening to organize a food and/or clothing distribution for the needy, right in the midst of this space. I hope this wouldn’t be an attempt to shame the partiers, but rather gently and humbly to show them an alternative. In this act of charity, you’re visibly taking your “party” evening, which modern “college culture” says you should take for yourself to drink and make merry, and using it solely for the service of others.
Christ identifies himself quite literally with the poor and downtrodden: “I was hungry and you did not feed me” (Mt 25.42). I don’t think this is simply a call to be “humanitarian,” but in fact is a very real and timely Gospel proclamation. Hence if we take seriously the notion that we are to make God’s glory known “unto ages of ages,” witnessing (μαρτυρώ – as in ‘martyr’) to our fellow human beings in this secular world is a good place to start. This is, after all, the only world we have.