Does anybody really know what time it is? A meditation on the mystery of time.


I began our New Years Eve adoration at 11:00 AM with the observation that we begin this prayer in one year, and end in another. New Years Eve features the mysterious passage from one year to another. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Tuesday to Wednesday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. What time is it? It is 1:15. Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it is merely a measure of change. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense since change doesn’t happen at a steady pace at all.

Some say it is just another way of clocking distance in the space/time continuum. Time and distance surely are related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past, for is has taken sometimes millions of years for the light of many stars to reach us through the vacuum and vast distances of space. Even the light of the sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s just more to time than distance and we all know it. The Greeks had several words for time. Chronos was clock-time. Kairos was a complex notion of time as experienced subjectively. Thus ten minutes can seem like an hour or an hour pass swiftly. Further things can seem fitting at certain times and not at others. Kairos is thus an elastic notion of time. And lastly there is Aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). More on Aeon below.

Yes, every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me, a mammal. He has heart and lungs, a very similar physiology to me in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of our “inner clock.” Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. Thus, a “day” is the cycle of the sun, as is a year. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon, and “month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth.” Seasons too follow the Sun’s trajectory in relation to the horizon and length of day. But more mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Anthropologically most cultures manifest a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture,  but other cultures show a similar tendency of seven days. Where does the seven day week come from? Mysterious. But we seem, as humans to have some inner clock in this regard.
  4. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of His creature, time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.

3 Replies to “Does anybody really know what time it is? A meditation on the mystery of time.”

  1. I have not seen one of those old Moody Science Videos for a very long time–they were often part of the “keep the kids busy” during Parent-Teacher Meeting nights at the little Baptist Christian School I attended (lo, these many years ago!). Always appreciate your work, and I also enjoy these funny bits of continuity with my own background, as a latecomer to the fulness of the faith (who got a rip-roaring good start from my Bible-believing family). 🙂

  2. “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know. But at any rate this much I dare affirm I know: that if nothing passed there would be no past time; if nothing were approaching, there would be no future time; if nothing were, there would be no present time.

    But the two times, past and future, how can they be, since the past is no more and the future is not yet? On the other hand, if the present were always present and never flowed away into the past, it would not be time at all, but eternity. But if the present is only time, because it flows away into the past, how can we say that it is? For it is, only because it will cease to be. Thus we can affirm that time is only in that it tends towards not-being.”

    Sheed Translation of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. XI.xiv.

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