O Tempus! Time Belongs to God, Not to Us

The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:

Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.

Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Only God lives in pure aeon, the fullness of time.

Kairos is related to our concept of something being timely. There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”

This famous passage from Ecclesiastes sets forth the kairos notion of time and ends with a reference to eternity:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

… I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).

Yes, there is a time for everything. We like to think we determine when that is, but more often events and time itself determine what is timely and appropriate. We are not the master of time and events. Something bigger, caught up in God’s providence, sets the agenda. We may wish to laugh or celebrate, but sometimes there comes the awareness that now is not the right time. Even a happy occasion like a birthday or an anniversary can be overtaken by other events and a time to laugh becomes a time to cry.

In my spiritual reading I recently came across the following mediation on time in Jesus’ own earthly life. It is worth pondering, especially to the degree that we think we can be the master of time:

When Luke writes that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature” (Lk 2:52), he is saying by this that Jesus respected time. He was not in a hurry. He could wait until “time” was right. This is also abundantly clear from his unusually long, hidden life at Nazareth.

We, on the other hand, are, in practice, inclined to deny time. We try to step over time, make decisions that we are not ready to make, and carry out task that have not been given to us ….

Everything good comes from God, but he does not give everything at once. Sin is to want to have something that God does not yet wish to give, … to seize immediately what he wishes to bestow only gradually.

… The New Testament speaks insistently about patience. It is a question of waiting, of staying awake, of being prepared. We cannot go into the wedding feast whenever we wish, but only when the bridegroom comes (Matthew 25:1-13). Another text warns “Behold I am coming like a thief.”

(Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, O.C.D. in Eternity in the Midst of Time, pp. 39-40)

Thus, time and the Lord of Eternity insist that we wait and that we be ready. Time belongs to God. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8).

Every Easter we bless the Paschal Candle, which denotes the Year of the Lord. As the priest uses the stylus to cut or denote the year, he says,

Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and forever. Amen
.

Yes, all time belongs to Him. He has set the limit of our days. He has always known us (see Jeremiah 1:5). He summoned us to be; He knit us together in our mother’s womb and every one of our days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). He is the Lord of time and history. He is the Lord of the present, and our future has always been present and known to Him.

We do well to remember all of this and to be grateful and humble. Our language about time bespeaks a certain pride and even a sense that we can beat or master time somehow. Consider some of these saying regarding time:

    • Making time for things
    • Killing time
    • Wasting time
    • Turning back the hands of time
    • Fighting against the clock
    • Being behind the times
    • Having too much time on our hands
    • Being a day late and a dollar short

Yes, we often think we can make time, or alter it, or know how much time we should have. Instead, we should humbly admit that we cannot alter time, turn it back, kill it, or make it.

Other expressions speak to our recognition that certain things are appropriate to certain times. Why exactly this is remains mysterious. Thus, we say things like this:

    • It’s high time
    • No time like the present
    • Right time, right place
    • This is the moment of truth
    • This is my hour of need
    • I’m having a hard time
    • I’m having a moment
    • I’m having a whale of a time
    • We had the time of our lives!
    • I finished in the nick of time
    • The time is ripe
    • Time flies
    • It will happen in due time
    • It has stood the test of time
    • Time is on our side
    • For the time being
    • You caught me at a bad time
    • Time is of the essence
    • God will bide his time
    • He’s doing time (in jail)

Expressions such as these show how time frames us and shapes our experience. Time is experienced, not altered or mastered. Time belongs to God; by it, He frames our life and shapes our experience. We sense time’s passage, its appropriateness, its givenness.

Be humble about time. You are not its master, God is.  Festina lente!  (Make haste, slowly).

The video below is set to Carl Orff’s composition of “O Fortuna,” which contains a far darker assessment of fate as the wheel of fortune turns. The world and all its glories are fading!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: O Tempus! Time Belongs to God, Not Us

What Is Time?

So often in funerals I hear proclaimed the familiar lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the great mystery we call time; more on its text, in a moment.

If I were to ask you to define time, could you do it in a way that really satisfies? For example, some have defined as “the measure of change.” Well, OK, but that doesn’t satisfy, does it? Ultimately time is deeply mysterious; our attempts to nail it down in words betray its depths more so than reveal it.

The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:

Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.

Kairos is related to our concept of something being “timely.” There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”

Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Thus, God alone has aeon in its full and perfect sense.

 The book of Ecclesiastes speaks beautifully to both kairos and aeon. In its most familiar lines it expresses the kairos notion that there is a fitting time for all things:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

…I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).

We can all sense the truth of these lines; certain things are fitting certain times. We are startled, grieved, and even offended when things take place outside of our expectations. That we all have this sense is clear, but where it comes from is less so.

Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes continues on to describe the much more mysterious concept of aeon, the fullness of time:

God has made everything appropriate to its time but has put the timeless into our hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. … I recognize that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. What now is, has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).

Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot and did not give us. It is something that is nowhere evident in the world, yet though cannot perceiving it, we still know it. This passage from Ecclesiastes calls it “the timeless.” We also refer to it as eternity, or even infinity.

Perhaps most mysterious is this line: what is to be, already is. God is not waiting for my tomorrow. My tomorrow, even my whole future, has always been present and known to God. Scripture says,

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. … All of my days were written in your book before one of them every came to be (Psalm 139:4,16). Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).

Indeed, God is not waiting for time to pass. For him, everything just is; all is eternally present to Him in a comprehensive “now.”

Where did this notion of the timeless come from? In speaking to it, God is appealing to something we somehow “know,” even if subconsciously. Our world is finite; time on this earth is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything here of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady, unrelenting ticking of the clock (chronos). Every verb we us is time-based, rooted at some point in time and never able to break free from it. Everything is rooted in chronological time, but somewhere in our heart we can grasp “the timeless.” It is hard to put into words because we know it at a very deep level, but we do know it.

So, the experience of “forever” does not exist in this world or from it, but it is in our mind and heart! There is no way for us to engage in time travel here in this world, yet instinctively we know that we can somehow! Science fiction and fantasy often feature going back to the past or forward into the future. The world could not possibly teach us this because we are locked in the present and have never actually traveled in time, but somehow we know that we can do it.

Yes, we can paint a picture of eternity even if we have never experienced it. Look at the dot in the center of your analog watch or clock. Let’s suppose that the current time is 2:00 PM, meaning that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. Yet, at the center dot, they are all the same. This is aeon; this is eternity, the fullness of time; this is a picture of timelessness, of all time equally present. This is where God lives and where, to some degree, we will one day dwell.

Where did we get it from? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. The world is finite, limited; it is time-bound, not timeless. Where did we get it?

Maybe it’s from God. The mystery of time is caught up in the mystery of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Is Time?

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? A Meditation on the Mystery of Time

I open our New Year’s Eve late night Mass (11:15 PM) with the observation that we begin Mass in one year and end in the next. New Year’s Eve highlights the mysterious passage between years. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Thursday to Friday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. I might ask you, “What time is it?” You might reply, “It’s 1:15.” Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

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

Some say it’s just another way of measuring distance in the space-time continuum. Time and distance are certainly related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past; it has taken millions of years for the light from some stars to reach us over vast distances through the vacuum of space. Even the light from our sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s more to time than distance and we all know it. There are several different words for time in Greek. Chronos refers to clock time. Kairos encompasses a complex notion of time experienced subjectively. Sometimes ten minutes can seem like an hour, but there are other times when an hour can pass by swiftly. Further, things can seem fitting at certain times but not at others. Kairos thus expresses an elastic notion of time. Lastly, there is aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). I’ll comment more on aeon below.

Every year at this point I ponder the mystery of time, probably because time is so much on our minds. As I do so, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is until we’re asked to define it in some meaningful way. It reminds me of what St Augustine once said about another mystery: the Trinity. If someone asks me to define time I am tempted quote St. Augustine: “If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” So time, while plain and simple at one level is mysterious at others.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few:

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying, that 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 strong 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 much of a difference, but the law of relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way, it is almost like a comparing a large, lumbering elephant to a tiny mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) its speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were operating in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Life Spans – Why are the life spans of different species so different? Like me, my cat Daniel is a mammal; our physiology is quite similar in most respects. Yet his clock is likely to expire after about 15 years while mine is more likely to make it closer to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years. Many types of parrots can live to be over 100, while other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but carp can live up to 100 years. We all seem to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar animals. We seem to carry the mystery of time within us. I have never heard a satisfying explanation of the wide variability in life spans.
  3. The Mystery of our “Inner Clock” – Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. A day is the cycle of the earth rotating on its axis. A year is the cycle of the earth orbiting the sun. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon orbiting the earth (“month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth”). Seasons result from the earth’s trajectory around the sun as well as the tilt of the earth’s rotational axis in relation to the plan of its orbit. More mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Human beings in most cultures seem to have 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 toward seven days. Where does the seven-day week come from? It’s mysterious. As humans, we seem have some inner clock that needs resetting at about that frequency.
  4. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly, there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word simply to mean a very 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.” 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 graphic of the clock at the upper right. It shows 2:00 (let’s assume in the afternoon). That means that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock. At that spot, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 6:00 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; He lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, the past and the 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 whether you or I will get to Heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, thousands of years ago is just as present as is thousands of years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages.

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).

Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be (Ps 139, 15).

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 and 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 time!

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

What Is Eternal Life?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

I often think that we haven’t done a very good job of setting forth the doctrine of eternal life. For most people, the concept seems a rather shallow one: that we will live forever. Frankly, many may not consider it all that appealing if the place where we live forever is Heaven. Too often, Heaven is reduced to merely this: a place where I’ll be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, and I won’t ever have to suffer. The description never gets around to mentioning God. If He is mentioned at all, He’s way down on the list somewhere rather than at the top where He belongs. This is sad, for the heart of Heaven is to be with God!

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” pondered the problem of the generally poor understanding of eternal life:

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. … The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown.” Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal,” in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).

My own pondering and experience has led me to conclude that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, but its fullness. To enter eternal life means to become fully alive. Here on this earth we are not fully alive. We experience much of death in these lowly bodies of ours. However, most of us do get glimpses of eternal life and can experience some aspects of it. For example, have you ever had a day when you felt you had all the energy in the world? Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and you were efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click; there was joy and contentment. Days like that and feelings like that don’t last, but they provide a glimpse of what eternal life might be like—except that eternal life will be immeasurably better!

Another experience I have of eternal life is one that I hope you share. At the age of 56, my body is no longer in prime condition. It is aging and death will one day come to it, but my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, serene, confident, prayerful, and content than ever. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or at least greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive now than I was when I was in my twenties. Just wait until you see me at 75 or 90! As I get older I become more alive. What I am saying is that eternal life doesn’t just begin after we die. It begins now and should grow in us more and more. Its fulfillment will only be in Heaven but I am a witness (and I hope that you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.

This experience of being fully alive is to be contrasted with one of the descriptions of Hell in the Scriptures which refers to it as the “second death” (e.g., Rev 21:8). This means that the dammed, having died in the corporal sense, now descend to what is not really life. Yes, they have existence and experience, but their lives are dead because they are not living for what God made them for: His very self. Theirs is a “life” of frustration and emptiness because the whole key to happiness is missing. Having rejected God, His Kingdom, and His values, they have nothing left with which to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts. It is a life so far from eternal life that it is barely a life at all; thus Scripture calls it the “second death.”

Again, the main point is that “eternal” in “eternal life” refers not so much to the length of life as to its fullness. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected. We will be caught up in the great movement of love that is the life of the Trinity. Who really needs a mansion when you can live in the heart of God? That is our true dwelling place that the Father is preparing. It’s not about houses and seats of honor; it’s about a place in the heart of the God who made us and loves us. It is to become fully alive and perfect as the Father is perfect.

Pope Benedict presents this beautiful image of eternal life:

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22) (Spe Salvi, 12).

In the following video from a few years back, Bishop Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made in other posts as well: when the Church fails to teach her doctrine well or casts aside her traditions, the world often picks them up but distorts them. In this video, Bishop Barron discusses the current obsession with vampires. He notes that as we have struggled to present well the concept of eternal life, the world has taken up the notion of those “who can never die” in the vampire craze. The fact that they live forever is a horrible curse to them and any biblical notion of eternal life is absent; they are merely the “un-dead.” Yes, when the Church drops the ball, the world picks it up—but flattens and distorts it.

The Sunlight by Which We See Is Ancient

I was meditating on time today, precipitated by some things I have recently learned about the light of the Sun that reaches Earth.

I have long known that to look up into the night sky is to look far into the past. Looking up at the star Sirius, I am seeing 9 years into the past. Looking over at the star Antares, I am seeing 250 years into the past. And when I look the star Rigel, I am seeing 600 years into the past. Looking farther still at the Andromeda galaxy, I am seeing a million years into the past. That is how long it takes the light of these stars and galaxies to reach us! We are not seeing them as they are now, but as they were then. The past—even the distant past—is very present to us.

The light of the Sun takes 8.25 minutes to reach us. Thus we see its surface not as it is now, but as it was more than 8 minutes ago.

Yesterday, I learned that the light of the Sun is even older than I had thought. A little research on my part revealed this astonishing fact: the photons of light that reach the surface of the Sun (and then reach us 8+ minutes later) were actually generated 100,000 years ago in its core.

Emerging from the Sun’s core as the result of nuclear fusion, a photon of light enters the radiative zone. The plasma in that zone creates quite a maze for the photon to get through; it takes the better part of 100,000 years to make the journey to the convective zone and the photosphere where it finally begins a rapid journey out into the vacuum of space.

Why does it take this long? Imagine being in a large room filled with people, trying to get to the door on the other side the room. But as you try to make your way across the room, person after person strikes up a conversation with you, delaying your progress. It won’t take you 100,000 years to get to the door, but you get the idea.

Thus, the sunlight we currently bask in is much more than 8 minutes old; it’s actually 100,000 years old! The light we see today was made in the Sun’s core back during the beginning of the last ice age.

The great mystery of time is on display for us at every moment. The past is present in many ways. And our past is on display and still present as well. If anyone on a planet near Rigel were looking back through a telescope at Earth right now, he would not see us as we are today but as we were in the 15th century. The light of our “today” will not reach Rigel for 600 years.

What is the present? It depends on where you are. God, who is just as present at Rigel as He is here, has the same access to the images of 1417 as he does to those of 2017. Indeed, He is present at Andromeda just as much as here on Earth; and a million years ago is just as accessible to Him as is today.

The future is even more mysterious, but to God, the future is just as available as is the past.

Do not miss the irony of the fact that the light of the Sun (and the reflected light of the Moon), by which we measure the passage of time and tell what time it is now, is about 100,000 years old.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Only God, only God. Time is very mysterious. It seems that the more we think we know, the less we really do.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you (Psalm 139:16-18).

A Meditation on the Delay and Silence of God

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry about most things. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

We live in a loud, fast-paced world, one of constantly “breaking news,” in which crisis and urgency are the predominant mode. Instant communication and quick responses are expected, even demanded.

At the national level, there is hardly any reporting at all by the media before there is a rush to analyze, comment, and demand a reaction and plan of action from public officials.

At the personal level, someone will often express irritation at not hearing back from me within the day, or even within minutes. “I sent you a text! Did you get it?” If I do not answer a text quickly enough I may get another one that simply says “Father …?” An email may begin with a subject like this: “** Second Attempt **” if the previous email went unanswered for even a day.

In many companies, voice mail has been discontinued because it’s “too slow.” Many younger people seldom answer their phones let alone initiate phone calls. Communication is more commonly accomplished through instant messages, texts, and tweets. This results in a clipped quality to conversations that limits thoughtful discussion.

Yes, we are in a big hurry. But back to my question: Have you noticed that God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry? God could easily solve everything instantly with a mere snap of His fingers; one word and it would be fixed. He does not do this, however, and He has His reasons. Perhaps it is important for us to live some of our questions in order to appreciate their depths. Perhaps the problems we want solved are themselves part of a deeper solution that God is working to make us humbler, wiser, and /or stronger.

Beyond puzzling, God’s slow pace can also be dismaying. Why does God allow the wicked to inflict so much damage for so long? Why does He allow error and heresy to go unchecked? Why does He permit sinners to remain unpunished and uncorrected?

The Church too is often rather slow to respond or act. We will go on for decades, even centuries, pondering and reflecting while the world rushes forward at light speed into error, darkness, and confusion. We often want the Church to have quick answers and effective responses to all of this; we want the Church to turn on a dime but that’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around.

Though at times imponderable, God’s delay is sinless. The Church’s delay, however, may be admixed with sin, sloth, and resistance. This does not mean that all the delay of the Church is sinful. Especially in today’s world of quick, often rash reaction, there is still the need for careful, thoughtful, prayerful deliberation. Our faith doesn’t reduce easily to sound bites. The Gospel does not fit on a bumper sticker. The Church should not be reduced to a fire department, but she should keep her identity as a careful medical practice. The urgent should not eclipse the important.

Yes, all of this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I am impatient by nature; I tap my foot incessantly in meetings, thinking, let’s get to work already! I am a bit like the impatient field hand in the Gospel (Mat 13:24ff), who wanted to tear out the weeds from amongst the wheat. The Lord cautioned against doing so might because it might harm the wheat. He said that they should be allowed to grow together until the harvest; the day of judgement will come, but not yet.

Indeed, rash actions can cause harm, even if unintentionally. Quick or draconian measures to eliminate error and sin may harm the saints and ration the Spirit. Conflicts have their place. They can call the question and sharpen the distinction between the good and the wicked; darkness can allow the light shine even more gloriously.

But Father, but Father! What about the many souls who are lost and confused in the silence while the Church delays, reflecting and pondering? I know, I know; I have no simple answer, except to point back to God. While the Church’s delay may be prudent or imprudent, in these hurried times of instant communication and demanded answers, God’s sinless delay and lengthy silences still shine before us and challenge our often-rash instincts.

God takes His time. The Jewish people were 400 years in slavery and 40 years in the desert. From then it was 1800 years to the Christ, who spent thirty of His thirty-three years in seclusion and silence.

Yes, for reasons of His own, God is not in a big hurry. For my part, I must learn this hard lesson and be careful to enter into the silence of God through prayer. Having prayed in that silence I must emerge to patiently, teaching and preaching the faith that God has revealed. I can do no more, but I can do no less.

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s words are a fitting conclusion to this hard lesson for us modern compulsives:

Silence is of capital importance because it enables the Church to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, imitating his thirty silent years of Nazareth….and his intimate dialogue with the Father in the solitude and silence of the desert….

Light makes no noise. If we want to approach this luminous source, we must assume an attitude of contemplation and silence….The true nature of the Church is not found in what she does but in what she testifies. Christ asked us to be light. He ordered us not to conquer the world, but to show men the way, the truth and the life.

I know well that God’s silence constantly runs into man’s impatience…[but] nowadays man fosters a kind of compulsive relationship with time. One day we will understand everything. Until then it is necessary to seek without making noise.  

Who can understand God?…As with all questions connected with God, there is a stage when the search can go no farther. The only thing to do is to raise our eyes, to stretch out our hands toward God, and to pray in silence while awaiting the dawn…. [Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, pp. 219-221]

While Earth Rolls Onward into Light – A Beautiful Meditation on Time from an Old Hymn

ClocksMy blog is usually posted in the evening at about 21:00 (9:00 PM) U.S. Eastern Time. But in Sydney, Australia, it is 1:00 in the afternoon of the following day. As I prepare for bed, they are eating lunch on a day that has not even begun for me. And proceeding farther west from there, in the Philippines and Japan the afternoon is winding down and the workday is coming to an end!

Time. What could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say that it is 9:00 PM on Wednesday, February 17th? But on the other hand, what could be more mysterious? Time is a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.

And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time, some people are asleep in the night, while others are at midday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says,

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

Here are two other beautiful verses from the same hymn:

We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night
.

As o’er each continent and island,
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away
.

Magnificent lines! The hymn contains a beautiful and poetic description of the Church: always praising, always sighing, always at worship. Although some are asleep, the praises continue. One of the Psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations (Psalm 113:2-4). The praises never end, for the sun is always rising somewhere even as it is setting somewhere else.

Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty (Mal 1:11). At any given time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours, too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful somewhere. Yes, in the mystery of time, this planet of ours is a place of perpetual praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of Heaven, for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation), And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts

Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St. Paul says to us as individuals is fulfilled by the worldwide Church. His advice is so simple and yet so profound. St. Paul says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17).

Here is a rendition of the entirety of the hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The complete lyrics are available here: The Day Thou Gavest.

 

Will the Real January 1st Please Stand Up? A Homily for New Year’s Day

123114This feast day of January 1st is a very complex tapestry, both culturally and liturgically. Perhaps we can use the second reading by St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to weave through some of the many details. We can look at it in three parts.

I. The chronology of our celebration – The text from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, When the fullness of time had come …

Most people in the wider culture and in the Church are going about today saying, “Happy New Year!” And rightfully so, for it is the beginning of the new year. But most people think of New Year’s Day in almost wholly secular terms. Sadly, it is best known for excessive drinking and rather loud parties.

Yet it is a mistake to see New Year’s Day simply as a secular holiday. St. Paul reminds us, in speaking of “the fullness of time,” that all time and all ages belong to God.

It is not simply 2015; it is 2015 Anno Domini (A.D.). Even the most secular and unbelieving of people in the Western world locate their place in time in relation to Jesus Christ. It is 2014 years since the birth of Christ. Every time we write the date on a check or at the top of the letter, every time we see the date at the top of the newspaper or on our computer screen, that number, 2015, points back to Christ. He is the Lord of history. Jesus sets the date; He is the clock we go by. All time belongs to Him.

Jesus says in the book of Revelation,I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, The beginning and the end. He who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Revelation 22:13).

If it is true that 2015 references the birth of Christ, the question arises as to why Christmas Day is not also New Year’s Day. But this actually makes a lot of sense if we understand liturgical and spiritual sensibilities.

In the Church, and stretching back into Jewish times, it was customary to celebrate the high feasts of faith over the period of a week. In Christian tradition this came to be known as the “octave.”  Though we think of a week as seven days, it does not take long to consider that we celebrated Christmas last week on Thursday. Now this week we celebrate New Year’s Day on Thursday, and Thursday to Thursday inclusive is eight days.

Thursday, January 1, 2015 is the eighth day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition the octave is considered really as one long day that lasts eight days. Therefore, Thursday, January 1, 2015 completes Christmas day; Christmas day is fulfilled. Or as St. Paul says, the “fullness of time” in terms of Christmas day has come. And thus the calendars flip from one year to the next. Now, at the end of Christmas day, our calendars go from 2014 to 2015 A.D.

The rest of the secular world has largely moved on already, barely thinking of Christmas anymore. As I walk in my neighborhood, I see the strange spectacle of Christmas trees already set out at the curb waiting to be picked up by the recycling trucks. Yes, for many in our hurried world, Christmas is over. But we in the Church continue to celebrate the great Christmas feast and cycle. Having completed the octave, we move on to Epiphany week.

Thus, this New Year, we contemplate the “fullness of time.” The passage of another year reminds us of the magnificent truth that to God all time, past, present, and future, is equally present. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. And whenever He acts, He always acts in our time, out of the fullness of time. This is a very deep mystery and we should ponder in silence the mystery that for God, all things ARE. He is not waiting for things to happen. For Him, everything is accomplished. I will write more on this in tomorrow’s blog.

II. The content of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, God sent forth his son born of a woman. And with this statement we are again reminded that we are still in the Christmas cycle.

We’ve already discussed the concept of the eighth day, of the octave. And while it is New Year’s Day, there is also a complex tapestry of religious meanings to this day as well.

As we’ve already seen, it is still Christmas day, the eighth day of the one long day that we call Christmas Day.

Historically, this is also the day of Christ’s circumcision. And for a long period in Church history that was the name given to this feast day, “The Circumcision of the Lord.” As I have written previously, I personally regret the loss of this feast, at least in terms of its title.

This is the day when Joseph and Mary brought Christ to be circumcised. In this, Jesus as man and also as God reverences the covenant He has made with His people. It is a beautiful truth that God seeks relationship with His people. And in this covenantal act of the circumcision is the moving truth that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11).

There is here the first shedding of blood by Jesus. It is also a sign of His love for us.

Another truth about the content of this feast is the Holy Name of Jesus. For not only was a Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day, but he was also given his name, and all hear that name for the first time.

The name, Jesus, means “God saves.” And indeed this most Holy Name of Jesus, when used in reverence, has saving power. We are baptized in His Holy Name along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. And all of our prayers conclude with His Holy Name. Scripture says of His great and holy name,

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 9-11).

And yet another identity and content of this feast day is shown in its current, formal title, “The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God.” This title replaced the title of the Feast of the Circumcision back in 1970. However, it is the most ancient title for this feast day. Again, you can read more on this issue in a previous blog post.

We note in the reading that Paul says that God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Jesus is God, and since Mary gives birth to Jesus, Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is not two different persons.

Mary did not just give birth to part of Jesus, she gives birth to Jesus. And thus the title “Mother of God” speaks to us as much about Jesus as it does about Mary. It is a title that she has because of the Church’s insistence that Jesus cannot be divided up into two different people. We cannot say that Mary gives birth to one Jesus but not “the other one.” There is only one Jesus, though He has two natures, human and divine.

And thus, on this feast of Christmas, on this eighth day of Christmas, we are reminded and solemnly taught that Jesus is human and also divine. In taking a human nature to Himself from his mother Mary, He remains one person. God has sent forth his son born of woman.

III. The consolation of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, Born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out Abba, Father! So you are no longer a slave,  but a son, and, if a son, also an heir through God.

Note three things about this text:

A. Our Adoption – We have already noted that on the eighth day Jesus is circumcised and enters into the Covenant,  into the Law. In the Incarnation He joins the human family; in the Covenant He joins our family of faith. He will fulfill the old Covenant and inaugurate the new one. And by this New Covenant, by baptism into Him, we become members of His Body and thereby become adopted as sons.

We become sons in the Son. When God the Father looks to His Son, loving His Son, he is also looking at us and loving us, for we are in Christ Jesus, members of His Body through baptism. God is now our Father, not in some allegorical sense, but in a very real sense. We are in Jesus and therefore God really is our Father.

B. Our Acclamation – St. Paul says that the proof of our sonship is the movement of the Holy Spirit in us that cries out Abba! In Aramaic and Hebrew, Abba is the family term for father. It is not baby talk, like “Dada.” But just as most adults called their father “Dad” or some other endearment rather than “father,” so it is that Abba is the family term for father. It would be a daring thing for us to call God “Dad” unless we were permitted to do so, and instructed to do so by Christ.

St. Paul speaks of this word as proof that we are sons. In so doing, he emphasizes that it is not merely the saying of the word that he refers to. Even a parrot can be taught to say the word. Rather, St. Paul is referring to what the word represents: an inner movement of the Holy Spirit wherein we experience a deep affection for God the Father. By our adoption, our baptism into Christ, by our reception of the Holy Spirit, we love the Father! We develop a deep affection for Him and dread offending Him. By this gift of the Spirit, God is my Father whom I deeply love!

C. Our advancement – Notice that St. Paul then speaks of how we have moved from being a slave to being a son, an heir. In Jesus, we are not just any son, we are the only Son of the Father. And as Jesus has a kingdom from His Father, we too inherit it with Him! As sons in the Son, we are heirs with Jesus to the Kingdom!  Jesus speaks of His disciples as one day reigning with Him: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me (Lk 22:29). In Jesus, all Heaven will be ours and we will reign with Christ forever. This is not our doing, not our glory; it is Christ’s doing and His glory in which we share.

And thus we have a very rich tapestry on this New Year’s Day, this feast of the Octave of Christmas, this Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of Mary the Mother of God. And also we are given this feast wherein the glory of Christ is held before us and we who are  members of His body are told of the gifts that we receive by His Holy Incarnation and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

It’s not a bad way to start the new year: reminded of God’s incredible love for us, of His rich blessings and promises.