The Healing of Time

The cross interrupts the stories we are a part of and relativizes all times that would determine us.

Ian Olson / 1.13.22

To be alive is to be subject to time. Our senses mature, our children grow, dust accumulates, nations collapse, and our strength declines. But time is not univocal — the sequence of seconds is not all that time is. The question is, what time motivates or constrains our actions? 

All accounts of time are stories of how human beings fit within the world and of what part they play. In the past, a god would have been thought responsible for the world’s outcome and for the rectification of all that had gone wrong, but increasingly time itself is treated in that role. Time and history have been invoked as justification for colonialism and for purges alike. History has been sifted, revised, and erased to serve various agendas, sometimes with terrible consequences for those who are not deemed to be fit. Time has been commodified by industrial capitalism, exacerbating the tensions and perplexities that have always accompanied human existence. Now our moments and days are held under the scrutiny of productivity metrics, mercilessly measuring our use of time. What do we have to show for our having been alive this hour? Or this week? 

And yet time is a fundamental aspect of our framing as creatures for the enjoyment of all we enjoy. Our motion through and experience of the world is braided within the passage of time. Furthermore, time is that into which God economically extends himself for the good of creatures. Our view of time requires rehabilitation if we are to encourage one another and foster substantive hope for the future God has promised.

In The Fullness of Time: Jesus Christ, Science, and Modernity, Kara Slade (a Tulsa Conference speaker) diagnoses the deformed time that has colonized our lives, individually and collectively. Deformed time is antihuman, lashed to metanarratives which relegate human beings to subsidiary significance beneath grander historical purposes. Time becomes little more than the inexorable accumulation of moments irretrievably lost, particularly as they are measured against enormous, impersonal causes which justify exploitation and cruelty. It is therefore treated as a thing to be feared, something both scarce and evaluative of all our actions.

Our fear and distrust of time creates the problem of how to responsibly inhabit the world as creatures positively bound by time. To speak of our temporal constraint sounds bizarre to us because we are so accustomed to seeing time as the decay of ourselves and the things we enjoy. We feel dispersed and dissipated through time and alternatingly look for distractions from time’s passing or fear distractions that could upset the limited time we have. 

A Christian account of time, however, could orient us in our creaturehood by reminding us that all created goods have a past, an end, and so bear a burden of responsibility. There was a time when all of them were not and a time when they will be so once more. Their existence depends upon the care of other creatures who will honor them and their Maker in the time they are given to be. Time, understood this way, is not a doom haunting us out of the past to threaten our future, but one of the resources we are given to share God’s compassion with our fellow creatures.

For this is the same God who entered into the matrix of created reality we contemptuously look down upon so regularly and made use of time as a gift rather than a curse. Jesus Christ submitted himself to the second-by-second passage of moments that distinguish creaturely time from the divine existence-in-itself. In his incarnation the Lord sanctified that dimension of creation we too readily impugn and squander.

Liturgical time is the recalibrated time within the regular metronomic passing of moments which distinguishes certain times as worthy of remembrance in order to make that past time and the future to which they are oriented contemporary with us. Christians are a people created by God’s action in history, and so their primary vocation is to remember, and to remember rightly. Narratives of decline and of progress both can be disputed and defied in this way. Christians remember not because the past is superior to the present but because a certain set of events in the past are more than merely items from the past: they are the future interrupting and transforming the closed circle of merely fallen time. 

We do well to observe liturgical time for two reasons: first, to inhabit the biblical narrative throughout the year and experience the progression of these texts towards their culmination in Christ as pilgrims hearing the texts as texts about us. Second, to resist the propaganda to which we are always subject within the hive of connectivity that is our contemporary world. We are always hearing words address us, telling us what is to be desired and telling us who we are and who we should be. This is the white noise that permeates and shrivels our moral imaginations and transplants our identities onto worthless things that cannot bear the weight of our hope. It is never enough simply to defy: we must have an alternative to choose. 

We can look instead to the church calendar to constantly reorient us; we can continually identify with the history of redemption and continue sanctifying the time Christ has sanctified in becoming one of us. The seasons and intervals of the church’s life render the matter of the gospel concrete for those who are in Christ. “None of it can be discarded,” Slade remarks, “and none of it can be moved beyond as fitting for one season of either a human lifetime or an historical epoch and not another” (129). Lent characterizes the whole of Christian life, just as much as Christmas does. No one decisively leaves fasting behind to move on to only feasting. Likewise, no era of human history purely typifies peace and celebration or mourning and repentance. These are constantly intermingled, and the seasonal focus of the liturgy helps us to disambiguate the knots of our time and equips us to respond to our neighbor in ways patterned by the Savior. 

The past is not a dead thing to be buried or a primitive thing to be abhorred. But neither is it the stage to which the world as a whole must return so that ruin and misery may be overcome. To know the past as past is to know it as a moment and not as a judge sentencing only one possible future. To take our temporal bearings from the covenant of grace, to situate our time within the time of Christ’s coming and the Spirit’s sending, is not a denial of what has happened or of what is happening: it is the graced rearranging of both within a different frame altogether, one that accords human beings with dignity and reassures us that the tyranny of Sin and Death is only temporary. Faith’s acceptance and reckoning of time demythologizes the metanarratives which present the past as determinate proof of what must be. 

But the present must be demythologized as well. The present is not the forerunner of an inevitable progress, nor is it the inevitable outcome of the past. It is not inherently superior to what preceded. It cannot be wasted by failing to be productive, only by refusing to accept or to offer grace. 

Grace is, primarily, the disposition of God towards his disobedient and disappointing image bearers. Derivatively, grace is the creaturely practice that is most godlike. Christian discipleship emphasizes how its inversion of worldly logic is not only beneficial to we who know ourselves to be in the wrong, but also that it challenges fallen humanity’s assumptions of what “God” means. In the liturgy we are given certain actions to carry out, actions which respond to and emulate God’s actions. In so doing we are shaped by the humility of the Living God and taught what authentic human existence actually entails.

Contrary to the dictates of deformed time, there is nothing we must secure. We live from the middle, as the beginning and the end have been put in place by God. There is thus only our responsibility for the time being, the “now” that is decisively anchored not only to the creation but, through the cross, to the eschatological future. The cross interrupts the stories of which we are a part and relativizes all times that would determine us. The One who was crucified, while one of us, is not merely one of us. All moments are contiguous to the crucified Lord of time, and the faith which brings Jesus Christ to Golgotha erupts into the present to elicit faith within sinners today. Christ is present wherever he is preached, effectually summoning us out of paralysis to live as ones who will accept responsibility for the past — forgiven, and therefore no longer bound by the dictates of the regimes that preceded us and shaped our present. It does not negate all other significant happenings in time, but reconfigures our histories around a new center such that other lordships and pretensions of mastery are challenged and displaced.

The Christian’s responsibility is to inhabit this time as a creature caught up by the in-breaking of the work of Christ, to draw hope from the future that has been opened up by his resurrection and ascension, and so to persevere in the love with which Christ loved her. We return to this history again and again to inhabit it as our history. The present that aligns itself with the continuing history of Jesus Christ makes itself receptive to both past and future, drawing its life not from itself but from the crucified Lord of time. Taken on in this way, time is the gift of God for the people of God; “without it, the kingdom of God would be a matter of human achievement, and we would thus be left at the mercy of someone else’s vision of progress — or trapped within our own” (125). The coming of Jesus Christ into the mundane conditions of our lives in the breaking of bread, in a cup of cold water, in Christian witness and generosity is a fresh radiation of the fullness of time, and whenever and wherever that occurs time is healed.