On Time


For most of us in the West, time moves primarily in a line from one point to the next. What is before is the past. What will come later is the future. The present is wherever we happen to be on the line right now.

We move along this line in cycles. In our daily lives these cycles are marked by schedules of things we regularly do each day at a particular time. We rise. We bathe. We dress. We eat. We go to work or school. We work and learn. We eat again. We work and learn some more. We come home. We eat again. We work, or relax, or spend time with family or  meet with friends. We sleep. The cycle resumes the next morning. Our linear lives are the additions of these daily cycles, one upon the next, a spiral coil, starting at birth, ending at death, always moving forward. The past is past. The future is yet to come.

The cycles are of course not only daily, but weekly, monthly, yearly, multi-yearly. Moving along the perimeter of the coil, coil upon coil, always in one direction from birth to death.

A line of cycles. Coil upon coil.

The spiritual practices of many religions, including Christianity, seem to order time in a similar way. Morning, noon, evening and night prayer, and perhaps other times between these, form the daily cycle of prayer and readings we call the daily office. Every Sunday both ends and starts a new weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian year-- Advent, Christmastide, Season after Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Season after Pentecost-- a yearly coil. The three year-lectionary cycle, with a focus each year on a different gospel, different strata of the Old Testament, and different selections from the epistles and Psalms, another coil. For United Methodists, the four year cycle (quadrennium) between General Conferences, another coil. And so it goes-- birth to death, cycle to cycle, cycles within cycles, but always, always moving forward. The past is past. The future is yet to come. The present is now.

More and more the ethos behind the design of Sunday worship, especially in the last 30 years or so in US Protestantism, participates in this linear understanding and embodiment of time. We enter the worship space, sing or experience music and often drama or video clips that seeks to move us beyond ourselves and toward God in some way related to what the core of that experience is designed to do-- give us a "message" the inspires us to live better in some way and informs us of ways to do so. A closing musical set sends us out with  affirmation and encouragement to make the improvements everything in the service has inspired and taught us to make. This week's message or topic builds on last week's and lead's to next week's-- one step forward along the line at a time. A series of coils, week after week.

This construct of time as a line of cycles or a series of coils moving forward is reinforced constantly in our cultural and daily life experience. And it has real, even adaptive value for us. By repeating cycles, we may be getting better at the things those cycles are forming us to be and do. Practice does lead to perfection. Practice in similar if not identical contexts helps us achieve that perfection in such contexts more quickly and also makes us more able to apply what we've learned in different contexts over time.

But it has a serious limitation.

Shakespeare points to that limitation directly in Macbeth's famous soliloquy when he gets word his wife has just died.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time. And all our
Yesterdays have lighted fools the way
To dusty death. Out! Out, brief candle.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by and idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If all we do is move forward, one coil at a time, tomorrow upon tomorrow upon tomorrow, with all our yesterdays always gone, what is the point? Where is the "signifying,"  ultimately?
We need a different vision of time if time or we ourselves are to be redeemed.

And prophetic and apocalyptic Judaism, along with early Christianity, at least through Augustine (pictured at left), supplied it.

Perhaps the ultimate early Christian reflection on time comes from Augustine's Confessions. 

There he wrote:

"O my Hope, let not my purpose be confounded. For if there are times past and future, I desire to know where they are. But if as yet I do not succeed, I still know, wherever they are, that they are not there as future or past, but as present.”

In other words, all time really exists always in the present moment. Here, now, the past is with us. (Anamnesis).  Here, now, the future breaks into our lives (Apocalypsis and prolepsis). 

This is the sense we feel in worship, sometimes with dazzling brightness, sometimes as a dim flicker. All the saints from all times and in all places join us to sing the Threefold Holy to God and to the Lamb when we gather at the Lord's table. Every hand that has ever been or ever will be laid upon the head of another to convey the sealing of the Spirit at baptism or the empowering of the Spirit at ordination is present at such moments. Every voice in every tongue or sign language that ever has or ever will pray the Lord's prayer accompanies us as we pray it, every time-- including our own voice back then and yet then and right now. 

The past is no longer simply past. It is present. But it is never present with us as something we ever simply relive, but rather as whatever abides with us because we have lived it. The promise of the future is something we never wait to grasp, but always grasp by embracing and living the promise now. 

And so we live our lives at all times and in all times now. Our ordering of time during the day (daily office), the season or year (Christian year), and the groups of years (three-year lectionary or quadrennial decision cycles) are not, from this angle, simply coil upon coil, always moving forward from birth to death. They are or at least are invited to be  acts that open us to the Spirit's gracious re-minding and re-making us who we are meant to be, full participants in the very life of the Triune God who was, and is, and is to come, Alpha and Omega, ever, and now, always.

The energy that flows through the coils of our lives does not flow in one direction, but by God's grace in every direction at once. We do not move from birth to death, tomorrow upon tomorrow. We move, by the Love of the One in Three, always, from life to Life. We need not truncate our worship finally into being "set up" for and response to messages that follow messages, a linear series, as if time were only in one direction. We are invited by the Holy One not out of time, nor into Timelessness, but into Timeful Time, not simply with words but means of grace, ordinary and improvised,  where past and future are always present as we attend to the Presence in the present. 

While in Eastern and African Christian traditions, Augustine's understanding of time continues to this day, informing theology, ecclesiology and especially worship, in the Western philosophical tradition it came nearly to a full stop after Augustine.  

The Western mind has surely been captured and captivated by the idea of endless linear progress. But that idea, we know, turns out to embody and then endlessly run away from an endless nihilism at its core. The coils are centrifugal, fleeing and turning themselves away from the Nothing, the Terror within yet always equidistant from it.
But this prophetic Jewish and Christian understanding of time remained embedded and embodied in the Western liturgies and the Christian reckoning of time (East and West), a reckoning that still relies on cycles and coils, yes, but coils able to conduct energy in all directions always focusing on the Omega point of the now. Now is always the appointed time.

May the experience of such Timeful Time inform the ways we live and move and have our being before and with and in the Holy One, all our days. 

And may we know the grace to allow the energy of the Spirit to break us free from the Western, nihilist, uni-directional linear coiling of time, that in life and in worship we may know and help others know the One who flows in all directions always, every now and ever. 

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credits, from top: Norwegian Arm Band, 1884 Poster of Thomas Keene in Macbeth, and 6th Century Image of Augustine from the Lateran Church, all public domain. Eternal Clock, photo created in Gimp by Robbert Van der Steeg, used by permission under a Creative Commons License.