The Lenten and Easter Seasons are of great significance in the Christian life. The call into the spiritual desert to embrace the practices of fasting, penance, and almsgiving are meant to transform the human heart to be more conformed to the love of Jesus Christ. When this purification has concluded, we are to embrace a celebratory disposition of heart as we remember Christ’s resurrection and the empty tomb.
Central to these seasons is a rather unique understanding of time. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday, marked with the ash from burned palm branches as a reminder of our call to repentance (Repent, and return to the Gospel) and to embrace humility (Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return). This starting point marks the beginning of a forty day journey, give or take a couple days based on when Easter falls, to focus intently on the themes of penance and purification.
The period of forty days and forty years are significant in the Bible. Whether it be the forty days of penance called for by Jonah to the city of Nineveh, the forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the desert seeking the Promised Land, or the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, the reference to this number implies an intentional time that is essential for preparing the soul for mission. It is a time of detachment from those things that bring death and attachment to those things that bring life.
Last weekend, we finished a rather intentional time of celebration we call the Octave of Easter. For those of you who are musicians, you know that an octave constitutes the eight notes of a musical scale. Therefore, the Octave of Easter is an eight day period in which each celebration of Mass is seen as having the same importance as Easter Sunday. In other words, it is an “Easter that never ends.”
As I have reflected on in the past, times like the forty days of Lent and the eight days of the Octave of Easter constitute an understanding of time we call Kairos or intentional time that has a kind of timeless quality. Chronos is more of the day to day passing of time in the mundane sense. What I always find of interest is how this commingling of Kairos and Chronos points us to a fluid sense of time in contrast to the precise sense of time that is the obsession of modern society.
A while back, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Bob Berman, author for Astronomy Magazine and astronomer with Slooh.com. In the interview, Bob was speaking with me about time and how the best science of the day is pointing to time as more of an illusion. When I shared this insight with one of my college student at the University of Wisconsin – Stout, he simply affirmed, “Oh, yes Father. Time is most likely the measure of decay.” Maybe Bob should have interviewed my student! In any event, this reflection on time begs the question: Do we understand time as well as we think we do?
In Augustine’s Confessions, the great Saint and Church Doctor also speaks of time as a type of illusion in which the true sense of time is the observation of change. Now, when Augustine speaks of this change, he is not speaking of decay in the scientific sense. Rather, he is speaking more of change as it occurs in our moral and spiritual lives. Augustine’s understanding of time implies a type of “evolution” into the person that God created us to be or observing how we “devolve” into a life of sin and separation from God. It is this tension of change met with the reality of our decay that affirms, to quote the band Five For Fighting, at best, we only have 100 years to live. This truth creates an urgency to change our hearts to be who God made us to be while the natural part of who we are slowly moves toward its natural end.
Lent and Easter, then, place us in an odd tension between the sense of time that is marked by our physical limitations and the sense of time that is spiritual, evolving into something that is more than simply a decaying world. This tension is embedded deep within every human heart, making all people wonder, whether they are religious or not, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
For example, when I am called to give the Anointing of the Sick before someone dies, I never hear people say “I regret living my life in service of God and my neighbor.” However, I do hear heartbreaking reflections on how people focused to much upon unimportant things and not enough on important things – namely faith, hope, and love. In these moments, it reminds me of the brevity of my life, realizing that my journey is, hopefully, approaching its halfway point at 44, begging me to pray with the question, “What does God have in store for me in the second half of my faith journey?”
How do you approach time? Do you have Kairos moments of timeless joy? Do you fear that Chronos has overtaken your life, robbing you of meaning and purpose? Pray with these questions and, as we all live in the tension between becoming and decaying, may we discover a life of meaning, maximizing the potential that God has placed within all of us, so that our time may be pleasing to God and contribute to building up the Kingdom of God in our midst.