Secular Time and God's Time
Today is December 9, 1990. In the year of the Church it is the Second Sunday of Advent. The difference between the two identifications of this day is profound. On the one hand we have secular time and on the other religious. And yet we speak of the same day.
Yet the difference is even more disturbing. Secular time comes in several packages, the most obvious: linear time and circular time. Days go by one after another: the sun rises, reaches noon, sets, and night follows. One day after another, month by month, year by year. All the same. Except that cyclic time makes each day different, unique in the great circle of the day, each truly so not only in time but also in place. And if that cycle does not suffice, the whole universe may be cyclic.
Most days celebrated in the calendar are linear feasts. New Year's Day. Memorial Day. July Fourth. Labor Day. Washington's Birthday, Lincoln's, Martin Luther King's. As we move along the line of the year, their days come up. And we note them. He died 102 years ago. This is the 215th anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Armistice after world War I was signed this day 72 years ago. Even the saints are linear. Each in turn, those commemorated by a memorial, as most are not. He/she entered Heaven this day 120 years ago. 400 years ago.
There is linear time. There is cyclic time. And there are other times as well. But what concerns us today is God's time. Perhaps we could call it liturgical time, dream time, festal time.
For when we celebrate Christmas we do more than remember the day when Christ was born 1990 years ago, more or less. We do that indeed, for the birth of Jesus is an historical event that is remembered. But when we celebrate the feast of Christ's Nativity, we do so also mystically. That is to say, time as we know it is left behind, and we are into God's time, timelessness, the eternal now which we are at a loss to understand. We do not need to understand it, explain it. How many things there are even in the natural order which we truly do not understand, but gladly make good use of.
Liturgical celebration is a matter of reliving in grace the original event. In God's time what is temporal becomes perennial, timeless, removed from the limits of time. We are at Bethlehem, we hear the angels, see the shepherds, we are at the crib with the Wise Men. The original witnesses are no better off. Our response is on a par with theirs. So is our participation. The way we react to Christmas now is the way we would have reacted then, since it is the same event and we are the same person here or there, now or then.
And we share with the original participants the grace of returning each year to mediate on, ponder on, what cannot possibly be absorbed in one exposure. We need to return over and over to the first scene, in reading, in pondering, in prayer, in participation as we will do fifteen days from now.
Mystical time, grace time, liturgical time, means that in the cycle of the year of the Church we pass through the major mysteries of Christ's life by actual participation in grace. We respond to the event. We are graced by it. We become part of it and it of us.
There is no other human activity that is similar. In remembering past events by holidays we do not in any way assume that we are doing over, reliving, witnessing anew, what once took place. It is all over and done with. We merely remember it. The saints days too. We are not with Francis Xavier or again with Vincent Ferrer. We rather recall their lives, their witness, their day. And recognize them. We are living in the Kingdom and ask their prayer. Unlike national birthdays, we recall not the dead but the living and commune with them.
But when we celebrate Christ we do so in a quite different way. We enter into a kind of dream time, our first modest taste of eternity, in which history disappears and what was past becomes present, remote becomes here.
For we deal with realities so deep, so profound, that one encounter would scarcely do. We need to return again and again if we are to enter into them. Hence, from the beginning, the Church has done again in mystical mode the events done before in the real.
The first lesson we learn in so doing is how genuine the narrative of the first event really is, the narrations we find in the Gospels. For we see what a variety of response there was to what took place: enthusiastic acceptance (relatively rare), indifference (the most common) and rejection (the most effective). We like to think how noble would have been our response had we witnessed the Passion, the Death, the Rising, yet we have only to look at our response this day, this season, this year, to confirm the truth that our response then would have been the same as now.
How graced we are in being able year after year to relive the life of Christ, each year given us and hopefully increasing in us a deeper sense of what takes place, what it all means, seeking in prayer to enter into it deeply, share it, live it.
In New Guinea they were wont to mark the year by Christmas. And so, in asking someone: How old are you? We would ask: How many Christmases have you? I do not necessarily inquire of your age, but I do ask: How many more can you count on? And how deeply have you entered into this profound mystery?
So now, yet once more, we are invited to leave time and enter God's eternal now and gather at the crib of the Child born of woman and born of God. Amen.
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