Time. Einstein tells us that it’s relative, and most of us would agree. There’s never enough time for you to enjoy all the things you want to do; but when you’re engaged with something you don’t like doing, time appears to stand still!
Most of us have become accustomed to perceiving time the way we perceive history, as something linear that has a beginning, a middle, and—eventually—an end. Essentially it’s looking at events as being related to each other only in terms of their chronology: X happened, and then Y, and then Z. Our calendars give us a grid view of that linear perception of time passing, and remind us that looking ahead is the best way to get ahead.
This linear view of time is how we comprehend the world and the things that happen in it. There are milestones that we record: wars are fought, elections are held, laws are passed. Sometimes it feels like we’re caught up in what many writers have called “the march of history,” as though time itself were pushing us ever forward, subject only to whatever the next big event will be, and with no way of ever looking back. It’s actually a pretty reasonable way of understanding our place in the world and our agency in doing things here.
Christians, however, are not reasonable.
For us, time is different. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, and he is both of those things simultaneously. The Holy Spirit enables us to perceive time itself that way, too, if we can step back from the history texts and experience with our hearts rather than just our heads. For us, time is imbued with the daybreak dew-fresh promises of Genesis, the gift and blessed sanctification of the incarnation, the transcendence and triumph of the resurrection…and all of them at the same time. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist; every time a child is baptized; every time we confess our sins at reconciliation, we are experiencing these essential rites in the company of all the faithful, past, present, and future. There’s an understanding that a bishop stands at the crossroads of the Church throughout the world and the Church throughout history, with all of it, history and geography alike, being present in the now. Our sacraments anchor us in a moment that is eternity.
Time itself is sacramental in nature: because of the Holy Spirit, the past, the present, and the future can participate in the same event. In some ways, we live in an “already—not yet” that exists simultaneously.
Theologian Henri Nouwen explains that there are different ways of experiencing time:
The world’s time is linear time; clock time is chronos time. It is a kind of time in which we always live as if the real thing is going to happen tomorrow, in which the recent moment is always empty, does not hold anything.
The Gospel has a very different view of time. The Gospel speaks about time as whole time, as kairos time. The time has come, this is the hour, now is happening.
The time has come, this is the hour, now is happening.
God’s time, kairos time, is the time of the sacraments, those moments of liminality that connect us to transcendence. For Yves Congar, teaching about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, sacramental time means that past, present, and future can happen at once, through the grace and actions of the Spirit: “It is the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit to effect a communication between realities, despite their limits and the distances separating them,” he writes. This time, time marked by the Spirit, isn’t easily adjudicated by clocks and calendars, nor even easily expressed by words, but instead is an experience of the sacred and a recognition of the way God’s spirit is always (and already) at work in the world. For Hans Boersma, time itself is sacramental in character: thus the sacraments have a peculiar temporal duration, in which past, present and future are not mutually exclusive, as in chronological time. This is sacramental time, the time of the Church. Kairos time.
Why does looking at time as sacramental time, as kairos time, matter?
Let’s go back to our own experiences for a moment. I’ll confess that more often than not, I allow myself to get caught up in chromos time. I realized how significant was my dependency just the other day when I said (and I said it as a joke) to a friend, “If it’s not written down on my calendar, it doesn’t exist in my world.” And then realized that it wasn’t a joke at all. My days are arranged around a clock; my weeks and months are planned out, and as each day passes, I actually place a physical mark on that day: I cross it out. That time, no matter how I spent it, is over, and in some ways ceases to exist at all.
Why do I need that calendar on which I’ve become so dependent? From a practical point of view, it’s entirely justifiable: appointments must be kept, work delivered on time, meetings scheduled. But the real reason is that keeping my clocks and my calendars and my to-do lists gives me the illusion that I can control it all: the events, my participation in activities and projects, even time itself. I measure time—in fact, I try to control time—in order to bend it to my will, to get things done.
The sacramentality of time has the power to snap us out of the ordinariness of daily life. It allows us to see, to feel, to share in the sacramental relationship we celebrate as a community of faith and as the Body of Christ. An old Protestant hymn gives us words to express the difference between ordinary and sacramental time: “A thousand ages in thy sight/Are like an evening gone/Short as the watch that ends the night/Before the rising sun.” All of the times of our lives, all of the seasons of our lives, happen now, in an eternal now that has nothing to do with our limited perceptions of time and space.
The spirit bestows gifts on the world, as the prophet Isaiah and St. Paul each tell us, through offering a life that’s centered on community and caritas. This is precisely what the celebration of the sacraments of the Church is about. They are not rites of passage: they are moments that call us beyond ourselves, beyond the every day, to experience the God who is always in relationship with us from before we were born until we pass into eternal life.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir