Knowing the Times and Seasons—the Paschal Epistle

Acts 1:1-8, Genesis 1-2; Genesis 30-50, Romans 8:22-25.

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.

And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Days, time, times, season, when, before, waiting, former, now, after:  our epistle reading for Pascha is full of words that are associated with time.  Some have thought that time is an illusion—something that we mark for practical reasons as human beings, but not actually a thing in itself, if we could just get out of our own skins.

Frequently philosophers, idealists, and theologians have spoken about things that are “timeless” with approval.  Sometimes all they mean by “timeless” is that this idea, or principle, is good for all times, not just for a specific one.  I wonder whether it might be better to call such things “time-ful”—that is, this idea or action holds true in all of time, and not just in one specific moment.  Most folks assume that it is obvious that God is outside of time; but we need to remember, too, that he has come into time, in the God-Man Jesus, that he retained the human body after the resurrection, and that God is also present with us through His Holy Spirit who is everywhere (and at all times) present.

Moreover, He created the markers for time, didn’t He?

And God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…. And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years  (Gen 1: 2, 14).

So it looks as though time were God’s idea, just as matter is His idea.  He is not BOUND as we are within this space-time universe, but He loves it, and dwells with us in it! On top of this, we have it on good evidence—from the apostle Paul—that God is the master both of chronos—the ongoing flow of time—and of each kairos, or significant moment.

It is of course true that some of what our LORD did for us during Pascha was outside of time —His descent to Hell, for example, and His resurrection into a new body, fit for eternal life.  But, the resurrection also made its impact upon our space-time world.  He presented himself alive to them, and stayed with them for forty whole days!  It is not just in his pre-resurrection body, ministry and death that he visited us; rather, his new body also had the means to dwell with us, and show us God’s glory.  He invited Thomas to touch his hands and his side!

I suppose that Christianity is one of the most “earthy” religions known to humankind.  We might have expected this, given the names of Adam and Eve.  Adam, who name is related to the word for “earth,” was a creature made from earth; Eve is the “mother of the living,” calling to mind gestation, delivery, and nursing.  Even the way in which Adam and Eve are related is earthy—God doesn’t simply say, “let there be” woman—He creates her from Adam’s side.

And when we move to the New Testament, things are just as concrete.  Mary is a young woman in her confinement who visits her cousin Elisabeth—and the unborn babe “leaps” in the womb at the approach of the Incarnate, though unseen, Lord.  The boy Jesus is lost track of by his parents, and then when they find them, goes back to Nazareth, obedient to them.  The man Jesus hungers and thirsts, is tired, and actually asks Photini for a drink by the well.  He must wait for the “time” that God has appointed, He sweats drops of blood the night He is betrayed, and He waits on the cross for the moment of His death. Those around Him see the heavens darken in sympathy with His passion, watch Him give over His Spirit, and see His holy body as it pours out water and blood for humankind.  This final physical detail is so important that the fourth gospel comments, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe” (19:34).  And the epistle also comments, “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood” (1 Jn 5:6). All these events happen in time, though they are connected with the will of the Father, who is beyond our time.  Indeed, time is so important, that it is deliberately connected with his resurrection—He tells his disciples that He will rise on the third day.  And that third day after his death marks a whole new “week,” so to speak—it is the eighth day, the LORD’S DAY.

So, then, time is important to God, though it does not master Him.  Jesus’ death and resurrection sent shockwaves back into what we see as the past, releasing all the faithful who had come before Him.  And, as Peter will tell the crowd gathered at Pentecost, God’s promise is for them, and for their children—for all who will call upon the name of the LORD (Acts 2). And so what happened at a particular time works both backwards (from our perspective) and forwards.

We are experiencing a strange time of stasis.  Perhaps we feel like we are living in limbo.  Many of the things that we do to mark time have been stripped from us.  It is perhaps an effort for some who are unemployed to continue to keep a rhythm, something necessary for time-bound people, if we are to stay healthy.  Sleeping at the right time, eating properly, exercising, praying, reading, speaking to friends when we cannot see them, worshiping in whatever way is available to us—we hang on to these things, and must do this, as lifelines. As we have gone through these surreal weeks, I have thought frequently of that even harsher lock-down of the Frank family, and of Anne’s description of their time of hiding in Amsterdam.  This precocious young girl had her own ways of marking time, and was, like many young adolescents, understandably obsessed with the changes in her own body and psyche as she grew into womanhood.  She exploited both memory and hope, as well as trying to work out her present relationship with those hiding with her.  She could not know that her waiting would end in tragedy, though she feared this, and hoped against hope it would not be so.

We, too, have been waiting, but not for nearly as long.  And our danger is nowhere near as clear and present.  For us this time brings not only warning, but hope—hope that the medical teams will be ready, hope for treatment and prevention, hope that the curve will flatten, hope that we will be released, and soon go about our daily lives.

Yet, there is some strength to be gained in the waiting as well.  As Jesus indicated to the disciples when He ascended, not all waiting is fruitless, though it can be tedious or anxiety-producing.  Perhaps the waiting in Jerusalem for Pentecost was a kind of gestation period, something God knew that the first Christians needed.  Or perhaps God was waiting for the moment of the feast, when many who traveled to Jerusalem would witness His dramatic action among the believers, both sons and daughters.  God knows the reasons why Ascension day did not immediately yield the coming of the Spirit, just as he knows why the Second Coming has not yet taken place.

During Lent, we have been reading through the long saga of Joseph (Gen 30-50), who waited many long years to be reunited with his family, and whose father Jacob waited many years to see him. What could have been a time which brewed the desire for revenge inculcated in Joseph a hope to bless even those who had harmed him.  As he explained to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). At the reunion, there were tears and embraces—first for his youngest brother, Benjamin, but even then for his treacherous older brothers.  And after they were reconciled, we are told, his brothers “talked with him” (Gen 45:15). That, of course, is what we are all waiting for— final reconciliation, and communion with all who are dear to us.

Jesus himself reminds us that the Old Testament faithful had a long period waiting for the promises, and did not see them fulfilled in their lifespan: “For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Matt 13:17).  And St. Paul tells us that the whole creation is in a period of waiting, waiting for the time of resurrection: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8:22-25)

Waiting, of course, is not pleasant.  But it brings results, when it is in accordance with God’s will.  God is patient, not wanting any to perish, and so are we called to be patient as well. Romans tells us that the creation, though in yearning, will be delivered when God’s people are finally resurrected.  Hebrews tells us that the prophets and righteous of the past have been, in Jesus, recipients of his promise, since “God provided something better, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:40).  Indeed, “faith,” as defined in Hebrews, could be seen as “patience in waiting” for the promises of God.

So, you may be thinking, does this really apply to our situation?  After all, during Lent we usually anticipate a joyful Paschal morning, a time of reunion, a time when we embrace even those with whom we have disagreed, saying, “Brother!” or “Sister!” because of the power of Christ’s Resurrection.  Instead, this year, we know that we must continue in a time of imposed waiting.  And this extended waiting has brought discord among us, too: some insist the waiting is necessary, and others doubt it, suggesting that we should adopt another strategy, allowing this virus free reign so that we develop a herd immunity.  Others think that we are not expressing faith in this waiting, but simply compliance with a government that does not understand how essential our coming together is.

I cannot tell you the answer to these things: I have been debating them internally for weeks.  What I do know is that God has permitted us to be put into these circumstances, and that He can work in them. There are other faithful ones who have weathered a qualified Pascha, and with more pain than we are now experiencing: war, famine, imprisonment, and other misfortunes do not avoid the springtime! So we must keep our perspective.  And, wherever we stand on the question of social distancing, we may pray that God will at the very least foster in us a deep hunger for each other, for the mysteries, and for the time when we will be united.  May His Spirit draw us closer together in compassion, both for each other within the Christian family, and as we care for those outside.  May our wait, with all its frustrations and debated angles, be used to make a people more like Christ, so that the Holy Spirit, given to us in our chrismation, can teach us how to be more like the apostles in witnessing, even to the ends of the earth.  And so Pascha will lead to Ascension and Pentecost, events that promise us glory and power. We may not know the times and seasons—but God does, and He has called us His friends.  “Our times are in His hand,” as the Psalmist reminds us (Ps 31:15). No waiting is wasted time when He is with us.

 

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