The human relationship with time is a strange thing. The upright stones of neo-lithic human communities stand as silent reminders of our long interest in seasons and the movement of the heavens. Today our light-polluted skies shield many of us from the brilliant display of the night sky and rob us of the stars. The modern world is not only shielded from the stars, but from many aspects of time itself. Artificial lighting has made the setting of the sun into an unremarkable event and extended daylight into whatever hour we might wish. And though the seasons are worth noting, it is primarily their effect on clothing choices that seem important – foods have become omni-seasonal (for a price).
With all of that, the Church’s calendar becomes an intrusion and a disruption almost an antique artifact. On the secular calendar, days of the week are but markers for which television shows are showing, a fact which itself is increasingly irrelevant in the digital world of delivery-on-demand. Days and years have importance only for writing a check correctly (something that is itself disappearing). But the Church calendar colors days, marking some for fasting and others for feasting and makes of time a complication that demands attention.
The Church calendar was once described to me as the “sanctification of time.” In this part of the modern world I would describe it not only as the sanctification of time, but the insistence that there even be time.
This is a common pattern within Orthodox Christianity. To outsiders, the calendar may seem exotic – but it represents nothing more outlandish than an affirmation of what it means to be a human being. Our humanity is a tradition. I can only learn what it is to be a human being from another human being, someone who has successfully fulfilled that reality. Animals are no different. Birds do not suddenly fly – their flight is traditioned to them. Human beings learn to walk in a traditioned manner as well. Your computer or your phone will not teach you how to be a human being.
So many things that modern people see as strange or unusual within the traditional life of Orthodox Christianity are no more than the encounter with living memory of what it is to be human. And time in its traditional form is one of them.
What is time? Science describes time as a function of space. Space describes an expanse and time locates something within that expanse. And although this description of time is not “traditional,” it nevertheless works. Time helps us to locate ourselves. To be human includes time and space. I cannot be human everywhere – but only at a particular place and a particular time (which are the same thing). It is this aspect of our humanity that our jettisoning of time seeks to ignore.
As we entertain ourselves to death, we become more and more abstracted from both space and time. Wandering in a digital world we have forgotten how to return to ourselves and simply be present to a particular point. Tragically, that particular point is always (and only) the place where we meet God. The calendar is thus something like an “appointment device.” This feast, this day, this time in my life, if I will keep the appointment, I can meet God.
The feasts on the calendar are not appointments with memorials, the recollection of events long past. They are invitations to present tense moments in the liturgical life of the world. In those moments there is an intersection of the present and the eternal. They are theophanies into which we may enter.
The events in Christ’s ministry that are celebrated (to use one example) are of little importance if viewed in a merely historical manner. It is not enough to say and remember that Christ died. The Christian faith is that I must become a partaker of Christ’s death. Christ is Baptized, but I must be a partaker of His Baptism. This is true of all the feasts and is the reason for our liturgical celebrations. The Church is not a memorial society – it is the living presence of Christ in the world and the primary means by which we may share in His presence.
There is no time like the present for only in the present does time open its riches to us and bestow its gifts. Only at the present moment do the doors to eternity offer us union with what would otherwise seem lost.
For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Co 6:2)
I wish you would write some more about the details of the church calendar.
Amen ! I am concerned at the “modernists” attempt to change time : B.C. has become bce; A.D. has become ce…what? To see a calender from before Abraham see :http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2001/enoch_cal.html; and to see the person who gave the world this calendar:http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/ethiopian/enoch/index.html, just follow the links. Enoch was widely read by Christians in the past !
The Church calendar also connects us with each other across time and place and in the moment as well. During the celebration of the Circumcision which also coincides with the name day of our bishop, I got to connect in a personal and important way with two friends of mine who live about 60 miles away. One, a recent widow and the other, her late husband’s God Son who has become a defacto God Son of mine.
We were able to connect because we each kept our appointment with God. These are moments that are simply impossible in the digital environment where time and place and even person becomes increasingly irrelevant.
It would have been so easy not to keep that appointment as my wife and live 25 minutes away and it was cold, we were tired and achy and hungry.
God is merciful.
Am I mistaken or is your post elaborating on the communion of the Saints?
Thank you Father for such invaluable guidance…
I cannot get enough of your discerning insights! Thank God for the “intrusion” of the Church calendar in an inane, secular experience of the mystery of time, full of misplaced hope, filled with the worship of entertainment (“to death”)!
The ‘future’ seems to have become a tyrant of man lately, making of the present -that holy and unique place of encountering God-, a mere means of achieving future wishes and targets; treating it as little more than a bridge leading to some promised (yet ultimately unreachable) objective.
This phenomenon (that acquired unprecedented acuteness in the late twentieth century with the rapid developments of information technology), has made Man deeply distracted and deluded. Faced with those tremendous developments that exaggerate our imagination and further intensify expectations of the future, through the global network that facilitates communications and transactions, (I am not considering what one would recognize as ‘sins’ here), while relentlessly compromising our peace of mind, we are actually feeding our deception of disregarding the present. We are even destroying all our roadmaps to that unique ‘place’ where we have the possibility to “Be still and know God”. The syndrome of informational fatigue (resulting chiefly from overloading the mind with info) seems to be designed to rival -and eradicate for good- the traditional hesychastic (and contrasting) state of ‘purity of mind’.
Yet the mystery of “time”, for us believers is, paradoxically, also a ‘hope’. It is a hope however of an entirely different category. It joins the ‘now’ with the ‘eschaton’. We therefore do not get older by a year; we get younger…! With every new-year we approach our beloved God having become one year younger. We celebrate each feast on the calendar not as “yet another repeat” with more white hairs, but as a closer-to-the-Beloved awareness, our increased white hairs signify greater communion with Life. Our increased wrinkles are not connected to wear and deterioration but to the renewal of the approaching sight of God’s face.
I am intrigued by the fact that Christ and Christianity not only redeems humans, He/it/they also allow us lost and aimless creatures to even now what it means to be a human.
the topic fits within this, but I did not have it specifically in mind
A very interesting article, Chalice of Eternity, An Orthodox Theology of Time, by Dr. Brandon Galliher, discusses the concept of time and eternity from an Orthodox perspective. Hopefully, this will add to the conversation. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your insight that continues to expand my Orthodox experience.
BTW, we just had Father Don Berge (Antiochian) from Tennessee here at our monastery, The Theotokos, the Life-Giving Spring in Dunlap, CA. He and his Khouria were visiting their daughter and family; the daughter and family are part of our local monastery community.
Father, thank you for this post. I wish I was always aware of these things about the Churches calendar. I guess it needs some time to sink in–till I’m aware of the full Reality (and I mean just that) of the Feasts and liturgies of the Church. I want to find “what would otherwise seems lost.”
On another note, don’t you think humans have always had problems returning to themselves and being “present to a particular point” in time, even before the digital age?
Our restless minds always seem to be dwelling in the past or in a phantom future, anywhere but in the present–which, of course, makes it difficult to pray and be present to God. I find it so, anyway. The digital age and entertaining “ourselves to death” certainly make a bad situation worse.
Fr Stephen, thanks so much for this wonderful article. The last line sums up the article so well.
I am pondering how a Christian is to guard against spiritual complacency. This may sound impertinent, but some would think that if God is good, then we will be okay in the end. This way of thinking can easily lead to complacency. I realize something is very wrong with this, but can you please help clarify it further?
as you say ‘a bad situation is made worse’ in the digital age. Even some simple basics, like contact with nature -conducive to living in the present- are replaced with their diametrical opposites daily. Of course this “dwelling in the past or a phantom future” delusion -as well as being somewhere other than ‘right here in my heart’- has always been a problem, but it is becoming far more profound of late.
We can also think of this as another reason for the “love of the many growing cold” (Matthew 24:12). Love which ultimately -in its genuine form- comes from God through prayer, needs the living in the here and now to enter our souls.
The Elder Joseph the Hesychast wrote this in a letter:
There is therefore an immediate connection between distraction and lovelessness.
Spiritual complacency, from what I read, is best dealt with by means of the practice of St Silouan of Mt Athos, “keep your mind in Hell and do not despair.” My problem is that I look at people such as the ISIS muslims who behead, rape, pillage, etc. and think how awful they are without looking at myself; in my case, if I had been born into the life of the muslim militants, I would have possibly committed worse atrocities. Proper perspective by keeping one’s mind constantly in Christ and constant prayer in our heart (nous) helps (I am not there yet, in fact far from ‘there’).
I love the juxtapositionof the timelessness of our ever present encounter with Christ and the very time centered calendar of the church…paradox.
Delightful to see Stonehenge as the illustration to this piece. I have been watching BBC’s After Stonehenge program, narrated by Neal Oliver, on our BC public television station, Knowledge Network, and I was surprised but pleased to see them still using “B.C.” rather than “B.C.E” when showing the dates for various segments of each episode.