Time in the Shape of the Cross: 3 Reflections

This morning, I received an interesting email from a reader/ listener of Time Eternal. This person had recently read Dr. Al Rossi’s book Becoming a Healing Presence.

“Rossi speaks of time as cruciform (cross-shaped),” she wrote. “This idea really intrigues me, but I also feel like I don’t fully grasp what is meant by it and how I can better incorporate it into my life.”

What a thoughtful question to start my day with!

Like many, I love Dr. Rossi’s podcast and its call to “become a healing presence.” I did read the book several years ago–before I started Time Eternal, back when I was only slightly less obsessed with the topic of time–but I couldn’t recall this particular reference. Still, my mind began making all sorts of connections in response to this reader’s question:

In what ways is time formed in the shape of the Cross?

Before I had a chance to look up the relevant section in Rossi’s book, I was already deep in thought about several potential ways of answering that question–none of which ended up being exactly what Rossi meant in the first place.

Perhaps in the future, I will get over my fan-girl bashfulness and ask Dr. Rossi himself to talk with us about time so we can expand on this topic. In the meantime, I leave you with three ways time presents itself to us in the shape of the Cross–two of them my own reflections, the last one from Dr. Rossi’s book.

1. Time has both a vertical and a horizontal axis

In Greek there are (at least) two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is very much the chronological time of this world, and I sometimes think of this as the horizontal axis of the Cross. It is straight and flat, like a timeline or chronology chart–all those years and months and days. Chronos is the “status quo” mode of time, the thing time does and becomes when left to its own devices.

On the other hand, kairos is the eternal mode of time. It punctuates the ordinary flow of chronos at decisive, momentous intervals with the expansive breadth of eternity. Visually, we could picture this as the vertical plank of the Cross that, like a staff, plunges down into the hard crust of chronos.

The Incarnation was perhaps the most chronos-shattering instance of kairos, mystically bridging the fallen-ness of time and the wholeness of eternity. The Annunciation was another moment of kairos, as was the Baptism of Christ and the Transfiguration. The whole sweep of Holy Week–the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day–also signifies a decisive interruption of chronos, raising temporal reality to its fulfillment in Christ.

As momentous as these moments were (and are, and ever shall be), we also experience smaller, everyday “kairos moments”–moments of deep inward prayer, for example, or self-sacrificial love for God or those around us.

Sometimes, kairos intervenes in our lives quite unbidden, without our doing anything to deserve or even welcome it. Some years ago, I was standing in line after a Liturgy, waiting to venerate the cross. Contrary to the explicit request of the priest for parishioners to quiet themselves and listen to the post-communion prayers, I continued chatting with friends about our plans for the weekend. En route to the cross, I (somewhat begrudgingly, I’m afraid) ceased conversation to bend down and venerate the icon + relics of Sts. Innocent and Herman that ordinarily sat at the front of this particular parish. Suddenly, something broke into my babble of chatty thoughts. I sensed that someone–someone gentle and warm and, above all, real–was standing immediately in front of the icon stand, almost touching me. It was the kind of sensation you have when you feel someone watching you from a distance, distinctive and unshakable. When I raised my gaze, I was both shocked and not shocked to find no one there. But that moment of looking up, of wondering and knowing and encountering, was an eternal moment for me. It was a moment of plentiful grace and tangible communion I certainly didn’t deserve, and which disappeared as quickly as it had come. In those moments, as in all kairos moments, the only response available to us is gratitude, a heartfelt “Thanks be to God!” for the unseen, loving mystery that surrounds us.


2. Time is the nexus of suffering

Plain and simply, to be alive in time is to suffer. It is to inhabit our mortality, as well as both the psychological and physical pain that accompany it.

There are few (if any) forms of suffering that are truly disconnected from our experience of time. We could bear virtually any struggle or temptation for a moment or split-second; enduring a trial for any extended length of time is when it gets difficult. Even during seasons that are relatively pain- and struggle-free, we are dogged by the knowledge that things won’t last forever. One day we will die or something will give or things will dissolve. And then what? Even on our best days, we are powerless to stop the forward-moving tempo of time (chronos) and the changes it brings. “Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost once wrote, and not even Christ remained on Mount Tabor indefinitely.

We can choose to avoid the suffering of time by distracting ourselves, wasting our time, and generally living despondently. Or we may choose to face the vulnerable reality of our suffering, to “make the most of” our time as St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, to take up the cross of temporality so that it might be fulfilled  in eternity. If we choose the latter, the suffering of time becomes the path of our salvation.

3. Time’s center is the Cross

Building on all of these ideas, Rossi suggests that the Cross is the life-giving center of historical time:

An Orthodox view of time is cruciform. All events that happened before the Cross, for the Christian, led up to the Cross. All. Subsequently, all events after the Cross are defined by the Cross and look back to the Cross for meaning. So the Cross is the center of time; it magnifies and gives perspective to time. […] Time has a depth and profundity for Christians that the philosophers and the secularists can’t grasp, because it is all based in Christ and His saving action for us on the Cross.

What this means is that all of time is somehow tranfused with salvific content. It is transfigured. It is no longer merely an ever-hastening force against which we are powerless–we learn, in the Cross, the silent power of surrendering, of emptying ourselves. This redeems our relationship to time because it teaches us to reliquish our insistence on controlling our time, mortality, and hardships:

For Orthodox Christians, time— for example, 2:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday—is basically a spiritual issue. It’s not about the control of our time but the surrender of it. We begin by saying that time is a gift from God that we are called to accept and use properly. Like all other gifts of health, friendship, and breath, we cherish time as a great gift bestowed on us by a loving God.

What are the implications of this for our lives? It means, among other things, that time is not our enemy. We can bring a degree of freedom and spaciousness to time when we allow our hearts to be softened rather than hardened by the suffering of time. Will we surrender our need to control time at all costs, to control the life we live in time? Will we turn toward God with thanksgiving? Will we be grateful, wakeful caretakers of the time we are given? These are questions it will take our whole life-time to learn and answer.

* * *

How do you live time in the shape of the Cross? Let me know here or on Facebook!



  1. I was very moved by the very end of your discussion on Time and the Crucifix and I couldn’t let it go without response: “It means, among other things, that time is not our enemy.” I have been striving to understand what kairos time is… chronos is fairly easy (I think). It suddenly hit me that this is a new dynamic of what God was teaching me when he so ‘calmly’ allowed my wife and I to experience divorce… and then just as suddenly brought us back together, after three years! For me, the greatest lesson until now had been surrender of my right to ‘justice’ against those who wrong me, when I didn’t even consciously know that I had owned that right. (There is a deep message about what forgiveness is, too)
    Now, as I try to see the screen through the tears of joy/pain/peace to type after reading your email post, I understand that that time was not a waste, because that time was neither my own (nor hers) to waste, nor was it the enemy of a godly resolution. It was so charged with kairos, and chronos as Rossi describes their relationship to eachother, that one without the other could not have produced the same result in us (my wife and I). Wow. As an addendum, it also reminds of the lyrics in U2’s No Line On The Horizon; in particular the statement that “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear”, imperfectly speaking first against the apparent oppression of chronos time and acknowledging the presence of kairos time. Thanks for being my muse, again…

    1. Dear Michael,
      Praise God for the miracle that occurred between you and your wife! I found your words here very poignant: “For me, the greatest lesson until now had been surrender of my right to ‘justice’ against those who wrong me.” It’s so hard not to live with a sense of entitlement to fairness and all the other things we think we deserve and need. We all learn and are saved on a different schedule, and it is often remarkable when we have those rare and brief moments of clarity, when God allows us the joy of seeing His handiwork. It sounds like being reconciled to your wife was one of those moments, and I think there are few greater joys on this earth than that–despite the pain and sense of loss you may feel over those three years. May God bless you and keep you both! –NMR

  2. Beautiful, worthy reflections! The most powerful, humbling, shattering, and life-giving revelation of time as a cross is, for me, the Eucharist. Have you read George Mantzaridis’ book, “Time and Man”? I too find time absolutely fascinating, and its true beauty revealed in its eschatological aspects.

  3. Nothing Gold Can Stay
    Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963

    Nature’s first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leaf’s a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

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