“Quid est enim tempus?”
“So what is time?”
Pangs of nostalgia for innocence lost, discontent with reality present, and some combination of fear, uncertainty, or despair about the future can combine to make Christmas an especially difficult time. Recently, two complete strangers confessed as much to me at the grocery store, confiding rather intimate and painful details about their interior lives. After briefly striking up a conversation in the produce aisle, an elderly gentleman in his seventies warned me that if I, a much younger man, have any dreams or would like to accomplish something with my life, I must set about it now, before my life has slipped by and all of my dreams disappear, as had happened to him. Another, after asking how I was planning to spend the holidays, confessed that he had no family or really anyone to spend Christmas with; most of the people with whom he has spent most of his life have either died or have become estranged from him. How we relate to time underlies both of their reflections.
First-time readers of Augustine’s Confessions are often puzzled that, after ten chapters narrating his autobiography, Augustine shifts his focus to an elaborate theological and philosophical meditation upon memory, time and creation – all written as a dialogue with God in prayer – in the work’s closing chapters. Two longer quotations capture the heart of the problem and solution Augustine wrestles with, as well as their significance for the broader, prayerful narrative Augustine relates in Confessions. Unlike the eternal and unchanging creator for whom past, present, and future are simultaneous, creatures experience past, present, and future successively. Time imperils us with non-being; the past is nowhere to be found, the present will soon vanish before us, and the future will soon become a past where we are no more. Augustine describes this mystery as follows:
So what is time? If no one is asking me a question about it, I know what it is; but if I want to explain it to the questioner, I do not know how to. Nonetheless, I state firmly that I know this: if nothing were to pass away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were impending, there would be no future time; and if nothing existed there would be no present time. So how do those two “times,” past, and future, exist, when what is past exists no longer and what is future does not yet exist? As for the present time, if it were always present, and did not shift into the past, it would no longer be time at all, but eternity instead. But if the present time, to be time at all, is such on the grounds that it shifts into the past, how can we also state that this entity exists, if the cause of its existence is that it will not exist?
Augustine’s attentiveness to God in prayer throughout this portion of Confessions culminates in the recognition that not only are our lives and all of creation from God, upheld by God, and for God. Furthermore, it is the God-man Jesus Christ, the mediator who is truly human and truly divine, in whom time and eternity converge. Heavily channeling the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12–14, Augustine thus describes the hope of the eternal gospel for we who live within time:
Since your mercy is better than life itself, look and see that my life is a kind of distraction. Your right hand has supported me in my Lord who as the Son of Man is mediator between you who are One, and us who are many, drawn in many directions by many factors, so that through him I may take as my own the one who has made me his own. Leaving behind my former times, I recollect myself and follow the One. I forget what is past, and instead of being distracted I reach out, not for what is in the future and so transitory, but for those things which are before me: I press forward, going in the right direction, rather than being distracted, to the prize of my highest calling. There I shall hear the voice of praise and shall contemplate your delight which neither comes into being nor passes away. Now, though, my years are spent in groaning, and you are my consolation, Lord, for you are my eternal Father. But I became alienated as I entered into time, not knowing the order in which it passes, and my thoughts, the inmost parts of my soul, are ripped apart by turbulent vicissitudes, until I flow back together toward you, purged, and shining with the fire of your love.
In the event of Christmas, as Athanasius of Alexandria described in the 4th century, the incarnation of the Word of God brings incorruptible and abiding life to humanity that is subjected to the entropy, corruption, and dissolution of time: “since through human beings death had seized human beings, for this reason, again, through the incarnation of the God Word there occurred the dissolution of death and the resurrection of life.” Consequently, one of the foremost questions that determines Christian existence is the question “what time is it?”
No longer do we live in Adamic time, the time of death (Rom. 5). As Paul writes, those who by faith are united with Christ, co-crucified with Christ and through baptism raised to walk in newness of life, have the hope of glory – Christ in us (Gal. 2:20; Rom 6:4; Col. 1:27). The epistle to the Hebrews at length develops how the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven where he offered himself in the heavenly tabernacle and sat down at the right hand of God in incorruptible, “indestructible” life (Heb 7:16). At present the hope of glory, Christ in us, is hidden in frail and mortal vessels (2 Cor 4:6). But unlike all other worldly hopes, schemes, and pretensions, this hope endures because “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” and therefore “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:14, 16–17). In Romans, “the present time,” the “now” of the gospel, is determined by what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:1).
Even so, memories precious and unbearable pervade the Christmas season. We remember people who are no longer with us whom we long for. We remember sweeter times in life that are irrecoverable. We fear losing whatever pleasant times we currently know – or, perhaps, we long for escape from anxiety, disappointment, and suffering that afflicts us. We look to the future and, however much we posture as lords of our own fate, we are utterly powerless to know what tomorrow might bring. Marketers know all of this well. Just the right touch of nostalgia-inducing holiday accouterments can prompt us to spend money, hoping that our participation in the consumer economy can recover something we have lost or fabricate the happy times, friendships, and families we see in advertisements.
That we can feel so disjointed at Christmastime – miserable during what we think should be a happy holiday season – can make us feel even more burdened, that something must be especially wrong with us. As Charlie Brown singularly relates in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Though not about the Christmas season, this alienating sentiment is well describe in Johnny Cash’s song “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” where a substance-abusing, troubled soul describes how utterly alone one can feel on Sundays in particular. The loneliness, boredom, and personal disappointments of our present reality can become unbearable when compared with the superficial happiness we perceive in others at special times, such as Sundays, or Christmas too. But our heartache is exacerbated by realizing the present, and probably the future also, is not all the future that we formerly dreamed of attaining to in the past:
…There’s somethin’ in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
That’s half as lonesome as the sound
Of a sleepin’ city sidewalk
And Sunday Mornin’ comin’ down
In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughin’ little girl that he was swingin’
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the songs they were singin’
Then I headed down the street
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’
And it echoed through the canyons
Like the disappearin’ dreams of yesterday
What word does the Christian church have to offer to such souls? If people who have little to no attachment to the Christian faith attend our churches during the Christmas season, woe to us, woe, if we offer them nothing more than vague sentimentality and holiday nostalgia. If the basic point of the sermon during a candlelit Christmas eve service is a general exhortation to be nice, have a positive attitude, to be generous, and to experience “the magic of Christmas,” all without bothering to explain what Christmas fundamentally is, then nothing particularly Christian has been said, and no hope has been offered to such souls. Augustine recounts how in the books of platonic philosophers he read and learned about the Word, “but that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: that I did not read there,” and that was a key breakthrough: the Incarnation of the Word of God (Jn 1:14).
Does our “preaching” actually herald an announcement about the event of God’s action in Jesus Christ, that the God who lives in freedom has determined to be “God with us” and God for us in Jesus Christ? Or, instead, do we offer more of a TED talk, dressed up in Christian holiday disguise, about inclusion, or self-care, or whatever else we think the market demands – perhaps an essentially therapeutic message about wellness, balance, or that we are all actually just fine the way we are, while neglecting the fundamental problems that afflict us, the anti-God powers of Sin and Death that have been and will be overcome in the once and future coming of the Incarnate Word? What might the Christian gospel practically say to someone who relates with the words of Charlie Brown and Johnny Cash, or the two men I spoke with at the grocery store?
At least one thing we might say is that Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the crucified and risen Lord of time and history. In him we are torn away from the wreckage of history, the corruption of time, and we are able to share in his divine and unending life. As Athanasius wrote, “he was made man that we might be made God,” not that we transgress the Creator-creature distinction, but rather Christ allows us to participate in eternal life, by the Spirit beholding Christ’s glory and the love between Father and Son (Jn. 17:24). Moreover, as Gregory of Nyssa taught, eternal life will never consist of boredom, but we will only and ever have an expanding sense of wonder as we, the finite, behold and contemplate the beauty of God who is infinite. Susan Eastman well explains the practical, pastoral significance of the gospel specifically in relation to time, namely, that we are set free from having our present and future determined by the darkness in our past, and we are also freed from the desperate – and, inevitably vain – attempts at self-making that nostalgia entails:
When the “I” is crucified with Christ, the ego is unmoored from any prior sources of identity, worth, and direction, or conversely, all sources of shame, dishonor, and despair; it is severed from the relational matrix shaped by family of origin, social context, economic status, and so forth. Henceforth all access to such sources of identity passes through union with Christ on the cross. To put this in contemporary terms drawn from philosophy of mind, a new relational system remaps the old. Or put more simply, only through the grace and judgment of the cross can there be a true knowledge of oneself and others.
The reverse side of this claim is that human personhood, as intersubjectively constituted in relationship with Christ, belongs to the future, not to the past. There is no hint of nostalgia in Paul’s letters; they are completely forward-looking. There is no longing for the good old days or for any youthful innocence. He repeatedly calls his converts to set their sights on the “hope of righteousness” that comes through Christ alone (5:5), and on the promise that “the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life” (6:8). Such eschatological identity has profound implications for the ways in which believers may navigate loss and hope, not only in the face of death, but also in the face of destructive patterns of social connections in this life.
In the gospel events of Christmas, a new kind of time has disrupted human history, that is simultaneously promised of old in the scriptures and the advent of new creation. Those whose lives seem to have suddenly passed them by in disappointment and failure can participate in a new story, with a new past, a new present, and a new future that is not bounded by the horizons of our own experience of life and death, but by Christ. Those who seem to have no family in this world can become sons of God in the one who is both Son of God and Son of Man, made part of a new family sojourning through this life, beholding his face now dimly in a mirror, but whom we will soon see face to face (1 Cor 13:12). The “time” of Christmas time is well described in the refrain at the end of each verse in the Christmas hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:
Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see
evermore and evermore.
Oh, that birth forever blessed
when the virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race,
and the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face
evermore and evermore.
This is he whom seers and sages
sang of old with one accord,
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word.
Now he shines, the long-expected;
let creation praise its Lord
evermore and evermore.
Let the heights of heav’n adore him,
angel hosts his praises sing,
pow’rs, dominions bow before him
and extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
ev’ry voice in concert ring
evermore and evermore.
Christ, to thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unending praises be,
honor, glory, and dominion
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore.
- Augustine, Confessions: Books 9–13, ed. and trans. by Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. XI, §17, pp. 216–217. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 217–219. ↑
- Ibid., ch. XI, §139, p. 255. ↑
- Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, trans. by John Behr, PPS 44 (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), §10, 59–60. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions: Books 1–8, trans. and ed. by Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), ch. VII, §14, p. 323. ↑
- Ibid., §54, p. 107. ↑
- Susan Grove Eastman, Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 174–175. ↑