1 Advent—30 November 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00
Isa 64:1-9 Ps 80:1-7,16-18 1Cor 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37
Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
There are fundamentally two ways in which human beings, over the years, have approached the meaning of the passage of time. Today, the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the Church Year, we are presented with both of them.
The first approach sees time in terms of recurring cycles. For example, the seasons. Out of winter grows spring, which flowers into summer, which decays into autumn, which dies into winter, out of which grows spring. The seasons change, but they keep coming round again in recurring cycles. Agricultural societies have always had a strong sense of the recurring of time, rooted as they are in the passing of the seasons and the planting, growing, and harvesting of the crops. Change, yes, but always a return. There’s always next year. As the French proverb puts it, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same.” People have sometimes focused on this (philosophers of religion call it “the myth of the eternal return”), and have seen the recurring cycles as the essence of time. Hindu and Buddhist societies in the far east, for instance, see time as a turning wheel, always coming back around again. Time is therefore a trap, a prison; and salvation consists in breaking out of the recurring cycles of the same old thing into the timelessness, the changelessness, of Nirvana.
The other approach to time sees time not as cyclical, but as linear. That is, it’s not the same old thing over and over, but rather time is something that goes from here to there in a line. (Not always a straight line, but a line!) Time marches on. You can’t go home again. You cannot step twice into the same river, as the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus used to say. Time is going somewhere. Each moment is unique, and never to be repeated. Each moment is genuinely new.
There’s a sense, obviously, in which the Church’s liturgical year expresses the cyclical aspect of time. In Advent we await the Lord’s coming; at Christmas we celebrate his birth, and at Epiphany his manifestation to the world. Lent prepares us for the celebration of his death and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter, and at Pentecost we celebrate the empowerment of the Church by the Holy Spirit. Year by year we deepen our understanding of what God has done and is doing for us in Christ by “living through” these great events over and over again. The Church year is a recurring cycle—in fact, a double recurring cycle; for while we are living year by year through the events of the life of Christ, we also observe the cycle of the saints—the festivals commemorating the heroes of the Christian Faith, the apostles and evangelists and martyrs and other signally holy ones of our history.
History. Aha! There’s the real meaning of time. And by history we mean not just a list of dates and names and places to be learned and regurgitated for a school examination—that’s not history, it’s simply chronicle. (Yet, sadly, too often that’s the way history is taught.) No, history is the realization that events have meaning, that we have a story to tell, that time is going somewhere, that there is significance to time’s going somewhere. There is a goal toward which time is moving.
And on this First Sunday of Advent we are confronted with this, too. Today’s Gospel is a picture of the end, the final coming of our Lord, the conclusion and completion of history. That picture is painted in the bizarre apocalyptic imagery that was popular in first-century Jewish thought, but it’s a little foreign to us—but that’s another story for another time! The point is that there is an end; time is linear, there is a goal to be reached. History does have meaning and significance. Indeed, unless there is an end, a goal, a conclusion, then events, and human deeds, and our very lives, are forever only provisional and thus ultimately meaningless.
“History” as such—the understanding that time does have direction and meaning—is an invention (or, I would say, a discovery) of the Biblical tradition. The pagan peoples of the ancient near east centered their religion around nature-gods, closely connected to the agricultural cycles, and the only significant time was the recurring passage of the seasons. It was the people of Israel, in their covenant relationship with the Lord as the chosen people to bring all the world to God, especially as perceived by the prophets, who understood that time does not just go around and around, or even just on and on, but that time is God’s time and leads in the end, “in the fullness of time,” to God.
The cyclical character of the annual observance of the Church’s liturgical year is really only apparently cyclical; it is actually grounded in the linear time of history. God has acted in history; indeed, it is God’s actions that have created history, that is, given meaning to the passing of time. It is God’s purposes that are being worked out through the unfolding of historical time — God’s purposes that are being worked out through our lives in this world lived in faith. It is those once-for-all actions in history that we celebrate yearly in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. By “living through” those events year by year, we deepen our own discipleship in this present time, that we may be pointed more securely in faith to that future in which God claims all time as God’s own in the fulfillment of the divine Sovereignty.