It’s Later than It’s Ever Been!

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11-12).

By Carl Braaten

Advent is here again. We are entering the season of Christmas-card theology. We’ve all had the experience of trying to pick out the right card for some secular friend, expressing season’s greetings — Happy Holiday, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noël, et cetera — without being too explicit about the messianic meaning of the season.

Advent is a season when the Church takes four weeks to tell us what time it is — the kairos[1] in the world of human events. What time is it? But if we don’t know what time is, how can we tell what time it is? So this is what Advent is all about: knowing the time, penetrating the black widow’s veil that masks the mystery of time. Advent is knowing the time, that now it is high time to wake up. The time of our salvation is near, the night is passing, the day is breaking, so we may walk in the light.

What Is Time?

There is a mystery about time that even Advent cannot dispel. We Christians are as bad off as the philosophers who do not know much about the metaphysics of time. With St. Augustine we can perhaps say, “When no one asks me I know. But when I must explain time to someone else, I just do not know.”

Or perhaps we know too much about time. We have clocks and chronometers that measure fractions of seconds with the greatest accuracy. People aren’t satisfied to run; they must race the clock. A friend of mine used to run a mile or two every day in the college gymnasium. I asked him if it doesn’t get boring. “No,” he answered, “I just got a stopwatch for Christmas that helps me keep track of my time.”

Our time consciousness moves from fractions of seconds to the millions and trillions of years we must reckon with, from primeval origins in archeology to the endless vistas of astrophysics. We have become so numb to such inconceivable magnitudes that if we miscalculate the age of the earth by just a few million years, it doesn’t matter, we’ve come close enough.

I recall a little ditty that puts it quite well:

There was a young girl named Miss Bright
Who could travel much faster than light.
She departed one day,
In an Einsteinian way,
And came back on the previous night.

When I was in college, the fashionable thing for campus intellectuals was to read Aldous Huxley’s fierce attack on the tyranny of time in his Time Must Have a Stop. The basic thought was that we are fools to expect time to deliver the salvation we need. Doesn’t history show that Father Chronos swallows all his children? The poet Baudelaire said it too!

Time eats up all things alive.
Time blots me out as flakes on freezing waters fall.

Look at all the lively expectations of a Great Advent dashed to pieces against the stone wall of reality. The first Christians expected the kingdom of God to come in their lifetime. Not even that put an end to time, but instead gave way to the time of the Church. Wonderful as that is, the history of the Church does not equate with the kingdom of God. Church history has seen that all the efforts to locate the advent of human salvation in time have failed. All the experiments to realize in time a Socratic humanitarianism, a Platonic Republic, an Augustinian City of God, or the Renaissance dream of a New Atlantis or the City of the Sun have failed.

All the highest aspirations have remained woefully unfulfilled in time. There’s been no advance in this age in which progress is our most important product. The liberty, equality, and fraternity proclaimed by the French Revolution and taken over by our Founding Fathers into the Constitution of the United States have not come to pass. There has been in fact no irresistible progress from ape to human essence dreamed by evolutionary optimists, no Russians workers’ paradise, no land of the free and home of the brave in which the pursuit of happiness is everybody’s equal opportunity.

Most people don’t expect any great advent of salvation anymore, anywhere, anytime. Many have plunged themselves into pessimism. They are caught in the spider’s web of the present and can’t get free. With no hope for the future and no power from the past, every moment must be charged with the highest voltage. Society holds a whip in one hand and a clock in the other. We must run faster and faster, making use of every minute, just to keep up with the times, whatever that seems to demand. On the other hand, never before has hard work purchased so much free time, that we moderns must become ever more inventive in the aimless goal of killing time. This is what Las Vegas is all about.

The Right Time

So what is time, after all is said and done? We don’t know, whether the clock time of seconds and minutes, whether the cosmic time of billions of light years, whether utopian time, the future time of our hopes and dreams, frustrated by history and reality, whether the existential time in which every moment is all the time there is, the time to act, the time to choose, the time which can squeeze us to death with an all-oppressive now — in the sense of now or never.

It is into this fallen time in all its dimensions that the eternal God acted to inaugurate a new kind of time, the kairos, to take time out from his own eternal preoccupations to enter the human arena of our failing and broken times. God did it at the right time, the time when Jesus appeared in history, born of a woman, born under the conditions of our existence. Out of the ashes of the old times there arises the phoenix of something new. What time is it, then, according to the new way of telling time? It is the fullness of time! It is the kairos, the time pregnant with God entering history to share our human condition. In the coming of Jesus, God chose to take time for us.

A newsboy got up early as usual for his paper route, and became perplexed by the striking of the big clock in the living room. His electric clock had read a quarter to six when he got up a few minutes ago. But now the big clock was chiming: six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. The boy didn’t know that the striking mechanism had gone crazy the night before. So he ran upstairs and awakened everybody in the house as he shouted, “Hurry, get up right away! It’s later than it’s ever been!”

It’s High Time

The New Testament News says that something new has occurred to human time because of the advent of eternity — God’s time. Since Advent is the coming of God into human time, since God is taking time to share fully in our human situation, it is high time for us to reciprocate, to take time for God and for each other.

Advent faith, advent existence, is doing what God has done, taking time to be with others. To take your time for another person is to give that person the most precious thing you have. Almost everything else about you is renewable and replaceable. But once time is gone, you can’t get it back. There’s no reversing aging. When time’s gone, it’s gone forever, and there’s only so much of it left for each of us.

That’s why we want to keep it for ourselves. We don’t want to waste any time. That’s our strong point. Time is money! For the most part, Western people have made good use of their time. They’ve made lots of money, invented millions of things, traveled the universe. Aggressive, energetic, productive, making full use of the time — these are strong points. But often it’s our strong points that obscure our perception of the coming of God Immanuel.

It’s time to take seriously the coming of God in human flesh. “Human beings are the locale of God’s coming,” says J.B. Metz, a German Catholic theologian. God has taken our being and our bodies into his own time. No longer should we live anachronistically, as though we did to know the significance of time. Advent means the day is dawning. Put on the armor of light. Walk in the light. “Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

It is high time to live as though God’s time for us and our time for each other is what being human is meant to be at its best, living life as a gift of love for each other. The deepest mystery of time is defined by the outpouring of God’s love for us and of our sharing love for each other. We then tell time not simply by the clock, though we must do that too to get on in life. But we really know what time it is by what’s going on, marked by the crucial events in our life.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Consider the pairs of some of the contrasts he cites:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecc. 3:1-4)

There’s a time for all things under heaven. But it can all be in vain, the preacher says. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” True, perhaps, except for Advent, except for letting God’s time enter our cycles of vanity, letting our moments of time, letting our toiling and planning, letting all our comings and goings point to the right time, the fullness of time, the Advent of God’s eternal time breaking into our time on earth.

There’s a time for everything. But it’s a question of timing, of getting your timing right, of getting in step with the Advent of God’s timing for all things under heaven. If you are tuning up a car, it’s a question of timing. If you are hitting the ball, you want your timing to be perfect. If you are meeting a train, your timing had better be in line with the schedule.

For citizens of Advent, every time becomes the right time for God’s time. Every moment can be your kairos, a time to take time for others. Like a stick put into the water, it curves away from the perpendicular line. So it is with the kairos of God’s coming in Christ. It comes down and is bent in the direction of others, making every time a chance to bring more light into our darkness and love into our estrangement from those different from us. That’s the good news of Advent and our hope for this coming Christmas time.

Dr. Carl E. Braaten is professor of systematic theology, emeritus at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago.

[1] kairos is the Greek word in the New Testament that means “the propitious time.”


Online Archives