Time and Meaning

By Jessica Martin

We human beings are living in time. We can scarcely imagine it any other way. The passing of time is basic to understanding the terms of our existence. Supported by memory, time gives our lives story and structure, but also allows us to recognize loss, privation, contrast, sorrow, absence; sharpens our joys because we know that they cannot last. As I grow older, my many moments of happiness often feel more like pain than pleasure; and yet they are if anything more deeply fulfilling in memory than the more careless recollections of my youth.

Sometimes it feels as if the fact of death that bounds my life gives it profound meaning. At other, unhappier times it feels more as if death drains life of its meaning altogether, because I know life, like everything, will pass and one day nothing of the earth will remember me.

Looking at old photos, which for family reasons I have been doing recently, I wonder how to reconcile the bright, living, and shifting memories of being a child with the slightly decayed look of the actual bits of shiny paper; old color prints fade yellow and dusky pink, and I never knew at the time that everyone’s hair and clothes looked ridiculous, dated. The black-and-white photos of babyhood look even more like another, distant world.

God is not confined by time. He is eternal. Time is a part of his creation, but he is not held by its structure. When Jesus was born one of the many confinements he chose — one of the many ways in which he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” — was in submitting to the rule of time. In entering time to meet us, Jesus joins us to God’s eternal being, where all that has been, all that is, and all that will be, are united in harmony.

The First Letter of Peter is meditating on what this means for us: we are “born again,” he says, restored to the freshness of beginning, because of the resurrection of Christ; we slip out of the confining arms of time and touch the life of eternity: “into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes does not know about the gift of Jesus Christ. He is a “wisdom” writer, faithful to the purposes of God, although he finds them inscrutable, mysterious. The passage we have heard perceives in the changing pattern of whole human lives an order and rightness which belongs properly to God.

“He has made everything suitable for its time,” as the modern translation puts it, and “has put into [our] … minds a sense of past and future.” These are human stories to which God’s presence gives meaning. The stories come to an end, but the meaning is held in the eternity of God’s loving attention. We cannot understand it, but we can trust it.

“He hath made everything beautiful in his time,’” writes the King James translator: the patterns of the times of our lives are the patterns of God’s good creation, though we may not understand their shapes or see their profundity, and although they may often give us pain.

So Peter’s epistle tells us, “Rejoice, even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials.” Our trials are not meaningless; they find their meaning in the ultimate revealing of Jesus Christ, who will complete the joining of heaven to earth in his own good time. We cannot see him; our scriptural records of his presence shine through the corruptions of time and memory but are still framed and faded by those corruptions in bewildering ways. They are like photos: records that both show and conceal the truth they tell. The Jesus who speaks to each of us is within Scripture but also in the world and in each loving heart: “although you have not seen him, you love him.”

The promise of Jesus is the promise of fulfillment. Because of him, the stories of our lives are stories of salvation: “receiving the end” (the modern translation uses the word outcome) “of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”

Our stories are caught up in his story; and he makes them glorious. Such lives are like windows onto a sight so beautiful that angels long to look upon the vista, which outshines the static beauty of their sphere. It does not happen because of us, but in our trust in the truth of God made manifest in human love and conquering the death he embraced: Jesus Christ.

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