Time: Tyrant or Teacher
By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
As the years progress, the pattern of the Catholic Liturgical Calendar has become so much more meaningful to me. Like everything about the Catholic Christian life, it is a deep mystery and gift that is to be unpacked, over time. I hope to share some reflections in this article that have come from my own participation in the liturgical cycle and my own aging. Human beings have always marked time by significant events. The real question is not whether we will mark time, but how we will do so. What events and what messages are we proclaiming in the process of our calendaring of time?
For the Christian, time is not meant to be a tyrant, somehow ruling over us. Rather, it is to be a teacher, instructing us and presenting us with opportunity. Rather than an enemy, it is a friend. Its role and reach is a part of the redemptive loving plan of a timeless God who, in His Son, the Timeless One, actually came into time in order to transform it from within. He now gives us time as a gift and intends it to become, for all who so choose, a field of choice and a path to holiness.
Through time, the Lord offers us the privilege of discovering His plan for our own personal life pilgrimage. Through time, He invites us to participate in His plan, through His Son Jesus, to recreate the entire cosmos. Time is the road along which this loving plan of redemption proceeds. We who have been baptized into Christ are now invited to co-operate in this Divine Plan.
The Christian understanding of time as having a redemptive purpose is why Catholic Christians mark time by the great events of the faith in a Church calendar. Like so much else that is contained within the treasury of Catholic faith and life, the Church, who is, (as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council proclaimed) an "expert in humanity" helps us to redeem time and makes it even more meaningful by inviting us to follow the rhythm of the liturgical year. As we truly begin to live by the liturgical calendar we begin to experience the ever-deepening call to conversion and thereby find the deeper mystery and meaning of life.
Christians believe in a linear timeline in history. There is a beginning and an end, a fulfillment, which is, in fact, a new beginning. Time is heading somewhere. That is as true of the history of the world as it is our own personal histories. Christians, because we believe, mark time by the great events of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are always moving ahead toward His loving return.
We also mark our Christian culture with events of importance from the ongoing "family", history of the Church. The members of that family were birthed from the wounded side of the Savior on the Cross-at Calvary's hill. That family was sent on mission when He breathed His Spirit into them at Pentecost. We remember them, and walk with them, so that we have models and companions for the journey of life. They are that "great cloud of witnesses" the author of the letter to the Hebrews discusses. They will welcome us into eternity and help us on the daily path.
Our Catholic liturgical year follows a rhythmic cycle. It points us toward beginnings and ends and, in so doing, emphasizes an important truth that can only be grasped through faith, every end is a beginning. In our liturgical life, no sooner than we have celebrated the last Sunday of the Year, the feast of Christ the King, we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, and we prepare for the birth of Savior. Our Christian faith proclaims that Jesus Christ is the "Alpha", (the first letter of the Greek alphabet) and the "Omega" (the last letter), the beginning and the end. He is the Giver, the Governor and the fulfillment of all time.
These are profound truths concerning time and they can have ever-increasing meaning for us as we grow in the life of grace. They are meant to change us. They invite us into a deeper walk with the Lord and with one another. It is now up to us to respond to the lessons of time and the invitation of faith. Let's reflect on two (of many) of the many lessons we can learn in the classroom of faith.
Every End is a Beginning
As we progress through liturgical time we are invited to experience the great events of faith and, through our readings and prayer, to reflect on what the Christian tradition refers to as the "last things"- death, judgment, heaven and hell. We do so in order to change, to be converted, and thus to enter more fully into the Divine plan. The Western Church year ends on the Thirty Fourth Sunday of the year, culminating with the Great Feast of Christ the King. On that marvelous Feast we celebrate the full and final triumph and return of the One through whom the entire universe was created; in whom it is being "recreated" (through His saving action); and by whom it will be completely reconstituted and handed back to the Father at the "end" of all time- which will mark the beginning of a timeless new heaven and a new earth when "He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death ..." (Revelations 21:4).
As we move from one Church year to the next, we also move along the in the timeline of human life allotted to each one of us. We age. The certainty of our death is meant to illuminate our life and the certainty of the end of all time is meant to illuminate its purpose and culmination in Christ. For both to be experienced by faith we must truly believe. Death can become, as we move closer to it, a second birth. Francis of Assisi prayed these words in his most popular prayer "... it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." He referred to death as a "sister" implying that he had a relationship with it. So too did all the great heroes our Church, the saints.
Do we view death in this way? Is death a catastrophe to be avoided, a source of fear, the end of a terrestrial shopping spree...? Or, as we age, is death becoming a friend, a companion who beckons us on to a more meaningful, redemptive life? Is death becoming a "sister" whom we will welcome in due time? Do we believe that it is simply a change of lodging, a passage to a new birth in the Lord?
The author of the Book of Wisdom reminds us that "God did not make death and He does not delight in the death of the living" (Wisdom 1:13). We should recall the tender moment recorded for us in St John's Gospel where Jesus, brokenhearted at the death of his friend Lazarus, comforts his sister Martha with these words "... everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (St. John 11: 25 and 26)
Do we really believe this? Jesus Christ abolished death and brought us eternal life by removing what St. Paul calls "it's sting"; its essential evil. He robbed death of its power over us through His Resurrection. He made that tombstone a stepping stone, a portal to eternal life. Jesus converted death, once the "last enemy", into our friend and sister. We are invited to begin not only to grasp this truth but to begin, even now, living in the eternal "now" of life in communion with God the father, in the Son and through the Holy Spirit.
With a few exceptions like John the Baptizer (for whom we celebrate both his birth and his death) we Christians celebrate the death of Saints. That is because our faith proclaims that death is not an end but the beginning of an eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible we read:
"Here is what sustains the holy ones who keep God's commandments and their faith in Jesus. I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," said the Spirit, "let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them. Then I looked and there was a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Another angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth's harvest is fully ripe. So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested." (Revelations 14: 12-15)
Time is for bearing a harvest for the Lord
As the Apostle John records in the Revelation he received on the Island of Patmos, our "use" of time is meant to bear good fruit. We are called to bear a harvest which will accompany us into eternity. It will - if we have an intimate relationship with the One who both gives and governs time. Time is the opportunity for the Christian to bear that "fruit that remains" to which Jesus referred: "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another" (St. John 15: 16, 17).
We decide whether we will use time for the bearing of good fruit or be used by time as a tyrant who frightens us as we fruitlessly try to resist his inevitable claim on our perceived youth. This act of choosing rightly, daily, helps us to develop a disposition; a way of living that involves the proper exercise of our human freedom aided by grace. When time is perceived as a gift from God and welcomed as an opportunity for bearing the fruits of love and holiness, we receive it in love and perceive it as a field of choice and an environment for holiness. We choose to fill our lives with love and pour ourselves out for the God of love. When we live this kind of life, Jesus can find a home within us from which He can continue His redemptive mission, in time.
The ancients were fond of a Latin phrase "Carpe Diem", which literally means "Seize the day." For we who are in Christ Jesus, that phrase can take on a whole new meaning. We always journey toward the "Day of the Lord", when He will return as King. We should seize that day as the reference point for all things. We are called to redeem time as a part of our participation in His ongoing redemptive mission. We do this when we live our lives as though His day is the milestone and marker for all that we do and the path to who we will become as he makes us new.
Almost two thousand years ago the ancient Greek writer, Seneca, wrote: "It is not that we have so little time, but that we have wasted so much of it" St. Paul wrote to Greek Christians, centuries later in Ephesus: "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men (and women) but as wise making the most of the time..." (Ephesians 5: 15ff). As we consider the timeline of God's unfolding plan, the redemption of the whole cosmos, the God who gives and governs time, invites us to re-dedicate ourselves to living differently. We are to live as though time really does matter. We are invited by grace to give ourselves away for others; to imitate the One who gave Himself for the entire human race. We are invited to pour ourselves out as Jesus did. If we live life this way, when we face Him on that final day, we will do so with our arms full of gifts borne in time. These gifts will have paved the way for eternity.
There is one more gift that time offers those who have the eyes of faith, it is the gift of aging or "growing old". Oh, we may try to fight it, but we simply cannot stop the progress of time. How we age is up to us. Time always presses on toward its intended end. In Jesus Christ, aging is a gift to be received and unpacked. When our minds are renewed, we begin to truly believe that eternity is real and we live differently. We know that time is not a tyrant but a companion who leads us on a road along which we travel with Jesus. That relationship changes both the way that we live and the way that we die. Time reveals the very essence of our lives on this earth and leads us to the life that is eternal.
The color of my hair dates me, as does the music I recall at existential moments in my own life. This year I had the privilege of baptizing my first grandson whose name is Aiden. What a joy it was to hold him in my arms and immerse him three times in the waters of new life! That experience made me realize that I am growing old. In some respects I am still just an older hippie trying to find the meaning of life. But the good news is that I have now found the meaning- or rather- that meaning found me and called me to be His own.
Music has marked so many passages in my life. As I have shared with you in this reflection on time, I mark time, as a son of the Church, by the wonderful rhythm that is my participation in the liturgical life of the Church. But I also do so, as a byproduct of my age and its' music, by the songs I "grew up" on. They just seem to come back from some reservoir of memory that music inhabits at important moments. At the Baptismal reception we had for Aiden the words of a Bob Dylan song came to mind. They are from "It's Alright Ma" which he recorded in 1965. Perhaps some of my readers, who are also "gray-tops", will recall the famous line from that Dylan tune: "...he not busy being born is busy dying."
How true those words are. We who live our lives in Christ are always busy dying, to ourselves, and being born again in Him. That is why Baptisms' are so wonderful. They give us an opportunity to say, "yes", all over again, to His invitation. The continual change that the grace of God brings to us as we walk with Jesus through life is exhilarating. It gives energy to the spirit, no matter how old our bodies become, because "Christ is forever young" - as this wonderful Pope is so fond of saying. In fact, someday, in the fullness of time, we will all be raised in new bodies, incorruptible and resembling Him who not only walks with us but also has gone on before us.
Later, after the party, I caught myself singing the refrain of "Time is on my side" by the Chambers brothers. Both of these songs tried to deal with an existential issue, the purpose of time. In their own way, each of these songwriters, like those throughout history, tried to find a meaning for the inevitable advance of time. However, they fell short.
As Christians, we need not fall short. Time truly is on our side because the God who created us is the God who is with us, Emmanuel. This God, who created and now governs time, came into time in order to bring mere mortals into immortality. As we celebrate the rhythm of the Church year, year after year, we can learn from the teacher called time the great lessons of faith and life. We can make time our friend, welcome its advance, learn from its wisdom and follow its invitation to eternity.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is the founder and Thomas More Fellow of the Common Good Movement. The author of seven books, he recently wrote "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" which will be released before Christmas.
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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