December 13th, 2020: Marilu Thomas, “The Boundaries of Time”

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

You can’t see it from where you sit, but my brain is fuzzy. This week, Courtney Evans and I were talking about writing the Annual Report and she mentioned several things that I had not remembered from this year. The kitchen was renovated. We provided volunteers and meals for the men’s homeless shelter PACEM for a week. We packed over 20,000 packets of food for Rise Against Hunger and hundreds of meals for delivery to the city gym for those in need. Each event she mentioned seemed like news to me. Oh yea! We did do that! 

I’m not alone in my fuzzy thinking. Alex Williams of the New York Times recently wrote an article about how isolation, monotony and chronic stress are destroying our sense of time. He compared it to the fuzziness of being on drugs—a sense of time slipping away. “That’s the paradox of 2020, or one of them: A year so momentous also feels, in a way, as if nothing happened at all,” he writes. Our minds need what are called ‘boundary events’ that would normally divide our days into chapters, like a book. Holidays, birthdays, travel, weddings, office meetings, school calendars, all give us a sense of marking time. That thing happened before Easter or after his birthday or on that trip. As many have told me lately, “I go one day at a time because I cannot plan the future.” We miss marking time which gives us the illusion of forward progression.

Our review of 2020 can also be one of naming the sadness, suffering and grief of a year gone up in smoke. Some of the Covid symptoms mirror those of our losses—missing the smells of pine scented December parties, the tastes of shared food. We miss the noises of family gatherings, singing songs of our faith, the physical closeness of being together. These can combine with the annual remembrances of family members who are not with us anymore and add to the fog. 

Dr. Alison Holman, who studies the psychological effects of shared crises, has found that, “The unending sense of crisis is an ‘ongoing, chronic stressor’ that can lead to collapse of the reassuring sense that our lives move in orderly fashion: past, present, future, which is key to mental stability. Instead, many of us feel stuck in a lousy present with little sense of the future.” What is our sense of the time anymore? 

Journalist Greta Titelman reports that her concept of time has shifted in the pandemic, “Time just makes everyone anxious. We’re always in competition with it: We overslept, we’re running late. I always had this feeling like, ‘I need to finish something this week, or something bad will happen. Turns out,” she added, “that’s not true.” Time had become the law in our lives. 

While we tend to measure our lives by the tick tick tick of Kronos time on the clock, God sees our lives through the lens of Kairos time, which translates from Greek as the opportune or right time for something to happen. Ecclesiastes tells us there is a right time for everything in our lives; a time to be born, a time to die, a time to be joyful, a time to mourn. These are times defined by God, not by us.

Although planning in the pandemic can be an exercise in futility, we can lean on this biblical understanding for a larger sense of time. God is not finished with us yet.  History is still in the making. In the creation of the world, God provided us with boundary events in Kairos time that ground us in a created order and give us a sense of the future yet unseen. Day turns into night and back into day. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall come each year, unbidden by us. Children, seeds and animals, all grow imperceptibly each day. In the largest sense, the coming of Christ was a boundary event in the life of the world. In the incarnation of the Savior, sacred Kairos pierced through earthly Kronos.

Standing at the boundaries of Kronos and Kairos time is John the Baptist in our Gospel of John today. In Paul Walker’s Advent Art Adult Ed last week, he showed Carlo Crivello’s altar piece of John in his camel front piece and wild hair. John is looking back at the continuity of the prophet Isaiah making the way for the Christ and the first person who identifies Jesus as the Son of God. The text tells us that John, “Came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe in him.” The true light of Christ piercing the darkness of our understanding of ourselves and the world.

John’s job was as the pointer. In most artwork about him, he is pointing with a long, bony finger. This is why John is so important to us in Advent because we need him desperately. He is pointing us always in the right direction, towards Jesus and away from himself and away from ourselves. John also declares something very necessary to our own lives. When asked, “Who are you?”, he replies, “I am not the Messiah.” This may seem obvious to us from our vantage point 2000 years in the future, but it is not obvious even to us. This is a big realization in one’s life—that you cannot save yourself. You are not the Messiah. Anne Lamott famously said, “What is the difference between you and God? God never thinks He’s you.”

John the Baptist may be the main actor of Advent, but he is not our favorite character. Fleming Rutledge continues to offer a prize to anyone who can find John the Baptist on an Advent calendar. Why is that? John is not on any Advent calendars because he represents the law that is pursuing us with the message of Repent, the Time is Near.  We hear this as the law of Kronos: we don’t have enough time, we are at the wrong time, we are out of time, this is a bad time.  

But John is a witness to God breaking into Kairos time as the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. The gospel tells us that he is a witness to the light so that all might believe through him. John is pointing to the power of Christ, who baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit, to rescue us. 

The relief we are seeking is not human made, not chronological in nature but will be at the right time, the appointed time, the Kairos time. We can trust that God is at work because we have seen God’s handiwork in our lives. We have a history of God keeping promises of relief and rescue and we can trust that our times are in God’s hands. Advent is the place of both/and. Chronos and Kairos. Looking ahead to Christ’s coming and looking back at Christ’s loving trustworthiness in our lives. The Advent of repentance and longing for relief, met by the promise of rescue. This longing and hope are best captured in the Advent hymnody and I will close with the needed and heart-holding words of the first stanza of O Come O Come Emmanuel:

O come, o come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the son of god appear

Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, o Israel.

Time does not hold us captive. We are released from its grip and judgement by a loving God in the everlasting promise of Advent. Emmanuel was sent for us, is with us, is for us, and will never leave us. You may not see Him, but He can always see you.