What Time Is It?
December 1, 2002
Yogi Berra, the former manager for the New York Yankees, is well known because of his unorthodox remarks and peculiar responses. It is from Yogi Berra that we get the phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!” and “This is like déjà vu all over again.” It is said that on a particular day while he was walking the streets of New York, Yogi Berra was stopped by a stranger who said, “Excuse me sir, do you know what time it is?” Yogi responded, “You mean now?”
Before we become too critical of Yogi Berra’s redundant remark, it might be appropriate for us to remember that time is not as simple as it seems. In fact, there are different ways to understand what time actually is. The Greek language is more sensitive to this issue than is English. In English we have one word for time; but in Greek, which is the language used in the Christian scriptures, there are two words. Each reflects a different concept of what time is. The two words are chronos and kairos.
Chronos is the word from which we get chronology, which is a listing of events and intervals. Chronos is what we might call clock time. Clock time measures things. For example, we could take any interval, say from 8:00 until 8:30 this morning. In that thirty minutes you could decide to dry a load of laundry. In that same interval, three thousand people could die throughout the world, and four thousand people could be born, your thumbnail could grow a fraction of an inch, and a bomb might explode in Jerusalem. All of this in the time in which you dry your laundry. Chronos marks that interval and it does not care about any of the things that happen within it. Chronos is clock time. Tick Tock. Ho Hum.
But there is another kind of time: kairos. Kairos is not clock time. It is the right time, the time when good things happen. Kairos is the time that we are waiting for, the time when all things come together. Kairos is God’s time, the time in which we see God working. We find it difficult to remember chronos time. If I were to ask you what you were doing April 7, 1992, you probably could not remember. But kairos is a time that we remember always–the time we met our spouse, found the courage to forgive an enemy, realized what we wanted to do with our lives, held a child or a grandchild in our arms for the first time, or made a sacrifice which changed ourselves and others. We remember these times because they are kairos. This is the time on which we hang our lives. Kairos does not measure life. It is life. It is not the time we live through. It is time we live for.
Now if we examine our lives, I think that we would all admit that there is a lot more chronos than there is kairos. A lot more clock time than there is the right time. But the good news of today’s gospel is that, whatever proportion we have between these two times does not have to remain as it is. We can choose to have more kairos, more right time in our life. This is why the gospel today keeps telling us, “Be alert! Be awake! Don’t fall asleep!” The gospel believes that there is a right time coming. In the next day, in the next hour, perhaps now, a right moment could arrive. We could meet a person that changes our life. We could hear an idea that shifts our thinking. We could find the courage to do something we never thought we could do.
God is coming, and we do not know when. The last thing we would want to do is miss that moment. This is what Advent is about, why we take these four weeks every year to remind ourselves Christ is coming and we want to be alert when he arrives. Spiritual writers believe that the most important thing about being a disciple of Jesus is not saying prayers or doing good works. It is being attentive, being alert to life. At any moment Christ can come. The next moment could be kairos.
So the next time that you find yourself waiting for time to pass, see if you can shift and start beginning to wait for Christ to come. The next time that you are waiting at a traffic light, or in line, or for retirement, or for me to stop talking, do not treat that time as time you have to live through. Ask yourself; “Is this the time I’ve been waiting for? Could God be in this time, inviting me to thanksgiving, insight, action, laughter, or hope?” You see, time is not all the same. There are moments yet to come that can change our lives, gifts that we will remember forever, invitations that can take our breath way. So be alert! Stay awake! Watch! For Christ is coming! That is the message of Advent — that is knowing the difference between clock time and God’s time.
Signs for the Season
November 26, 2005
Efficiency and organization are certainly gifts, but they are not the most important ones. There are other qualities that are more fundamental, more necessary for life.
A young naval officer was working his way up the chain of command. One day he was particularly pleased when the captain announced that the next morning the young officer would be in charge of launching the boat from port. This was a considerable responsibility, and the young officer wanted to do well. So the next morning he gave a number of rapid commands and the decks were a buzzing with activity. Soon the boat was making its way out of port. The officer was pleased with himself and was quite sure that he had set a record for the most rapid departure from port. He was therefore not surprised when a seaman came up to him with a note of congratulations from the captain. He was, however, perplexed that the captain’s note was a radio message. It read: “Congratulations on your rapid departure from port. But in your speed you forgot one important rule: Make sure the captain is on board before you get underway.”
Getting underway is something that I think a lot of us are beginning to feel. Because with Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is taking off. As beautiful as this season is, there is no doubt that it places increasing demands upon us. The preparation for family gatherings, for special meals, for shopping and gifts absorbs our time and our energy. Yet it is possible in the midst of all these activities to miss what is truly important. This is why today’s gospel tells us to stay awake, to stay awake to life, to stay awake to what really matters. There is no guarantee that simply because we are in a flurry of activity, we will be able to be awake to what is of true value. The ultimate success of the upcoming weeks will be in our ability to recognize the spiritual and personal dimension of all that we do.
After all, what is the value of spending hours of preparation to call family and friends together, if the activity of that preparation prevents us from appreciating the people who gather? What advantage is it to find the perfect gift for every person, if the activity of finding that gift makes us irritable or impatient with the people we love? What is the ultimate importance of checking off everything from our holiday list, if such activity blinds us to the moments of grace that God will place in our life?
Those moments of grace are at the heart of the holiday season. Those moments are what we cannot miss. It is for those moments that we must stay awake. Christ is with us, and Christ does plan to bless us in the upcoming weeks, with tenderness, reconciliation, and joy. But the success of the holidays will depend on our ability to recognize those moments and to take them in.
So how can we do this? How can we remind ourselves of this deeper spiritual reality that is at the heart of the season? The Cherokee Indians have a beautiful creation story which says that on the day after creation was complete God asked all the plants of creation to stay awake for seven days in celebration of the earth. With each passing day more and more of the plants grew tired and fell asleep. On the seventh day only two plants were still awake: the pine tree and the holly bush. So God blessed them and said to them, “Because you stayed awake, you will remain green forever. In the heart of the winter you will remain sentinels of life.” So to this day the Cherokee Indians say that when winter comes, all the other plants lose their leaves and fall asleep. But the pine and the holly bush stay awake.
Now clearly the pine and the holly are traditional signs of Christmas. But I think we would do well to see them as signs of Advent, signs of preparation. So in the upcoming weeks as you notice a pine tree or a holly bush standing green against the barren trees and the snow, think of it as staying awake. Let it remind you to stay awake to the things that really matter. After all, the upcoming weeks are not about our tasks but about our relationships, about the people in our lives. After all, the upcoming weeks are not about what we will do, but what Christ will do for us. For Christ will indeed bless us with moments of grace. Those moments are what we must not miss. It is for those moments that we must stay awake.
Now it should come as no surprise to us that the success of this season, as of every season, is the presence of Christ with us. Therefore, as this season begins, be sure that Christ is on board before you get underway.
Trusting the Potter
November 30, 2008
Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:2-7; Mark: 13:33 – 37
Things got away from me this fall, and the first snows fell before I had the opportunity to put up my bird feeder. But an opportunity asserted itself during this recent thaw, and now my feeder is up. It is filled with Gale’s songbird mix, and the birds are delighted. I love watching them, all that chirping and pushing one another trying to get the seed. So much activity but what a routine! Every morning as soon as the sun goes up they are out and about doing their thing. But as soon as it begins to get dark, they all return to their nests. I know it is silly to think this way but I wonder: do birds have any sense of time? Their days must all seem the same, one day after the other. Birds don’t know that today is Sunday or the end of November. And they certainly don’t know today is the first Sunday of Advent. Birds don’t use calendars, but humans do and that is significant. As arbitrary as our patterns of days and weeks and years may be, marking time is important. Every time we begin a new year, whether it is the calendar year beginning January 1st or the liturgical year beginning today, we are offered an opportunity to see a new beginning, to turn the page, to try again. So today we begin a new liturgical year. Today we turn the page, and we do so in faith because this upcoming year is not so much about what we are going to do but about what God is going to do for us.
Today’s first reading from Isaiah presents us with a beautiful image. Isaiah says that God is our father and we are the clay. God is the potter and we are all the work of God’s hands. The image of course is that of a potter molding clay on a potters’ wheel, shaping and re-shaping the clay to achieve what he potter desires. He first lays the base, then builds up the walls, then turns the lip. Isaiah’s image tells us that just as that potter molds the clay, God is molding us. God is forming us by the work of God’s hands. Now notice Isaiah does not say that God is the potter and we are the pot. The pot is the finished project. We are not the pot; we are the clay. We are the work in progress, the work that is shaped and reshaped by God’s love. None of us are finished.
When you take this image of the potter and place it with the beginning of a new year, the meaning is obvious. We are now beginning a year in which God will change us, in which God will reshape us. Now some of us here have been on the potters’ wheel for a long time. But none of us are finished. A new year means a new opportunity in which God will continue to form us. And who knows what changes God will make this year.
If we are young, perhaps we are still trying to figure out what to do with our lives or still looking for someone to share our lives with. This is a new year this could be the year in which God brings that search to an end. Some of us might be dealing with fear, with fear about our health, about our family, about our future. But we are not finished. God is at work. God can include in our lives confidence and courage so that we might be able to put our fears aside. Perhaps some of us are dealing with anger or resentment, and we want to let that anger or resentment go. But we have tried and tried, and we can see no way forward. Today we turn the page. We look forward believing that God is active and God can introduce into our lives some new shapes and curves that we have not expected. These changes might bring us to healing and give us the freedom to forgive.
A new year is a new beginning and God is still at work shaping and reshaping us. We not only believe that God can change us we believe that God is changing us. Because God is father, the changes that God is making are based on love. So we do not need to fear the year ahead. Options that are closed can be opened. Things that are lost can be found. What seems impossible can suddenly appear within our grasp. We believe that God is molding us, bringing us closer to the people God wants us to be.
Today’s Gospel gives us good advice. It tells us to stay alert, stay awake. God is active. God’s love will emerge. Be alert. Turn the page. A new year of God’s grace has begun.
Waiting for Christ’s Return
November 30, 2014
1 Corinthians1:3-9; Mark 13: 33-37
We all know that at Christmas we celebrate Christ’s coming into this world. But if you stop and think for a minute, you will remember that in the Christian story, Christ does not come once but twice. During our Eucharistic prayer we sing, “We proclaim your death O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” Why does Jesus need to come again? Why isn’t one coming enough?
To answer this question we have to remember what Jesus’ mission is. His mission is to save the world. And the minute we remember this, it becomes clear that there is more saving that needs to be done. The world in which we live is still characterized by many evils that are opposed to God’s will. The news that comes to us every day is often news of violence and greed, of prejudice and hatred, of poverty and death. It is clear that the world in which we live is not the world as God wants it to be. So this is why Jesus must come again. He must finish the work that he began on the cross. He must destroy every evil which is opposed to God’s will.
Now the first followers of Jesus understood the importance of his second coming. They looked forward to it with eager anticipation. You can sense that eagerness in today’s readings. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to stand firm as they wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not the revelation at Bethlehem but the revelation on the last day. Mark tells his readers to watch because we do not know the hour at which the owner of the house will be returning. Both Paul and Mark believed that Jesus would return soon, in their lifetime. They were anxious for Jesus’ return, because only at his second coming would the salvation of the world be complete.
But there is a twist in the Christian story. Although we believe that Jesus must return, we have been waiting for two thousand years and he has not yet arrived. What are we to make of this delay? Well, some would say that the plan has changed, that Jesus is not going to return, that God no longer intends to destroy the evil of this world. But there is another more positive interpretation which I think we should adopt. Jesus has delayed his coming to provide time for us to be part of his mission. Jesus is waiting to return so that we can join with him in destroying the evil of this world.
When we understand this as God’s intention, it can change the way that we live. As followers of Jesus we must see our moral choices as more than isolated acts of goodness. We should see the things that we do as contributions to God’s plan of saving the world. So when we forgive an enemy, we are doing more than simply following the command of Christ. Through that forgiveness we are hastening Christ’s return in glory. When we feed the hungry or welcome the stranger, we are doing more than what is right. We are offering those acts to Christ in order to bring about the kingdom of God. When we oppose hatred, violence, and injustice, we are doing more than being responsible people. We are collaborating with Christ to bring about God’s victory in this world.
So on this first Sunday of Advent, the Church asks us not to reflect on Jesus’ first coming but his second. This season asks us to believe again that God intends to destroy all that is evil in this world and that a day will come when Christ arrives to conquer everything that is opposed to God’s will. We must not only watch for that day, we must work to hasten it. We must believe that every act of charity or justice we do is our collaboration with God’s plan. God has not forgotten us. Jesus is delaying his coming to give us time to join with him in the salvation of the world.
Watching for Jesus
December 3, 2017
Mark 13: 33-37
A group of kids was playing in the church parking lot. When they looked up, they saw Jesus walking towards them. Excitedly, they ran into the church office and told the parish secretary. She took a deep breath and rushed into the Music Director’s office, pointing out the window. The Music Director dropped her hymnal, ran down the hall with everyone following her into the pastor’s office. He was proofreading the bulletin. She exclaimed, “Jesus is in the parking lot, and He is heading towards the office. What should we do?” The pastor, seeing everyone in disarray, stood up, grabbed his coat, his stole, and his car keys and shouted, “Everyone! Look busy!”
Looking busy is one way to prepare for Jesus’s arrival. But no one needs to tell us that. For many of us, this is the busiest time of year as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’s birth. There are gifts to buy, cards to write, decorations to put up, dinners to prepare. No one needs to tell us to keep busy. But keeping busy is only one and perhaps not the best way to prepare for Jesus’s coming. This is why today’s gospel offers us an alternative. The gospel does not tell us to keep busy. It tells us to watch, to watch for Jesus’s arrival. It recognizes that if we are too busy, we might not even notice when Jesus shows up.
So we are to watch. But watch for what? What are the circumstances in which Jesus is likely to arrive? The gospel presents us with three possibilities. And it does so by mentioning three times of the day: evening, midnight and cockcrow and morning. These times should be understood in terms of the events of the paschal mystery. Evening is the time that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples on the night before he died and washed their feet. Evening then is a time for service. Midnight and cockcrow is when Peter denied Jesus and all the disciples abandoned him. Midnight and cockcrow then are times that demand forgiveness. Morning is when the women found the empty tomb. So morning is a time of joy and thankfulness for God’s goodness. What the gospel is telling us is that we should watch for opportunities of service, forgiveness, and joy, because it is in such moments that we are most likely to meet Jesus.
Service to others is a part of the holiday season—gift baskets for the poor, meals at the soup kitchen, caroling for those who are homebound. But today’s gospel asks us to think of service in terms closer to home. Is there a child or a grandchild who is struggling academically or socially? Is there a friend that has just lost a loved one or received a negative medical diagnosis? Finding ways to offer love and support to these who are close to us is a true act of service. And in that service, Jesus will come to us.
The holidays focus on those we love. But people who have hurt us are never far from view. A family member who has deeply disappointed us, a co-worker who has offended us, a friend with whom we have disagreed and not spoken to in months hover above our holiday celebrations. This gospel asks us to be like Jesus at midnight and cockcrow—hurt but open to forgiveness. It promises us that any effort we make to reach out in reconciliation will not be wasted. Whether successful or not, it is in such an effort that we will find Christ’s presence.
We cannot forget the morning, the joy of the empty tomb. How important it is to express our joy for those who God has given to us. A gentle hug for our spouse laboring over another batch of Christmas cookies and a whispered, “Thank you.” A nod to our teenage son as he walks through the room on his cell phone and a wink that says, “You’re the best.” A moment with our closest friend over a drink in which we simply say, “My life would be so much less without you.” These expressions of joy deepen our lives, and in that depth, Jesus arrives.
We are all busy. There is no way around it. But today’s gospel asks us to watch amid that busyness for opportunities of service, forgiveness, and joy. To miss such moments would be a great loss. For it would be missing the One for whom all our busyness is about.
God is the Potter
November 29, 2020
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
This week we begin the last month of 2020. Thank God! This has been a terribly difficult year. We have had to deal with a worldwide pandemic that has greatly reduced our mobility and freedom and has killed almost a million and a half people. We have had to endure a divisive presidential election that has revealed that half of this country is pitted against the other half. Then there are all the usual troubles, such as divorce, divisions in our family, and the death of the people we love. When you place all these things together it is easy to become pessimistic and depressed. We begin to wonder, “Will my life ever again be positive and joyful?”
This is why Advent is coming at just the right time for us. Advent is a season of hope, hope not in the things that have happened but in what God is doing. You see, people of faith believe that God is active and working in the events of our lives and in our world. Christians do not simply think that things happen, but believe that when they do happen, God is in the midst of them, somehow guiding events to God’s own purposes. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that God sent a pandemic for a divine purpose. I am not suggesting that God desires Democrats and Republicans to attack one another. Disease and divisions do not come from God. But when they do come, we believe that God is active and capable of drawing out of these difficult situations gifts that will be good for us.
The image of Advent is found in today’s first reading. Isaiah says, “Oh Lord, we are the clay; you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.” Isaiah’s image presents God as a potter shaping our lives. We are the clay. We sit on the potter’s wheel, and it begins to spin. Some years, like this one, we become dizzy and disorientated. We watch as the world circles around us and we lose our sense of security and well-being. But God’s hands are around us, like a potter’s hands around the clay—holding, shaping, and transforming the troubled clay of our lives into something useful and good. And it is in that action of God that we find hope. So, the challenge of Advent is not to turn our backs on 2020 with disgust, but dare to ask how will God use the difficult events of this past year to make something beautiful?
How will God do this? I cannot answer that question. I do not know the mind of the potter. I, like you, am only part of the clay. But it is certainly possible to look closely for hints or glimpses of what God is about. If you lost a loved one this year, do you perhaps also have a renewed sense of the dignity of life and a deeper appreciation for the loved ones who are still with you? That could be a part of God’s plan. As we face our polarized political situation, we should not fail to notice that more people voted this November than at any other time of history. More Americans seemed to be involved in the democratic process. That too, might be a part of the potter’s intent. As we continue to deal with the coronavirus, do you find yourself with a deeper appreciation of those in healthcare services who risk their lives for our benefit? If you have noticed how cashiers and clerks in stores and supermarkets continue to do their job even in the presence of danger, have you begun to wonder whether they should be better compensated for the service they provide?
And then there is this. Each summer off the coast of Alaska, the seas are filled with cruise ships and boats to watch humpback whales. This year, because of the virus, those seas were empty. Scientists report that the effect of the whales has been very positive. The whales are resting more, socializing more, and singing more—because humpback whales communicate with one another through underwater songs. Scientists say their songs this year are new and more diverse than in the past. One expert remarked that, for the first time, we are able to observe the whales as they react to their own environment rather than reacting to us.
We believe that God has been active in 2020. That is the cause of our hope. But what God is making is not yet completely clear. That is why this Advent we should watch for glimpses and hints of God’s plan. Then, when the work of the potter eventually becomes apparent, we will not be surprised. We will be able to say, “Yes! I saw that in the sacrifice of doctors in the emergency room. I heard that in the song of the humpback whales.”