Weekly Edgework #26 - Dec. 28, 2004

Time, And Time Again

The beginning of the long dash following ten seconds of silence, indicates exactly twelve o’clock noon…(CBC, at noon on any day of the year.)

I am always amused when I hear this familiar announcement. After the ten seconds of silence, in which time seems to be suspended in mid-air, comes the beginning of the long dash. A sigh of relief is heard all over the land as real time begins counting again, right down to the millisecond perched on the forefront of the first second of the afternoon. You can set your watch precisely to make sure you will be on time for your many appointments in the next twenty-four hours.

This kind of time is rooted in the Greek word, chronos, from which comes the English word chronology. It is defined by the speed of the rotation of the earth on its axis as it spins around the sun. When that all gets broken down into bite-sized pieces we end up with hours, minutes and seconds. Chronos time is sequential in nature. Seconds and minutes follow on each other’s heels as we move from one activity to another. If we are attentive to this kind of time, we can write out a chronology of what happened on any given day, year or century.

Modernity has perfected chronos time. When the passing of time was recorded by sundials, time was somewhat imprecise. Noontime happened when the sun reached its highest point in the sky. But with the advent of mechanical clocks, and now especially with digital clocks, you can know exactly when it is noon, and therefore time to eat your lunch. Electronic buzzers keep us right on time, chronos time, that is. In a strange twist of fate, however, such precise timing has left us more hurried than ever. Ruben J. Villote says in the Inquirer News Service, that

We are all people in a hurry. We are forever meeting deadlines, following schedules and keeping busy running here and there, meeting people, writing letters, catching the bus, and being caught by a dozen other things “before the time is up.” We are enslaved not so much by power and wealth but by time.

But there is another Greek word with reference to time, and that is kairos. Unfortunately, the English word, “time,” makes no distinction between chronos and kairos. So we are not used to ferreting out nuances of meaning when we use that English word. And modernity has seen to it that chronos has almost entirely blocked out of our minds any understanding of the word, time, other than that related to chronology which can be measured bv a clock.

Kairos time has very little to do with chronos time. It refers to “the right moment” or “the opportune moment.” It is transparent because it allows you to look past the succession of events and see something more significant than the ticking of the clock. It is described more in terms of quality than quantity. When you are living in kairos you become oblivious to kronos, a fact that you only recognize in retrospect. If you are drawn into a sermon, for example, to the extent that you are oblivious to the fact that the speaker has gone ten minutes overtime until he stops speaking, you have experienced kairos. Kairos breaks through chronos and surprises us in retrospect.

It is interesting to note that the word kairos is used frequently in the Greek New Testament. When Jesus says in John 7:6 that his “kairos had not yet come,” he is saying more than it is not yet the right day for him to suffer. He is saying it is not the opportune moment – that further preparation is needed to make it God’s time. When Paul challenges Christians to “redeem the kairos,” in Colossians 4:5, he is not telling them to keep their eyes on the clock and use up every second for the good. Such a short-sighted notion only came with modernity. What he means is to remain alert to those occasions when God breaks through chronos and then get on board with what he is up to.

In her book, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says the following about kairos.

In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost to self in the mind of God, is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.

From my point of view, most of us need to experience more kairos in our lives. There is no need to hurry in the context of kairos. Each kairos moment is filled with grace, wonder and creativity. So why scurry on to the next hour, defined by your watch, when the present kairos is filled with God’s incarnational presence. As a matter of fact, it can be dangerous for us, personally and as a church, to miss the kairos moments available to us because if we do we may be missing out on what God is doing, according to his time.

Understanding the difference between chronos and kairos also gives me a handle on how to contemplate eternity. If we think of eternity through the lens of chronos, our minds will eventually become totally overwhelmed as we try to imagine unending years of chronological time, both backward and forward. However, if we think of eternity through the lens of kairos, that is God’s time, we can imagine it to be an un-interrupted, quality experience in which chronos is no more. You might say that eternity is kairos winning out over chronos – when we can throw our manufactured time-pieces away and live in the eternal present of God’s time – God’s kairos.