Sanctifying Time

Ancient Christian WorshipDon’t be fooled, everyone- Christmas is only just now ending. The season began on December 25, all right, but it continues through Epiphany. Alas, none of the radio stations seem to observe this technicality, for which I am profoundly sad- for whatever reason, I can never get enough of “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.” I was as surprised as anyone, I’m sure, to find myself so beholden to this time, so pregnant with significance, a significance which, while rooted in the past, doesn’t lie locked in that past, but roams free with a magnetic, life-giving pulse here and now, when once I was so allergic to the passage of time. Something within me transformed, and, I assure you, it was not my own doing. None of this is to say you should begin pining for John Tesh-hosted holiday tunes the way I do (although there are infinitely worse things!), only that those emblems mark out very vividly a special time, not only special for me, but for the church and the creation as a whole.

We might even learn something through this annual cycle of anticipation, and more than that, be changed more into the likeness of Christ through it. You and I have a problem, you see: we don’t care about time. We fear time- it’s an enemy to be hoodwinked and repulsed. As such we have no idea how to responsibly inhabit creation as creatures bound positively by time. Emphasizing the positivity of our temporal constraint sounds bizarre to us, because we are so accustomed to seeing time as the inexorable decay of ourselves and the things we enjoy in this world. But time is teacher that keeps us oriented in our creaturehood and persistently reminds us that all created goods find their origin in the highest good, the unchanging God who is greater than all His good gifts. What’s remarkable is that this God entered into the matrix of created reality we contemptuously look down upon so regularly and inhabited time well- before than we ever have. Christ submitted himself to the Father, to the Law, and to the second by second passage of moments that distinguish creaturely time from the divine existence-in-itself. In his incarnation the Lord sanctified that dimension of creation we so regularly impugn and squander. The church calendar is the regular priestly call to reorient ourselves to reality by distinguishing certain times worthy of remembrance (the primary vocation of God’s people is to remember- an action only possible within time) in order to make that past time contemporary with us once again. This is the “work of the people”- the liturgy (λειτουργία). This is what embodied remembrance in corporate worship is all about: service rendered to God and to others, service in which we, ourselves, are in fact served by God. And the overarching framework in which these gatherings find their meaning and structure is the church calendar, that biblically shaped, historically derived ordering of time to the events that have constituted us as God’s people.

We do well to observe the church calendar for two reasons: first, to inhabit the biblical narrative throughout the year and experience the progression of these texts towards their culmination in Christ as pilgrims hearing the texts as texts about us; and second, to resist the soulless propaganda we are always subject to within the hive of connectivity that is the postmodern world. We are always hearing words address that tell us what is to be desired and tell us who we are and who we should be: this is the white noise that permeates our moral imaginations and shrivels hearts and transplants identities onto worthless things that cannot satisfy. It’s never enough simply to defy; we have to have an alternative to choose. Let us look instead to the church calendar to constantly recalibrate and situate us; let us continually identify with the history of redemption and continue sanctifying the time Christ has sanctifed in becoming one of us, the best of us. I commend to you this section of Andrew McGowan’s book Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective which follows on his discussion of Christmas and Advent and concludes the chapter on feasts and fasts:


The undoubted contrast between the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated, on the one hand, and the relative silence of the NT documents on times and seasons, on the other, gives pause for thought. Some of the explicit NT reflections on time are apparently critical of the observance of times and festivals, or at least those that establish and reflect Jewish identity.

That last point has sometimes been extended to suggest the earliest Christians were not concerned with time at all, except as the medium through which final judgment would arrive According to that view, the tendency eventually to structure time through feasts and fasts is a sort of fall from primitive expectation to a kind of spiritual “settling,” at best a circumspect reorientation and at worst a loss of authentic anticipation.

The reality seems different. Although the formation of characteristic practices around Sundays, Easter, Christmas, and fasting days and seasons involves distinct stories with specific questions and problems, there is a commonality here that consists not in a turn from eschatological single-mindedness to a complexity of complacency but in the gradual formation of a culture. As much as any other medium or practice, the use of time reveals that the Christians were as much a new cultural formation as a “religious” one- indeed “religion” in our modern sense does not work well to interpret the choices the ancients made regarding their identity, allegiance, and practice. For them to inhabit time was inescapable and required structures, markers, and indicators of meaning; if the Lord of time was their Lord, then time itself must reflect that sovereignty.

The ancient evidence also suggests that debates about the relative importance of original Christian calculations and constructions versus “borrowings” from Jewish and particularly from “pagan” tradition have not been as illuminating as often assumed, either in explaining the Christianization of time or interpreting it. Across different controversies and processes, we see a common concern to relate history and nature rather than to subject one in the service of the other. Regarding the nativity in particular, hints of interest in the sun and its movement from an early period cannot be reduced to “pagan” influence, but suggest a desire to make sense of a divinely ordered universe with the tools available- scriptural, historical, and other. If there is a shift from focus on the eschaton, or end of time, to increasing attention to various other kairoi, or points in time, this is merely to affirm that Christian existence and practice had a history and not merely a beginning or end, and that Christians thought and acted in that history.

This is what we should expect, of course, since both the “folk” theology of most Christian believers and the more sophisticated discourses we rely on for most of this evidence share at least the belief that the world itself- the world of cities and of cemeteries, and of stars and planets- serves and reveals the God who made them. With characteristic pithiness, Augustine expresses this point in one of his Christmas sermons, wherein he presents Jesus as the meaning of time and times alike: “As born of his Father, he orders all days; as born of his mother, he sanctifies this one” (Sermon 194.1).
(Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices  in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014], pp. 259-260)


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