The human relationship with time is a strange thing. The upright stones of neo-lithic human communities stand as silent reminders of our long interest in seasons and the movement of the heavens. Today our light-polluted skies shield many of us from the brilliant display of the night sky and rob us of the stars. The modern world is not only shielded from the stars but from many aspects of time itself. Artificial lighting has made the setting of the sun into an unremarkable event and extended daylight into whatever hour we might wish. And though the seasons are worth noting, it is primarily their effect on clothing choices that seem important – foods have become omni-seasonal (for a price).
With all of that, the Church’s calendar becomes an intrusion and a disruption and almost an antique artifact. On the secular calendar, days of the week are but markers for which television shows are showing, a fact which itself is increasingly irrelevant in the digital world of delivery-on-demand. Days and years have importance only for writing a check correctly (something that is itself disappearing). But the Church calendar colors days, marking some for fasting and others for feasting and makes of time a complication that demands attention.
The Church calendar was once described to me as the “sanctification of time.” In this part of the modern world I would describe it not only as the sanctification of time, but the insistence that there even be time.
This is a common pattern within Orthodox Christianity. To outsiders, the calendar may seem exotic – but it represents nothing more outlandish than an affirmation of what it means to be a human being. Our humanity is a tradition. I can only learn what it is to be a human being from another human being, someone who has successfully fulfilled that reality. Animals are no different. Birds do not suddenly fly – their flight is traditioned to them. Human beings learn to walk in a traditioned manner as well. Your computer or your phone will not teach you how to be a human being.
So many things that modern people see as strange or unusual within the traditional life of Orthodox Christianity are no more than the encounter with the living memory of what it is to be human. And time in its traditional form is one of them.
What is time? Science describes time as a function of space. Space describes an expanse and time locates something within that expanse. And although this description of time is not “traditional,” it nevertheless works. Time helps us to locate ourselves. To be human includes time and space. I cannot be human everywhere – but only at a particular place and a particular time (which are the same thing). It is this aspect of our humanity that our jettisoning of time seeks to ignore.
As we entertain ourselves to death, we become more and more abstracted from both space and time. Wandering in a digital world we have forgotten how to return to ourselves and simply be present to a particular point. Tragically, that particular point is always (and only) the place where we meet God. The calendar is thus something like an “appointment device.” This feast, this day, this time in my life, if I will keep the appointment, I can meet God.
The feasts on the calendar are not appointments with memorials, the recollection of events long past. They are invitations to present tense moments in the liturgical life of the world. In those moments there is an intersection of the present and the eternal. They are theophanies into which we may enter.
The events in Christ’s ministry that are celebrated (to use one example) are of little importance if viewed in a merely historical manner. It is not enough to say and remember that Christ died. The Christian faith is that I must become a partaker of Christ’s death. Christ is Baptized, but I must be a partaker of His Baptism. This is true of all the feasts and is the reason for our liturgical celebrations. The Church is not a memorial society – it is the living presence of Christ in the world and the primary means by which we may share in His presence.
There is no time like the present for only in the present does time open its riches to us and bestow its gifts. Only at the present moment do the doors to eternity offer us union with what would otherwise seem lost.
For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2Co 6:2)