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Christ's Time for the Church
By Laurence Hull Stookey
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Living at the Intersection of Time and Eternity
To be deeply Christian is to know and to live out the conviction that the whole human family dwells continuously at the intersection of time and eternity. A superficial Christianity may be content with far less, believing merely that some portions of the human family dwell there—for example, only those who are "believers," as defined, perhaps, very narrowly. Or a superficial Christianity may identify certain occasions on which God, the Eternal One, has momentarily entered into human history or into the experience of particular persons, only to be obscured again thereafter. But such interpretations of the Christian faith fail to grapple with the way in which God is perpetually at work in all of creation.
The abiding conviction that history and eternity continuously intersect is grounded in the most basic of Christian affirmations. For our scriptures insist that in the days of the Emperor Augustus the eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, born in Bethlehem when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Further, our creeds affirm that this Christ—"God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God"—was crucified in the time and under the jurisdiction of Pontius Pilate and rose from the dead after three days. To take these assertions seriously is to be bound to the conviction that God and human history are intertwined.
Hence, as Christians we ought continuously to be aware that we live at the intersection of time and eternity, but often we are not; for one thing, our preoccupation with the pressures and demands of time itself obscures the presence of the Eternal One in our midst. The poet Wordsworth complained that "the world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Since his day nothing has changed to decrease our penchant for ignoring God in the face of life's pressing demands. But obliviousness toward God is only part of the story; the rest is that often God prefers to work incognito, hidden away from public acclaim. Was God any less at work in our midst during nearly three decades in a Nazareth home and carpentry shop than during the brief months of Jesus' public ministry in Galilee and Judea? This is a question theologians rarely address, but one that has profound implications for our understanding of how God labors among us.
Holy hiddenness is neither a punishment from God nor a denial of grace to us. It is a gift. Luther, it is said, at the end of the afternoon frequently would invite one or more of his coworkers to join him in a time of relaxation. But his excessively conscientious associate, Philip Melanchthon, frequently tried to prevent this on the grounds that "there is too much work that we need to be doing to reform the church"—to which Luther would reply in exasperation, "Philip, God is at work even while we are drinking beer." God's hidden labors in our midst should allow us to live faithfully without the stultifying intensity that takes us to the brink of self-idolatry by causing us to believe everything of importance depends on us, and us alone.
Still, at times our natural preoccupation with the pressures and details of life and the holy hiddenness of God produce a negative result: Time obscures the very eternity it is intended to reveal. For this reason Christians have found it helpful—even necessary—to keep track of time in special ways that call to remembrance God's work among us. Once each week we observe a day of worship; this all Christians of every age and place have agreed upon, even if they have had some disputes about whether this should occur on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection (as most assert) or on Saturday to give thanks for the completion of creation (as "seventh day Christians" insist). Then there are annual observances to remind us of God's acts in our midst. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are familiar to all Christians; to these, many others add observances of Advent, Epiphany, and Lent. Most churches set aside certain days on which to recall the work of Christ's grace in the lives of the faithful departed, whether or not they officially designate such persons as saints. In some traditions even hours of the day are designated to call to remembrance our encounter with God in Christ: noon in commemoration of Jesus hanging on the cross, three in the afternoon to mark his death, and evening to commemorate his sojourn in the sepulchre; dawn to recall the discovery of the empty tomb, and midnight to proclaim the Lord's return when least we expect it.
That Christians should find it useful to observe seasons, days, and hours in ways that make evident the eternal in our midst may seem eccentric until we reckon with how essential time-keeping is in organizing human experience. Imagine trying to navigate your way through life with no access to a clock or calendar of any kind. Utter disorientation would result. In recent times a number of persons have been held hostage under such conditions of deprivation. For extended periods of time, they have been denied the slightest glimpse of sunlight, and so could not even determine when day ended or began. Terry Waite expressed the confusion and frustration common to them all:
I have spent about four days in the underground prison—at least I think it's about four days. The guards won't tell me the time, and I can only guess the hour from when they come to take me to the toilet and bring me food.... The thing I find most worrying is not being able to measure the passing of time. If I am to keep myself together, I must find some means of doing this.
One form of social control imposed on American slaves was to withhold from them the dates of their birth; thus Frederick Douglass took great pains to try to discover his birth date, in order that thereby he might know who he was. As those who hold hostages or slaves know all too well, human identity and functioning are utterly dependent on time-keeping. Is it odd, then, that Christians find spiritual time-keeping to be so crucial to their identity and action?
Time: Past, Present, and Future
Coming to terms with the relationship of past, present, and future is crucial to an adequate theology of time. For the most part, we think of these as distinct categories, isolated from one another as if in separate containers. In diagram form the usual assumptions look like this:
The present in this understanding is a significant duration of time, which may vary from person to person or occasion to occasion; but usually when we talk about "the present" we mean the current decade or century, or, perhaps, events within our own lifetime or slightly beyond. "The past," by contrast, refers to what may fall into the category "history." And "the future" refers to what is well beyond experience. Given this boxed-in view of past, present, and future, the present is given the greatest value. The past often is viewed at best as the preliminaries ("The past is prologue.") and at worst as something superseded ("What's past is past.") or utterly irrelevant ("History is bunk."). In the same way the future also is often distanced from us. "Don't live in the future," we are warned; "you have to deal with things as they are now. Nobody knows what tomorrow holds." Because the visions of heaven and the end of time have been so abused by certain kinds of religious fervor, in church circles the hope of the future may even be dismissed as false: "Pie in the sky when you die, by and by." Thus the future hope cherished by many people of faith is suspected of being an escape from the demands of the present.
Because the Bible abounds with stories about the past and the future, the model just illustrated alienates us unnecessarily from biblical ways of thinking. Consider a model quite different:
In this understanding, time is a continuum, not a series of boxes. The present is but the moving edge between the past and the future. In some sense the present barely exists. This should not suggest that the present is unreal or unimportant, but only that it is always a moving edge of the thinnest sort. In a moment you will read a word set in all capital letters; your reading of that word is now a future event. BUT now your reading of that word is a past event. In this understanding of things, the past is far more than prologue and the future far more than a distant dream. The present cannot be conceived in isolation, as if it had a life of its own. Always the past, present, and future are of a piece.
That the past shapes the present seems the less controversial of the assertions. We know from experience that we are inheritors of much that we possess, all the way from the gene pool, which helps to determine who we are as persons, to the national debt, which helps to determine how much we as citizens have to pay in taxes. We are only beginning to realize how much we suffer from past abuses of nature, leaving us with polluted streams, radioactive landfills, holes in the ozone layer, and depleted forests. On the other hand, in thousands of ways of which we are only dimly aware, we are the benefactors of the labor and sacrifices made by those who went ahead of us.
It may be less evident, however, that the future also shapes us in important ways. Theologians call this shaping power of the future "eschatology" (literally, "the things at the end"); but one need not be a theologian in order to have an eschatology. As I was growing up in mid-America during the post-World War II years, a compelling eschatology had gripped the nation. There were ominous reports of the massive military power of the Soviet Union, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy were finding fifth-column communists in every crevice. The possibility of a thermonuclear holocaust was discussed daily in the media. The future, in short, seemed to have the shape of a mushroom cloud.
The effect upon the present was horrendous. Inordinate sums of money were spent on defense. Air-raid sirens, installed in every community, were tested periodically, so that no one could ignore their presence—or the impending doom they prefigured. Schoolchildren were routinely put through civil defense drills, and yellow and-black signs everywhere indicated the location of bomb shelters. The affluent built private bunkers in their yards, and sometimes stocked them not only with food and water but with guns and ammunition to ensure that no one outside of the family would intrude in time of panic. As a preteen, I worried whether my little village in Illinois was far enough from St. Louis to escape devastation when the Russians would (inevitably, it seemed) send their missiles hurtling over the North Pole at a city that had a lively munitions industry. And suppose their aim was bad and they hit my town directly! Not many called this view of things an "eschatology"; but that is precisely what it was. Life magazine photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted us, as the past conspired with the future to shape the present in terrifying ways.
To live as if the present could be boxed off from the past and the future is unrealistic even for someone who has no concern for religious thinking. But for Christians, rooted in biblical traditions, the task is doubly untenable. The Christian story reaches back to the Exodus of ancient Israel and before and stretches forward to the descent of a new heaven and a new earth and beyond.
Indeed, it can be said that Christians are called to assume a cruciform posture: Standing upright with feet firmly planted in the present, we stretch out one arm to grasp our heritage and the other arm to lay hold of our hope; standing thus, we assume the shape of our central symbol of faith: the cross. If either hand releases its grip, spiritual disaster threatens as the sign of the cross becomes misformed.
Eternity: Divine Humiliation- Exaltation and the Cross
The cross is the key not only to the Christian faith but also to the definition of eternity as we consider its intersection with time. For the cross reveals the humiliation-exaltation that is a distinctive characteristic of the Eternal One.
It must be emphasized at the beginning that the defining movement of humiliation-exaltation is not an innovation that begins at Bethlehem or shortly before. We Christians see this divine movement most clearly in the presence of Jesus in our midst; but always God has been and will be working this way in the world in order to be made known to the fullest extent that the divine can be understood by humanity.
Therefore it is well to rid ourselves of misleading vocabulary, particularly that which speaks of Jesus as "God's intervention into history." Such language suggests that God was inactive, perhaps even uninterested, in the history of the world until a certain point at which drastic action became advisable or necessary. But what kind of God is it who creates a world and then walks off, becoming a passive observer until some crisis occurs that seems overwhelming? No, the Creator is ever active in the creation; but at points that activity is less obvious to humanity than at other times. The contrast is not between a God who is here and a God who is absent, but between the work of God that is sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden.
Two models by way of illustration: (1) In ancient Greek drama, often a playwright would allow the human situation to get into such a tangled mess that all hope seemed lost. Then, at the bleakest point in the play, seemingly from out of nowhere, a chariot would appear and in it a deity. That divine being, who until this point had not interacted in the plot, would magically reconcile all differences and set everything right. Because the deity arrived on stage in a mechanical conveyance, this technique came to be known by the Latin phrase Deus ex machina, literally, "God from the machine."
(2) By contrast consider a handwoven tapestry depicting lush vegetation. Looking at the right side of the tapestry, the eye sees primarily a vast expanse of green intertwining vines and leaves. But every now and again there appears a small yellow bud—not yet a full bloom, but only a bud. In contrast to the dominant green of the fabric, these yellow patches are scattered: subtle occurrences in the overall pattern. But turn the tapestry over and behold on the other side the vast maze of threads that create the design. Suddenly, the yellow, so scarce on the upper side, is everywhere. Indeed the underside may seem predominantly yellow, for the golden threads not woven into the upper design continue underneath, unbroken from the point of one floral bud to the next.
God's activity in the world is better thought of as the yellow threads of that tapestry than as a Deus ex machina drama. God is not a Creator who stands outside creation and intervenes only when nothing else will be effective. Divine involvement is interwoven through human history—is always there, but more often than not unseen unless we turn history over and look at its underside. Thus what happens in Jesus Christ is not some surprising innovation, concocted in dire circumstances to provide emergency relief. What happens in Jesus Christ is the making evident of what God has ever been doing in hidden but purposeful activity. In other words, time and eternity continuously intersect; that is how God designed it. And though sometimes we are oblivious of that intersection, at other times we are made aware of it.
Suppose that, in the tapestry we have envisioned, the yellow buds are so small they could almost be lost to the eye of the casual observer. But in the visual center of the design the weaver has set one bud that has blossomed into full flower. That blossom, far from detracting from the many tiny patches of yellow throughout the tapestry, by its brilliance gives greater place to those subtle buds, ensuring that they will not be overlooked. In the tapestry of history, in which God is ever active even if often hidden, that central, brilliant blossom is Jesus Christ, who enables us to see so many other evidences of God's presence, and who causes us to know that God is always with us, even when hidden from view.
The manner in which this God works is clarified in the story of Jesus. At Christmas, we are made aware of the humility of a God who wills to be found in a feed trough. John Donne had this in mind when he entered the pulpit of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, on Christmas Day, 1626, and began his sermon this way:
The whole life of Christ was a continual passion. Others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem, where he was born. For to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the [crown of] thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
Donne rightly perceived that humiliation characterized the incarnation from end to end. But humiliation implies dignity, for only the exalted can be humbled; and deep humiliation implies grandeur. If we are not struck by the humiliation of Bethlehem, perhaps it is because we have a deity who is too domesticated, made too much in our own image, though a bit bigger! But what if God, instead of being a larger version of ourselves, is quite apart from us—not alien (let alone unapproachable), but wonderful beyond our capacity to comprehend?
Imagine a scene in heaven before Bethlehem. God has convened a solemn council of all the heavenly host and now addresses them: "Despite our best efforts to be made known through creation, hardheaded humanity has not gotten the point. They do not understand divine love at work among them and rebel against it at every opportunity, often in the most vicious ways. Since they do not see the grace we continuously pour upon them, we must make our activity more clear to them. If they are to be saved from themselves, it will be necessary for someone to go there from here, to take on human form, to reveal in person what we intend creation to be. Who will go for us?" There is a great silence in heaven. The angels stand on one foot and then the other, declining eye contact with one another. Each feels a sense of obligation but an utter unwillingness to take on the onerous task of dealing with humanity. Then comes the voice of God again: "Who will go for us? Who is willing to try to make more clear the message of heavenly grace to people caught in their own selfishness? Which of you will take on flesh and be born in their midst?" Another great embarrassed silence follows. Once again: "Who will go?" No one stirs. No sound can be heard. A fourth time God speaks: "Then I myself will go." In one accord the angels gasp. And then for an hour there is a silence greater than all that preceded, as the hosts of heaven grapple with the implications: God will go? God will take on flesh and walk among that vicious lot? Suppose those mortals, thinking this divine visitor to be merely one of their own kind, take up arms and do what humanity has done to one another ever since the time of Cain and Abel! It is a thought too amazing to be tolerated. No, they must have misheard what God said to them.
Herein lies the deep humiliation of God: that time and eternity have intersected in a way so obvious; that the Eternal One has been born in the days of Caesar Augustus and slain under Pontius Pilate, thereby sanctifying the whole of human history in all its sordid dimensions. The cross is the testimony that this is true. The cross is the verification that God has appeared in human flesh, condescending to accept agony and execution.
Excerpted from Calendar by Laurence Hull Stookey. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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