Time and the Christian Life

Space horizon

Many years ago, I was privileged to serve as an Anglican priest in a Canadian diocese that played host to what was probably the country’s most interesting group of clergy. Our numbers were largely made up of traditionally-minded young men, representing the spectrum of Anglican theological thought – from Puritan to Tractarian. Being who and what we were, we often engaged in fraternal debate with one another over any number of theological questions, ranging from what the communicatio idiomatum permitted by way of describing God’s actions in Christ, to what constituted the most authentic Eucharistic theology according to the Book of Common Prayer, to how many councils the Church should recognise as genuinely ecumenical. Indeed, in spite of whatever the world might say about contemporary Anglicanism, I was blessed to have had the experience I did, and would further suggest that if some of the English Catholic communities I have observed since had a trace of the intellectual life and discourse to boast that I experienced in that one Canadian Anglican diocese, the whole Catholic Church would be healthier for it.

That said, one of the things I found most vexing in debate back in the day was how radically different the understanding of Sacraments was between those of a Catholic mind and those of a Protestant one. The Protestant-minded clergy would often raise objections that seemed to me historically quaint and somewhat disingenuous, but were in fact entirely sincere. In other words they were wrong, but authentically so. What they seemed then to be missing (and I have since only become more and more convinced of this), was a proper understanding of time, and how time relates to eternity. In fact, I would argue that the nucleus around which so many heresies have been built since the sixteenth century is a misconstrual of time itself. Take, for example, how it is that the celebration of the Eucharist in the context of the Holy Mass or the Divine Liturgy can actually make present an historical event like the Sacrifice of Calvary, or how it is that we can commune with long-dead saints. These are problems that obviously beset most Protestant traditions, and even confound many Catholics, involving as they both do the need to accept a certain relationship between the temporal and the eternal, but they are problems that can be resolved with a proper approach to time.

I order to understand this, it is helpful, first, to envisage time as a line on a blackboard. The point on the left of the line represents the beginning of time and space. We can reasonably imagine that this happened six or more billions of years ago, but it does not really matter when exactly it was. The fact is that time began. From this spot on the board, the line proceeds towards the right until terminating at some point, which becomes for us the end of time. Time and space in this analogy are coexistent and coterminous, meaning that one dimension is inextricable from the other, beginning, proceeding, and ending together. We now have a workable analogy for time and existence, but there is yet another plane: that is, the blackboard on which our line is written. In relation to the line, the blackboard is transcendent: it surrounds time; it is, for the purposes of our analogy, eternal.

Now, if we were to place a figure on the timeline representing, say, Abraham, our father in faith, and then, sometime later, place another figure representing Jesus, and finally, at some point later place a figure representing us, we would have something like a standard historical model, recognisable by everyone, and easy to understand in terms of who and what came where relative to the other figures on the line, and so in history. Moving from left to right, it would be apparent that Jesus came after Abraham and we after Jesus. Yet from the perspective of any other point on the proverbial blackboard, all of those figures – in fact, every point on the timeline – would simply be present. On the two-dimensional, horizontal plain, a point has no view of what lies to its left or right other than what it’s intellect might tell it (assuming a point or an imaginary figure has an intellect!); from some place above the two-dimensional plain, however, any given point is simply visible. It does not matter where on the timeline it is; it simply is.

The implications of this are, of course, of profound import. Theologically, it means that with respect to a cosmically significant event such as the crucifixion, in which Jesus hung above the earth on a cross, we might imagine him to have been raised above the timeline, and so to have ‘cast a shadow’ over all history. Certainly, when set against eternity, it makes the reality of the cross just as present to those living now as those living two thousand years ago. Perhaps more easily grasped, though, is the same understanding for a doctrine like the Communion of Saints. This doctrine sets all Christians within family: a family made up not only of those whom we can see, but of those, also, who have gone before us. If we were to think of things in geographical terms, those who have been entirely purified would be closest to God (and so called ‘Saint’ by those of us on earth), while those who have passed from the earth but are not yet entirely purified would be somewhere in between. Then there would be those of us still in the land of the living. No matter where any of us were, however, by the measure of God’s economy, we would all be a part of the communion of saints.

We could say of those who have gone before us, meanwhile – and especially those who have taken their place in the company of heaven itself – that they have transcended the timeline. This in turn would give them a ‘God’s eye’ view of time. Yet even if they were bound to the timeline, they would be just as real and just as present to the eternal God if they lived in 3000 BC as if they were alive and well in 2014. In fact, it was on this basis that Jesus, when confronted by his challengers over the question of how it was he could possibly have met Abraham, said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am’ (St John 8:58). Aside from all the other exegetical implications of his statement, Jesus is here declaring himself to be the eternal present: He who transcends time and so knows Abraham as much as his own immediate antagonists.

If Christians are called to be united with Christ so much so that they are transfigured like Him and partake of His nature, then it means by extension that Christians are – at least in potentia – able to rise above the line and commune across time. Charles Williams’ idea of coinherence, which has Christians sharing in the relationship of the Trinity and so able to share – very literally – in one another’s lives, is not dissimilar to this. That the Christian can undertake supernatural deeds based on participation in a transcendent state, which is possible because of life in the eternally transcendent, is a sure consequence of correctly coming to terms with the nature of time.

Ultimately, understanding the nature of time is intimately connected with a right understanding of God. It helps the Christian to live in the present, even while it allows him to know the holy ones in eternity with whom he communes invisibly. When rightly seen, time becomes the medium in which God’s eternal actions are known, and the vessel for all things sacramental. The challenge of time is such that it may at first obscure the Christian’s vision, but once adjusted to seeing, the Christian can begin to perceive what is truly around him, and live every moment as if it is unfolding in the realm of eternity. Which is exactly where it is.

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