I was planning on writing something for the start of the New Year, when a good friend of mine asked me to come up with a prayer to begin this year of 2024. As I was composing the prayer, I began to think about how time works in our lives as Christians, especially Catholic Christians who keep both a secular chronological calendar and a sacred liturgical calendar. Thus, this blog. If you want just the prayer, skip to the bottom. (Smile).
For the last few decades, biblical scholars have been quick to point out that Greek has two words, which we translate as “time”—chronos and kairos. Chronos is equivalent to our use of “time” when we ask “When did that event occur?” “What time is it now?” “How many days/weeks/months until we meet?” In other words, it conveys the linear unfolding of time from past to present to future. Kairos, on the other hand, conveys a sense of heightened expectations, a critical moment, a key, life-changing event, something impending: “The time for a decision has come!” “Is this the right time?” “My time has not yet come.” That last phrase is from John’s Gospel (7:6). Paul will use the word to convey the urgency of transformation in Christ (“Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!” 2 Corinthians 6:2). And kairos is used throughout the New Testament to convey a sense that something critical is happening or needs to be decided. Even when the word is not specifically used, scholars have come to understand that this idea of kairos permeates the whole outlook of the New Testament. The encounter with the Gospel, with the good news of Jesus, with Jesus himself, is always an eschatological event, which brings with it an in-breaking of God’s reign or kingdom and the need for a decision. Will we respond as disciples and let our lives be transformed or will we turn away and let that kairos moment pass us by?
This understanding of kairos-like time is powerful. It is used by the new evangelization movements to challenge even long-standing Christians to a new conversion, a fuller surrendering of one’s life to the Lord here and now. Many young adult Catholics, including young priests, will tell their “conversion story” and even date the moment at which they gave their life to the Lord or felt a call to priesthood. They frame the story of their personal faith journey often in kairos-like ways, and many of those stories are quite moving. But there is also a temptation to frame the story in such a way that it might look like the true grace of God is only in those special moments, when we seemingly “escape” this world and focus on “the next” world to come.
Without downplaying such powerful moments of kairos, it is also the case that we have to live our lives within the unfolding of linear, chronological time. Moreover, though there are a number of Christian thinkers who would disagree with me, the goal is not somehow to escape this world, but to live in such a way that we see God’s grace permeating all that is happening, inviting people to a joyful sacrifice of their lives so that this world might more readily experience the in-breaking of God’s reign. We keep our “eyes on the prize” and that allows us to live an authentic life in the midst of the “messiness” of the world. Otherwise, we too easily ignore or downplay the real injustice and evil that has become structured in our world, because we are content that “we” are ok with God (because we have experienced moments of kairos) and that our true destiny is not this world.
However, there is a challenge with living within this worldly, chronological time as well. Though there can be moments of being overcome by intense beauty, insight into the truth, or the profound goodness of someone, most of our time is caught up in mundane, every day, seemingly unimportant matters. The reality of death and the shortness of lifespan confront us. It becomes all too easy to justify the attitude of the book of Ecclesiastes (8:15). What does one do in the face of the relentlessness of chronological time and the certainty of death? “Eat, drink, and be merry”—an attitude condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:19) and by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:32). We can just as easily, maybe more easily, ignore the cry of the world for healing, justice and reconciliation by living our lives in this way, as we can by condemning the world and focusing only on “heavenly realities."
In short, we are caught in a dilemma. Kairos moments can provide a touchstone to not lose hope, to be re-centered and re-energized, to open for us the horizon of God’s gracious love. But it is impossible to live the intensity of kairos all the time. On the other hand, to immerse ourselves into our daily, chronological lives carries the challenge that life is often tedious, laborious, disappointing, unfair, and unkind and quite difficult, which in turn can lead us to focus on the here and now pleasures and not the bigger and more important, grace-filled picture. What then are we to do?
Try better to live in kairos time on a permanent basis? That is what certain sects and cults have done over the centuries, but never successfully for very long, and always with disastrous results. Hope for an occasional crisis or overwhelming experience (good or bad), which will force us into a moment of kairos? That is fine but a bit random. There is a third option, one the Church learned from its Jewish forebears: that in addition to linear, chronological time and unexpected kairos moments, there are seasonal patterns and cyclical rhythms which govern much of our lives, which can unite chronological and kairos time into an ongoing spiral. The powerful reality of the repeated, cyclical way that the seasons of nature operate gives rise to the Hindu understanding of reincarnation and rebirth, as well as to the Greek philosophical idea of “eternal return” embraced by the Stoics and the Pythagoreans. However, in the Jewish experience, the annually recurring celebrations (think especially of Passover), the cyclical re-focusing on the past event is not simply a rebirth or endless return of the same. Rather, in their annual celebrations the people of Israel bring together chronological and kairos time. Through the remembering of the original event via story and symbol, a kairos moment is created in the present time. It is no longer simply about remembering one’s ancestors and their choice (for example at Passover) but about our lives and what we will do here and now.
The Christian liturgical year cycle will build on this same reality, with an even deeper intensification of kairos, due to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The resurrection breaks open all time and space, so that Christ’s real presence in the gathering of the Christian faithful bridges all chronological time, allowing past event, present reality and even future fullness to come together in the moment of sacramental celebration. It is not just that we are remembering the past and tying it to the future. Christ himself is bridging past, present and future. For those of us who keep the liturgical year’s rhythm (weekly Sunday Eucharist, seasons of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, Lent-Triduum-Easter-Pentecost, key feast days and holydays), we are given an opportunity at each celebration to take what we have experienced in our mundane, uncertain, even difficult and disappointing chronological lives and unite them to the once-for-all offering of Jesus in his death, resurrection and sending of the Spirit. Because we do not pretend (nor want) to escape from chronological time, we know that we have changed from each week or each feast or season. That means we can celebrate the same feast year after year or hear proclaimed the same Word, but it is always new, always different. We present back to the Lord our successes and failures and let the power of the liturgical gathering in Word and Sacrament re-ground us and renew us for our daily lives.
Keeping the liturgical year and entering into its dynamic, then, allows our ever unfolding, often difficult and challenging chronological lives to be confronted over and over with the same Good News (the living Word and presence of Christ), so that each liturgical celebration has the potential to be a moment of kairos-like transformation. We taste a bit of that transcendent reality we are called to be and live but also receive the grace and strength to immerse ourselves back into the challenge, even tedium of daily life (“The Mass is ended; go and be Christ’s Body broken and Blood poured out for the salvation and unity of the world.”).
Which brings me to today, the first day of our new year. For Christians, the Year of our Lord 2024. For Jews and Christians, the 2024th year of our Common Era, which we observe in our western calendars on January 1. A day like New Year’s Day is one of those moments that can bring together these three senses of time—chronological, kairos-like, and cyclical. It marks yet another year passing (chronological) but also invites a sense of a new beginning (cyclical). And in our New Year’s resolutions we have a pale shadow of that deeper call to kairos transformation. I hope this prayer captures that weaving together of those senses of time but also with an invitation to a much deeper transformation.
Lord, our God,
By creating the universe, you create the reality of time. In the Christmas wonder of the Incarnation of your Son, Jesus, you permanently unite your plan of salvation to the unfolding of time through human history. And in the incomprehensible gift of the Resurrection, you make known that the fullness of time will be your Spirit’s gathering of all that is into communion with you.
In the face of that awesome mystery, we offer to you this present time and this upcoming year of 2024.
May it be for us a year where your Spirit shows us how to bring all that we are and do, all our relationships, and all we experience, into deeper communion with you, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Blessings of the New Year to all!