Saturday, October 18, 2008

Time and Eternity

(This is taken from a sermon I first gave in the early 1980s)

Time makes us uncomfortable. When we are conscious of it we are often frustrated with it. Time seems to go either too fast or too slow. It goes too fast when circumstances are good; it goes too slow when circumstances are unpleasant. We are perpetually surprised by time—“Can you believe it’s already Fall?!” Why is time such an awkward factor in our lives unless there is something in us which is not temporal? Socrates refused to delay his death for a few more hours; perhaps he knew that those few hours under the pressure of time would be worth little.

Did you ever notice that when we speak of “now” we seem to mean the timeless? There is no consciousness of duration. Awareness of duration—of a terminus—spoils “now.” Summer vacation is “now.” Students and teachers spend nine months longing for it, but once it’s here it seldom fulfills all the desires that were projected on it “back then.” For any pleasant time, there is the desire to enter totally into the experience—to possess it totally, but there is never enough time. The self-fulfilling climax is somehow always in the future, just eluding one’s grasp.

The future dream charms us because it gives an illusion of timelessness. That is part of the charm, also, of “the good ol’ days.” If you’ve ever stopped to consider, our most precious moments are timeless. As soon as the dimension of time comes to your mind, the magic of the moment disappears.

Maybe eternity can be illustrated in an analogy with a novel like David Copperfield, that covers many years. The book follows the boy David running away to his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, the youth David loving Dora, the mature David with Agnes. While one reads chapter after chapter— even as one’s own life passes day by day—David is what he is at a particular point in the book’s time. But then, when one shuts the book at the end, all the Davids—small boy, youth, mature man—are equally one. Who is the real David? All of them! The reader is then, in reference to the book’s time, in eternity, seeing it all in the Now, even as God in his eternal Now sees the whole of history that was, and is, and will be.

The Bible says that the longing for eternity is built into all of us. And if we all have an appetite for the Eternal Now, we are also caught in a world that frustrates our longing at every turn. So many of our society’s inventions are meant to “save time” —the assembly line, the jet, the computer. But what are we “saving time” for? People have never been more harried by time: our watches, buzzers, schedules, the start of the program, the end of the line at the amusement park....

And yet, why? Is not time our “natural environment?” We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. We love good fresh air, but we do not love “time.” We may love the existing moment because of what it offers, but time itself spoils our greatest moments. Nothing can quite come up to expectation because of it. It is strange that this seems to be true of humans alone. Animals, so far as we can tell, are unaware of time. They are untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense it is not ours?

C.S. Lewis (whose reflections sparked many of my thoughts here) asked how it is that a person who is supposedly a product of a materialistic universe is not at home there. Do fish act uncomfortable when they are wet? If they did, would that not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? If we complain of time and can have such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, does that not suggest we are not purely temporal creatures? Surely it suggests that we were created for eternity. Because not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, to get used to it. We are always amazed at it—how fast it goes or how slowly it goes or how much of it is gone. Think about a simple life experience. When do we hear a musical air? Until the last note it is incomplete; as soon as that sounds, it is over.

Considering these things, there is compelling reason that Christian faith is consistent with our true desires and the nature of our world. God is indeed our Maker, and he has created us to live—truly live—forever. And in spite of the frustration and pain and death that has been our legacy and still surrounds us, God has chosen to be our Savior. The Son of God came into our world, lived here to do rightly what the first Adam failed to do, and then died as a sacrifice for our sins. But that is not the end of the story: He came back from the dead never to die again, and in doing that became the first of a whole line of people who can know that death does not have the last word. Through Jesus Christ our worst fear has been conquered and our greatest desire has been granted: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

This sounds incredible. It is so far removed from what we experience in this world. Can we dare trust in such a thing as the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? Hans Urs von Balthasar offers this conclusion to his book on the Apostles’ Creed:

With that, the creed reaches its endless end. All the individual statements dissolve into one other, because they were all—even as historical facts—but an expression of the life everlasting in the symbolic language of finitude. Everything transient is only a symbol. It resembles from a distance, since it points back to something that is permanent and in process as an event. The human being was created as an “image and likeness” and even in faith sees but “in a mirror dimly”; once having arrived at God, however, I will “understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12); namely, by virtue of that love which has, from all eternity, conceived and known me. (Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, Ignatius Press)

This is what I base my life upon—it is why I am a Christian. This is the hope I have for my own life, and those of my young grandchildren. This is the comfort for people who grieve death, whether it is already realized or the process of slow but inevitable deterioration. In the face of time and the death that comes with it in this present world, Christians believe what the Church has confessed for almost two thousand years, and the Church confesses what God has revealed through his Son: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

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