“Time,” the man said, “is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.” Another way of looking at the same thing is Arnold Toynbee’s remark that some people think “history is just one damned thing after another.”
As Christians, we believe that time, history, and the sequence and interplay of events in human affairs is not merely one damned thing after another but is, like all created things, grist for grace. God doesn’t just bless things and sacramentalize them; He blesses time itself and makes it sacramental, too. He doesn’t just hallow spaces in space like temples and churches; He hallows spaces in time (like Sabbaths and feast days).
And so, for instance, we have the Old Testament concept of creation week and its attendant Sabbath as the primal sign of the covenant. The Seventh Day becomes a hallowed space in time that marks off a place devoted to Israel’s relationship with God, just as the Temple becomes a hallowed space in space for the same purpose.
It is remarkable that the point of the Sabbath is, in earthly terms, to “waste” time, just as the point of the Temple is, from an earthly perspective, to “waste” space. Bill Gates remarks, in his post-Christian Gradgrind way, that “just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” The Communists who sacked churches and turned their spaces into something “useful” felt the same way. Both are kindred spirits to the one who complained of Mary’s waste of resources by saying, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (Jn 12:5).
The worship of efficiency is one of the many idols the gospel seems to have been sent to smash, and the Sabbath is one of the many hammers with which we do it. The Old Testament Sabbath is, of course, a sign pointing to Jesus, who is our true Sabbath. Like all the other signs given in the Old Testament, it was intended to point to Him, the Lord of the Sabbath, who is our real rest (Mt 12:8; Heb 4). That is why the tradition of hallowing time continues in the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Day and in the whole cycle of liturgical time with its feasts, fasts, and solemnities. But this habit of celebrating sacred play time also points to something else: the fact that vast amounts of life consist of waiting around.
We are in the midst of one such waiting-around period as a Church this week. Acts 1:4-13 tells us how that got started:
And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying….
And they began to wait. Notice this: The apostles are told to go to Jerusalem and wait so they will receive the promise of the Spirit — who will empower them to wait some more for the coming of the kingdom. From the standpoint of efficiency, this is woefully lacking. But then, the whole of creation and salvation history demonstrates the same curious prodigality with time. After all, in a parallel to creation week, the sciences tell us that the overwhelming span of time in creating the universe has consisted of unthinkable epochs in which humans play no role at all. Best estimates are that the universe is roughly three times older than the solar system. The entire span of time our earth and sun have existed (about 4.5 billion years) had to pass — and then pass again — before the universe was ripe enough to bring forth the planet that had the right star, the right position and orbit, the right size and composition, the right companion planets and the right moon, in the right part of the galaxy, with the right combination of atmosphere, geology, and water, to have the possibility of life. Clearly God is leisurely in His long, slow construction of the cosmic Temple.
The same pattern is observable in the history of life on earth. Just as there are vast tracts of space that, if they were not vacuums, would be the very definition of a howling void absolutely hostile to man, so there are vast tracts of time before our arrival in which the earth is, as Paul puts it, “groaning in travail” as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:21-25). Age after long age passes in which the most complicated living thing is a speck of algae. Millions of years pass in which the land is barren of life, in which insects and amphibians and reptiles and mammals live out the long, slow, and dull lives of beasts before our arrival. The human race, both in Genesis and in natural history, comes at the very tail end of a story in which they play no part, except that of the newborn whose Father has undertaken immense labors to prepare a safe nursery in a house on a manor built just for him in the midst of a vast wilderness.
The point of the story is not that all that came before man was a meaningless waste, any more than the point of Psalm 19 is that the immense unpeopled heavens declare the wastefulness of God. Rather, it is that all that came before man was for his sake: that man is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” (CCC 356). The long wait of creation for our arrival is the sign and token that waiting is built into the fabric of things.
Salvation history builds on this pattern. In addition to the Sabbath, the story of salvation history is full of waiting around. Of course, the primal human waiting period begins with the Fall. The ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (Rev 12:9) is given a prophecy:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:14-15)
God, being God, could have done the efficient thing and sent His only Son at that moment to clear up this nasty little glitch in the program of Creation and Salvation. He did not. Instead, He allows creation to unfold naturally according to the laws of nature, human freedom, and dignity that He Himself created — resulting in vast periods of waiting, which explain why the Old Testament is so very much longer than the New. These periods of waiting exist in union with His creative governance and power over creation, so that He begins the long process of actually including us and our free choices in the work of redeeming the world. One need only read the Old Testament to see that mysterious process unfold, with its strange interplay of divine providence and knowledge, coupled with human freedom, dignity, and sin. Abraham, himself made to wait a century for his son, is likewise given this mysterious promise:
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:13-16)
As is typical, the waiting is predicated not so much on a mechanical timetable as on something much more like ripeness — an agricultural and organic way of looking at things. Israel must wait, because the time is not yet ripe for her to possess the land, nor has the sin of the Amorites yet come to bear the fruit of death. (We who live in a rotting post-Christian culture may wonder how the Amorites felt as they meandered pell-mell for four centuries toward national suicide.)
Lots more waiting fills the Old Testament, of course. Israel waits for deliverance. Moses spends lots of time in the desert, both before and after leaving Egypt. Israel has to wait to possess the land, to build the Temple, to see how its sin will result in judgment, to see how judgment and captivity will issue in restoration, to see the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, Jesus Himself hallows waiting around by beginning His mission only after 30 years of silence and anonymity. He comes not on a modern timetable, but in the organic and agricultural “fullness of time” according to St. Paul (Gal 4:4). His entire mission begins by imitating Israel’s trip into the desert, instead of springing into efficient Gatesian activity. And His greatest work consists of being unable to work at all, as His hands and feet are nailed to the cross. His very death is a death that consists of the most agonizing waiting a human being could endure: waiting in agony for death itself.
Yet, as with all the waiting in Scripture, it is a waiting that is full, not empty, of meaning. When Jesus breathes His last, Scripture makes it clear that this happens on God’s terms, not on some accidental basis. Jesus tells us, “I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18). The hour of Jesus’ death is chosen by Him, not by his enemies. He dies in the place, manner, and moment of His choosing. All the waiting of His life has not been empty wasted space on the calendar, but the preparation for this “hour” (Jn 12:23).
It is the same for us, which is why the Church has sacralized waiting time as much as other kinds of time. The novena, based on the nine days of waiting between Ascension and Pentecost, is a sign of this, just as Advent and Lent are. These are not empty, barren times when nothing is happening, any more than the universe is empty. The sciences tell us that we can only detect, at present, about 4 percent of the matter and energy in the universe. Vast tracts of creation are known as “dark matter” and “dark energy.”
Grace is like that. It is dark matter. God is at work in all sorts of ways we cannot see or detect, particularly in the “empty” spaces of time where we are waiting around. Because our waiting around is not empty but full, if we are cooperating with grace. Quite often, more is going on when we are (from Bill Gates’ perspective) “wasting time” saying a rosary or going to Mass or playing than when we are being productive members of the WorkBuyConsumeDie Borg Collective. It is leisure, as Josef Pieper notes, that is the basis of culture.
And so, G. K. Chesterton notes, the really fruitful and human goods have often come to us from the fact that God has hallowed time and called us to spend it with Him in leisure rather than in frantic work:
The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government an idea of content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right. But they really were wrong in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean. The history of the Jews is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it endangered the sanctity. And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made a holiday for men.
All this demonstrates a profound principle taught by our Lord: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). In our waiting for the kingdom, we fill the time with all the things that make us the most human. And the Church age is, in the final analysis, the second great age of waiting — for the Messiah’s Second Advent — as the first age awaited His First Advent.
Our waiting in this time consists, as the first wait did, of a series of small dramas that build toward the great climax of history — reenactments and participations in the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Church dies and rises again and again, as her Lord did, and thereby enters into the Great Story; just as Israel, in sign and figure, likewise anticipated Jesus in her rites and in her historic passion and resurrection of bondage and deliverance from Egypt, captivity, and restoration from Babylon. Likewise, we are warned by the Tradition that our waiting around is not empty but full of drama:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. (Catechism 675-677)
In short, we await a climax to history that writes the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus large across the cosmos. That’s rather more drama than most of us want. So God, in His mercy, sends us practice lessons in our daily lives through such means as novenas, Advents, Lents, and, of course, the daily rehearsal we call the Mass.
The world, which does not believe in Christ, naturally waits in fear, because fear is all the world has to offer. One need only take a glance at the headlines that stink of fear. But the amazing thing about the Tradition is that it teaches us to wait in hope. How can we do that? Earthly speaking, we can’t, any more than the apostles should have been able to wait in Jerusalem for anything — had Jesus not risen from the dead, spoken to them, and ascended into heaven with the promise that the Father would send His gift of the Spirit. If Christ had not been raised, they would have been the most pitiable of men, and it would have been smart for them to return to their nets.
But Christ is raised — and so, against all odds and common sense, in a world filled with economic doom, war, cultural meltdown, social chaos, terrorism, ecological fears, and all the rest, “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”