The Incarnation: It's about Time

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Monday, December 29, 2008

The Incarnation: It's about Time

December 29, 2008

Over the Thanksgiving weekend when my mother was visiting, she asked if we could visit the Catholic basilica here in Washington. The Romanesque-Byzantine style church’s interior is almost entirely mosaics and boasts “the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art.” As we browsed through the magnificent nave, the Saturday evening mass for the first Sunday in Advent began and we stayed. The sermon preached by the Rev. Raymond Lebrun has stayed with me all throughout Advent.

Fr. Lebrun said that at Advent, the start of the church year, we should reflect on and give thanks for the Judeo-Christian view of time.

Time, from a biblical point of view, he said, has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Genesis 1-2 tell us how all things began, Revelation 19-22 tell us how all things will end, and the drama of salvation forms the middle.

He contrasted this Judeo-Christian view of time with Eastern and secular notions. These, he said, are “all middle.” By that he meant that the Eastern cycles of reincarnation never begin and never end.  According to the Heart of Hinduism website, “Within Hinduism we find no ‘year dot,’ nor a final cataclysm.” Instead, “The entire material world is… subject to everlasting cycles of creation, sustenance and destruction.”

While secular people see a starting point to the universe—the Big Bang—and a stopping point—the collapse of the Big Bang—these are not the same as a beginning and an end. Beginning and end imply meaning and purpose. From a secular point of view, the universe has neither. Each person must supply his or her own meaning and purpose. 

Fr. Lebrun noted that, for Christians, while the years cycle from the First Sunday in Advent to Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent), each year moves us further from the Creation and closer to the Second Coming. Ours is not an endless series of cycles, but a corkscrew—circular, but purposeful and moving forward to an already established end, the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Lebrun’s sermon about time brought to mind the article “The Church as Culture” by Robert Louis Wilken. Contrary to H. Richard Niebuhr’s classical statement about the relationship of Christ to culture, Wilken writes, “The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.”

Rather than trying to reform the existing culture, the Church creates its own and supplants the existing culture (the city of man) with the City of God. The ancient Church’s culture supplanted the dominant Greco-Roman culture, says Wilkin, by supplying a distinctly Christian understanding of the most fundamental building blocks of culture: space, time, and language.

Regarding time, Wilkin writes, Christians declared the first day of the week—ordinarily a workday—the “Lord’s Day” and set it aside for worship (see Revelation 1:10). Then they began adding feasts and other observances to the calendar. Wilkin observes:

…[T]he liturgical year (as we now call it) had a narrative shape drawn from the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels. Through ritual it imprinted the biblical narrative on the minds and hearts of the faithful, not simply as a matter of private devotion but as a fully public act setting the rhythm of communal life.

He also points out that in the sixth century a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus was “the first to date events ‘from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Anno Domini, a.d.),” the cosmic event we celebrate tomorrow.

The rhythm of weekly Lord’s Day worship and the seasons of the liturgical year plus the reminder that this is “the year of our Lord” 2008 are not mere conventions. They shape the way we understand ourselves and the way we view the world. That is, they shape our worldview. This, in turn, shapes the culture, which Wilkin defines with T.S. Eliot as the “total harvest of thinking and feeling.” 

In a Christmas sermon preached in the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo said,

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He came into “our own short day of time” to claim it as his own and to transcend it for us. The baby in the manger, inserting himself into the middle of time, is the same Jesus who announces, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).

Time—beginning, middle, and end—is held together by Christ. We do not live in a never-ending middle, but in a story whose author entered time to transform time and with it all things. That central fact, the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas, not only changes individuals, but has the power to change politics and cultures as well.

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