Advent and Time : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Traditionally, in the West, Advent has been seen and observed as a season in which we look for the coming of Christ. It is a season in which we look back to the coming of Christ in “the Word made flesh” in Bethlehem. It is a season in which, through prayer and fasting, we look for the daily coming of Christ into our hearts.
Finally, it is a season in which we also look forward to Christ’s coming again in glory. It is, in many ways, a singular Church season, as it encompasses the fullness of time – past, present and future – and, in some sense, sanctifies time itself. Perhaps this is proper for a season that, in the West, is the beginning of the Church Year, as it sets the tone for all that follows and, indeed, how we measure time.
As I have gotten older, my relationship with time has changed. When I was young, all I could see was a future stretched out in front of me. The horizon was distant. Time seemed to be abundant. I often found myself racing toward that horizon. There was time for the next degree to be earned. There was time for the next book or article to be written. There was time for the next position, the next country, the next adventure. It was a matter of always looking forward and moving toward that distant horizon.
At some point, however, that distant horizon suddenly seemed very close. It is similar to the experience that many have had driving west across the United States. As you traverse Iowa and Nebraska, it seems as though the flat landscape is unending. As you look to the West, the land stretches to infinity, only to resolve itself in a purple hued edge in the distance. Then suddenly, seemingly in a matter of moments, the range of the Rocky Mountains appears and seems to rise up before you as if by magic. One feels as if they are approaching a destination.
For me, the distant horizon is no longer distant and a destination seems much nearer. Time no longer seems so abundant. Moreover, I realize that the next adventure will be decidedly different from those that have come before.
Often, being closer to that horizon creates the tendency to look back over the miles and years that have brought us to this time and place. We often engage in the game of “what if?”… “What if I had done this differently?” “What if I had taken that other job?” “What if I had married later… or someone else… or not at all…?” The list of “what if’s” can occupy hours, days, months and years, yet ultimately provide no answers. Each different path we might have taken, but didn’t, would have had their own set of “what if’s” which we would also have had to consider and question at the distance of years. Moreover, mature reflection will inform us that, even apart from the “what if’s” all of our “successes” were not as successful as we considered them at the time. Additionally, many of our supposed “failures” were, in fact, not failures at all.
We are not very good at judging our past any more than we are in plotting our future. There is much, it seems, that is not in our power to change or direct.
Yet, that is not the full story. Our past is made up of single days. Single days in which we made decisions. Single days in which we prayed. Single days in which we sought the advice and guidance of others. Single days in which we gave of ourselves to others. Single days in which we asked that Christ might be in our hearts, and in our thoughts and in our actions. Likewise, the future will be made up of days, whether many or few, in which the same opportunities for Christ to guide us will be present.
The only event of the past which truly matters is that God came and dwelt among us. The only event of the future which truly matters is that Christ will come again in glory, either at the end of time, or he will come for us at the end of our time. That leaves the present, and the “present” is different for each of us. Yet, while our circumstances may differ, and while the time left to us may be different, we each have the possibility of Christ filling that present with himself. It is not a matter of yesterday or tomorrow, but today. The message of the coming of Christ and the sanctifying of time encompasses past and future, but the Incarnation is not merely a memory of the past or a hope for the future. It is, I believe, to be the reality of the present.