Sacralizing time

Bobby Gross, the director of graduate and faculty ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, writes:

We can, in effect, sacralize time itself. To sacralize something, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “imbue [it] with sacred character, especially through ritualized devotion.” We find compelling examples of sacralized time in Scripture when God declares the sabbath holy, when he ordains annual festivals for Israel and when the early Christians, in light of the resurrection, shift worship to the first day of the week. Over the centuries, the church has fittingly sacralized time by means of the liturgical calendar with its practices and celebrations, and we can fruitfully appropriate this pattern in our personal discipleship and devotion. [1]


But how does inhabiting the Story of God in liturgical time actually shape our lives? Here is the simple answer: by remembering and anticipating. Scholars sometimes employ the Greek words anamnesis [an-am-nee-sis] and prolepsis [proh-lep-seez] to describe these spiritual transactions.

As you might suspect, the first of these terms relates to the familiar idea of amnesia, the loss of memory. Anamnesis means the opposite: remembrance, recalling to mind, or literally “the drawing near of memory.” Jesus at his Last Supper said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in anamnesis of me” (Lk 22:19). When we take part in Communion, we do more than simply remember; in some spiritual way we bring the past into our present experience. Laurence Stookey describes this type of ritual as “an active kind of remembrance,” one “by doing rather than by cognition.” We identify with Jesus and vicariously participate in his life in a way that brings spiritual dividends to our own.

If anamnesis brings the past to bear in the present, prolepsis does something similar with the future. The literal meaning of the word is “to take beforehand,” and we use it to represent a future event as if it had already been accomplished. […] The experience of prolepsis is perhaps more mysterious than anamnesis, but in those acts that anticipate “the hope to which he has called you,” we receive a kind of spiritual down payment, as Paul puts it: a “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people” (Eph 1:14, 18). The future comes into our present experience. […] This bringing of the past and the future into the present is the work of the Holy Spirit. [2]


By some mysterious grace, the light of the Christ who lived in history comes into our present experience with spiritual power, and the hope of the Christ who will return in glory to renew all things also brings power into our lives. Eternity intersects Time. Keeping the Christian year helps us to live at that intersection. [3]

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 21.

[2] Gross, 30-31.

[3] Gross, 32.


The liturgical year is “an exercise in spiritual ripening”

Any low church Christian might reasonably ask, What is the liturgical year for? I like the answer below from author and speaker, Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania:

The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life.


The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life   of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.


Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth. They add layer after layer to the meaning of life, to the sense of what it entails to live beyond the immediate and into the significant dimensions of human existence. The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe. [1]

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 5-7.

Rowan Williams on taking time

In a brilliant lecture delivered at the University of Oxford in 2014, Anglican theologian Rowan Williams argued that taking time is one of the ways that religious faith uniquely contributes to human flourishing. Here is my distillation of the argument, which contrasts sacred and secular metaphors of time along with their respective attitudes:

Through faith, we redeem the time by receiving it as a generous gift for loving attention to God and neighbor rather than using it as a scarce commodity for anxiously managing life.

Williams on the problem of time in a secular age:

Increasingly, one of the marks of a fully and uncompromisingly secular environment is the notion of undifferentiated time. There are, for mature late capitalism, no such things as weekends. The problem with this kind of secularism is not so much a denial of the existence of God as the denial of the possibility of leisure – of time that is not spent in serving the market. That is to say, for a particular mindset, acquisitive and purpose-driven, the passage of time is precisely the slipping away of a scarce, valuable commodity, every moment of which has to be made to yield its maximum possible result, so you can’t afford to stop. This kind of secular understanding of the passage of time is perhaps one of those areas where there is most open collision between the fundamentally religious and the fundamentally anti-religious mindset – and I think that’s one of the untold stories of our time. We imagine, quite often, that the fundamental collisions are around metaphysics or ethics. But perhaps there’s another area at least as important, which is how we approach the time we are in, we spend – and indeed, the time we ‘waste.’

Williams on how religion resolves the problem of time in a secular age:

How religious communities spend their time is a serious and central theme. Time is not undifferentiated; its passing is marked in ways that are thought to be significant. So the passage of time becomes not just a trajectory of acquisition (acquiring property, acquiring power, acquiring security); it comes to be about the repeated accumulation, as you might say, of meaning, returning to symbolic resources to rediscover aspects of the universe you inhabit, aspects of yourself; to reconnect specific ongoing experience with steady, regular or rhythmical patterns, laid out in the language and practice of a religious community. You keep going back to the practices, the stories, in celebration and commemoration. Time, therefore, becomes neither simply cyclical nor simply linear. It moves, you change; at the same time there is something to which you return, to rediscover and enlarge the understanding acquired in the passage of time. And all of that adds up to dissolving any idea that time is a limited commodity (or indeed any kind of commodity) that has to be squeezed as hard as possible in order to keep the trajectory of acquisition going. Time is a complex and rich gift; it is the medium in which we not only grow and move forward but also constructively return and resource – literally re-source – ourselves. [1]

Watch the lecture here.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Faith and Human Flourishing,” in Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 78-79.

God takes time – not lacks time

Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson:

The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time. The eternity of Israel’s God is his faithfulness. He is not eternal in that he secures himself from time, but in that he is faithful to his commitments within time. At the great turning, Israel’s God is eternal in that he is faithful to the death, and then yet again faithful. God’s eternity is temporal infinity. [1]

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Time Cannot and Should Not Heal the Wounds of History, But Time Has Been and Can Be Redeemed,” in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 150.

Christ, the Eucharist, and time

Gerard Loughlin is a professor of theology at the University of Durham. I am indebted to him for these perspicacious insights on time.

From the perspective of eternity Christ’s second coming is one with his first, since all of his life is simultaneously embraced in the eternity of God. But from a temporal perspective, Christ becomes fully who he is through the development of his ecclesial body across the passage of time, as each moment gives way to the next. From such an earthly perspective there is an interval between ascension and parousia, in which the church is formed and given time in order to learn eternal life.


The Christian Eucharist remains the contrary of modern time, as the site where time continues to arrive from past and future, constituting the present moment through the church’s recollection and anticipation of what is promised: the ever-renewed arrival of God’s eternity in Christ. The Eucharist eternalizes time, as that which arrives and passes away in order to return again, bearing eternal life with it. The eucharistic celebration teaches the church how to wait upon the arrival of God’s gift of time. [1]

[1] Gerard Loughlin, “Time,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 707-709.

The disciple is a figure who identifies with more than one time and place

Anglican theological ethicist Oliver O’Donovan:

The disciple is, literally, a “learner,” but at the same time, given the patterns of rabbinic learning current in Jesus’ day, a “follower.” The cognitive and affective are bound together in the life of the disciple who learns by following and follows by learning. At the central climax of the synoptic narrative Jesus turns to address “anyone who would follow after me” to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). “Following” is an idea with more than one sense: it means following with, adhering to the master and being in his company, and also following after, coming later, carrying on the work of teaching where it has been left off, extending his wisdom into the mission of a school. To follow “after” Christ is to be conformed in love to the moment of resolution that occurred in his death, to carry forward in our living the imprint of the living-to-die that he lived. The disciple is a figure who identifies with more than one time and place: a time and place to inhabit, another time and place to be centered upon. He or she has recognized a time and place in history, there and not elsewhere, then and not before or after, where the possibility of wisdom was decisively given. In understanding this moment in relation to that moment, in finding in that moment the key to this moment’s meaning and purpose, the disciple has overcome what was most threatening and destructive about historical relations, their contingency and moral arbitrariness. The narrative of the Gospel has conferred moral sense upon the contingencies of time. The disciple has realized the meaning of time by belonging not simply to a historical community (in which one may be born, live, and die without asking any questions about the universal right), but to an historically interpretive community with its life rooted in that central moment. All doings and and sufferings are located in relation to the disclosure of meaning that Christ’s death effected for all who come after. The love of Christ directs historical loyalties, as the love of God “above” all things directs natural loves. The “ends” for the sake of which it pursues and discounts the things of the world are presented from a new point of view as an historical achievement. [1]

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 117-118.

Time viewed from within the pursuit of wisdom

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
    Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:12-17)

Anglican theological ethicist Oliver O’Donovan makes an important contrast between chronological time and sapiential time:

Time viewed from within the pursuit of wisdom is not cyclical, but has one line and one outcome. The tensions thus generated are articulated unforgettably in the ninetieth Psalm. The vast amplitude of recurrent time, the poet complains, reduces our scope for life and action to insignificance. From generation to generation, Adonai sustains his people; his own existence stretches back pre-cosmically, before mountains, earths, and ages; that of the people, while less extensive, covers many generations. But the tenure on life of individual men is brief out of all proportion to these expanses. They die and return to the nothingness they came from, their few scores of years consumed in a whimper. Overshadowed by death, never free of “labor and sorrow,” their every step dogged by the incongruity of their span of life to the eons of world-time. Yet, the poet dares to think, there is another time to be thought of, a time that permits us human beings to incline our hearts to wisdom, including our practical affairs. We may learn “to number our days,” not in the sense of knowing in advance how many they will be, which is impossible, but by taking them one by one, receiving each day “in the morning.” There is hope that Adonai will turn to us in his favor and give us our own time, as in world-time we have encountered his disregard. He must reach out to us, accommodate his own doings to our little scope: “Show thy servants thy work. Prosper thou the work of our hands!” We may remember and predict, wonder and grieve over time given to the world, which supports narrative and anticipation, surprise and predictability; but time of our own elicits resolve and action, eagerness for opportunity. [1]

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 114-115.

A luminous body blazing with the fire of love


Craig Aitchison, Crucifixion (2008)

Thanks to Sister Wendy Beckett’s devotional book, The Art of Lent, which pairs words and images for each day of the Lent season, I was introduced to the Scottish painter Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). Here is a biography on him from the National Galleries Scotland:

Craigie Aitchison was born in Kincardie-on-Forth, and grew up in Dunbartonshire and on the Island of Arran. He studied law but later turned to art, attending the Slade School of Fine Art in London. His paintings are renowned for their sparse but balanced composition and for the use of intense, pure and flatly-applied colour. After visiting Italy in 1955, Aitchison was inspired by the landscape and religious art but most profoundly affected by the light, which influenced him to begin producing his signature richly-coloured paintings. Aitchison’s subject matter was traditional – still lifes, portraiture and landscape, though he was particularly associated with religious paintings. His depictions of the Crucifixion form a major part of his artistic output and have a timeless and poetic quality.

Here is Sister Wendy’s meditation on the painting she chose for Good Friday:

In art, there are few crucifixions that stress the inner truth of Jesus’ death: that Christ accepted with enormous happiness that he had accomplished all that his Father willed.

Shortly before his death, Craigie Aitchison painted this extraordinary crucifixion. The world has been reduced to absolutes, in which only nature is innocent. The earth has become desert, and yet Jesus draws new life, the scarlet of a poppy. The very presence of the cross has created a strip of living green against which we can make out Aitchison’s beloved Bedlington dog. But above the land soars Christ on the cross, a luminous body blazing with the fire of love. His features are consumed in the intensity of his passionate sacrifice. Over his head hovers the skeletal outline of the Holy Spirit. There are stars in the sky catching fire from the fire of Jesus, and we see the great curve of the rainbow, a sign of God’s covenant with humankind. Aitchison is showing us not what the crucifixion looked like, but what it truly meant.

Gregory of Nazianzus on Christ

When studying the doctrine of Christ (or Christology), I came across this wonderfully clear and cogent statement from Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89):

We do not separate the humanity from the divinity; in fact, we assert the dogma of the unity and identity of the Person, who aforetime was not just human but God, the only Son before all ages, who in these last days has assumed human nature also for our salvation; in his flesh passible, in his Deity impassible; in the body subject to limitation, yet unlimited in the Spirit; at one and the same time earthly and heavenly, tangible and intangible, comprehensible and incomprehensible; that by one and the same person, a perfect human being and perfect God, the whole humanity, fallen through sin, might be recreated. […] For what has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.

John Henry Newman on original sin

My theology students are currently studying theological anthropology. Here is a breathtaking excerpt from John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865), on original sin, a doctrine he establishes as “fact” by reflecting on the moral ambiguity and intellectual incoherence of the world:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,” — all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. [. . .] If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.