Time, the Christ Child, and a Good Chat with Nate Hile at Grail Country

This post is really just a place to store away a few things for myself quickly that came to mind after a delightful conversation yesterday morning with Nate Hile at Grail Country. I don’t have time to develop these thoughts, but I want to drop them in one place where I can find them again easily later. First, however, here are Nate and I talking about changing the past and an essay that I shared on here several weeks back called Undoing The Crucifixion:

During this Advent season, Christians are all waiting for a child born “when the fullness of time had come.” This reference in Galatians 4 is within a passage with a few other comments about time (David Hart’s translation, 1st edition):

So also we, when we were infants, were enslaved in subjection to the Elementals of the cosmos; But when the fullness of time had come God sent forth his Son, coming to be from a woman, coming to be under the Law, So that he might redeem those under Law, in order that we should receive filial adoption. And, since you are sons, God sent forth his Son’s Spirit into our hearts, crying, “Abba!”—Father! Thus you are no longer a slave, but a son; and, if a son, also an heir through God. But back then, indeed, being ignorant of God, you slaved for those who by nature were not gods; Now, however, knowing God—or, rather, being known by God—how is it you are turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals, for which you wish anew to slave again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, lest I have labored among you in vain. Brothers, I implore you, be as I am, because I too am as you are.

The apostle seems to connect how the Galatian church “observe days and months and seasons and years” with “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals, for which you wish anew to slave again.” This seems to contrast Christ born from a woman in “the fullness of time” with the sad condition of us all who, being infants, were “enslaved in subjection to the Elementals of the cosmos” and “under the Law.” It’s not an easy passage to parse, and there have been many interpretations. However, there is evidently a parallel between pagan practices (perhaps divination by means of following the movements of heavenly bodies) and being under the Law. All the infantile people of the past are also described as having “slaved for those who by nature were not gods” in contrast to those in Christ who are all sons of God.

To focus in on the nature of time and the incarnation of God in Christ with the birth of Jesus, the apostle contrasts those who “observe days and months and seasons and years” with the one born “when the fullness of time had come …from a woman.” Christ’s incarnation is the event that is the fullness and the fulfillment of every temporal event.

This language about a “fullness of time” also is also reminiscent of what Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” We might turn to the cosmic woman of Revelation chapter 12 who sits in the place giving birth where the ark of the covenant would have been given the sequence of movements through the temple across the previous chapters of Revelation. However, even more appropriately to Advent, I would turn to each of us as we are personally called to be the mother of God. For instance, Ambrose of Milan (whose feast we just celebrated days ago) says about each one of us:

When the soul then begins to turn to Christ, she is addressed as ‘Mary,’ that is, she receives the name of the woman who bore Christ in her womb: for she has become a soul who in a spiritual sense gives birth to Christ. [De Virginitate, 4, 20]

Or in the words of Augustine:

When you look with wonder on what happened to Mary, you must imitate her in the depths of your own souls. Whoever believes with all his heart and is ‘justified by faith’ (Rom. 5:1), he has conceived Christ in the womb; and ‘whenever with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’ (Rom. 10:10), that man has given birth to Christ. [Sermo 191, 4]

Maximus the Confessor (quoted in the Philokalia) put it this way:

Jesus the Christ who was born in the flesh once for all of us, desires to be born again in the spirit of those who desire Him. In each of us, he again becomes a child in the womb of our soul and forms himself from the virtues. He reveals as much of Himself as He knows each of us can accept. Let us contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and in simplicity praise Him who became man for us.

In another passage, Maximus points out that, in giving birth to Christ, we all give birth to our own savior who brings about our deification:

By your generous dispositions, which were born from your heart, you nourish the Word in accordance with right praxis and contemplation—as if from breasts—and you nurse along the Word to growth in the abundance of pious conceptions and modes [of life] so that, paradoxical as it sounds, his own growth becomes the deification of the very mind that nourishes him. [Ep. 19, PG 91, 592a-b]

Angelius Silesius (a few centuries later, 1624-1677) says much the same:

If you could turn your heart into a cow-stall, Christ would be born again on earth!

“Mary kept the words of Christ in her heart,” wrote Origen, “kept them as a treasure, knowing that the time would come, when all that was hidden within her would be unveiled” [Homily on Luke, 20].

With a few more passages regarding time that I’ve noted recently, in the book Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos, the philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark writes:

If you and I here-now are really citizens of the Infinite City, disguised as early hominins, then the focus of our real lives is not the expected future: living for that extrapolated world is living for an illusion. If, on the other hand, we really are alive here-now, we have much less reason than we sleepily suppose to think that our future is a gradual improvement and expansion of our present civilized condition. Either way, we had better not focus wholly on an expected future: let us instead look sideways, ‘out of time.’ The present moment is our only opening. Consider an older allegory: the chances of being born human, a Buddhist text informs us, is as if a blind turtle swimming in the Great Ocean were inadvertently to poke its head out through a single life-belt floating at random in that Ocean.

…Our ancestors were right: we should not suppose that here we have a continuing city (cf. Heb 13:14), but rather look sideways, ‘out of time and to eternity,’ from the eternal now. As long as we think of here and now as being this very place and moment, we must admit that it is always being lost, and that our extrapolated futures will not come to pass in quite the way we think of them. Notoriously, to make God laugh we need only tell Him our plans. Sacrificing the present for the sake of the future is suicidal. Nor can a merely material, temporal future ever be enough to satisfy us. ‘If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.’

So the moral of my story about the future of our species must be just this : don’t live for any imagined future; time is always short. Seize the occasion to look outward, whether literally or analogically. The peril in that advice is that it may seem to support the short-termism or presentism of too many of our present leaders, cued to respond to immediate crisis without any care to consider where their response will lead. To look aside to eternity is to seek that pattern of living which is appropriate to any age and climate, not simply to discount the future in the name of a present passion. The peril that we face — which may be the proximate cause of our expectable decline — is our concern with short-term outcomes at the expense of values. Short-term expediency in forgetfulness of the eternal and without any imaginative grasp of a likely future almost guarantees that the temporal end is near.

David Bentley Hart has mentioned our current kind of time as a “fallen time” and wrote more recently on Leaves in the Wind:

There is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever. …Historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead. [“Time, Technology, and History: Disjointed Reflections on the Rise of Homo Interreticulatus” from Oct 24, 2021 on Leaves in the Wind.]

C. S. Lewis has an equally dismal view of our current relationship to historical time as any kind of whole, but a very high view of our connection to God’s life in each present moment. We see this in a 1950 essay on “Historicism” (with these extended portions jumping out at me recently):

A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past (I am assuming in the Historicist’s favour that we need consider only the human past) in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion. Most of the experiences in ‘the past as it really was’ were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered (and never remembered with perfect accuracy) a smaller percentage was ever communicated even to his closest intimates; of this, a smaller percentage still was recorded; of the recorded fraction only another fraction has ever reached posterity. Ad nos vix tenuis famae perlabitur aura. [Aeneid. Verg. A. 7.641] When once we have realized what ‘the past as it really was’ means, we must freely admit that most—that nearly all history (in Sense Two) is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us. And if per impossibile the whole were known, it would be wholly unmanageable. To know the whole of one minute in Napoleon’s life would require a whole minute of your own life. You could not keep up with it.

…And it is also important to remember that we all have a certain limited, but direct, access to History…. We are allowed, indeed compelled, to read [history] sentence by sentence, and every sentence is labelled Now, I am not, of course, referring to what is commonly called ‘contemporary history’, the content of the newspapers. That is possibly the most phantasmal of all histories, a story written not by the hand of God but by foreign offices, demagogues, and reporters. I mean the real or primary history which meets each of us moment by moment in his own experience. It is very limited, but it is the pure, unedited, unexpurgated text, straight from the Author’s hand. We believe that those who seek will find comment sufficient whereby to understand it in such degree as they need; and that therefore God is every moment ‘revealed in history’ that is, in what McDonald called ‘the holy present’. Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met? If I attack Historicism it is not because I intend any disrespect to primary history, the real revelation springing direct from God in every experience. It is rather because I respect this real original history too much to see with unconcern the honours due to it lavished on those fragments, copies of fragments, copies of copies of fragments, or floating reminiscences of copies of copies, which are, unhappily, confounded with it under the general name of history.

Finally, in his “Reflections on the Psalms” essay, Lewis talks about how we don’t seem very well acclimated to the passage of time. He compares it to a fish being shocked at the wetness of water and concludes: “This only makes sense if the fish were one day to become a land animal.” In short, we are made for another kind of time. However, life with God will always be a time in which we are finding life anew, and each moment of even our current fallen time can bring us into contact, together, with God’s full and living presence.

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