The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:
Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.
Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Only God lives in pure aeon, the fullness of time.
Kairos is related to our concept of something being timely. There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”
This famous passage from Ecclesiastes sets forth the kairos notion of time and ends with a reference to eternity:
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
… I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).
Yes, there is a time for everything. We like to think we determine when that is, but more often events and time itself determine what is timely and appropriate. We are not the master of time and events. Something bigger, caught up in God’s providence, sets the agenda. We may wish to laugh or celebrate, but sometimes there comes the awareness that now is not the right time. Even a happy occasion like a birthday or an anniversary can be overtaken by other events and a time to laugh becomes a time to cry.
In my spiritual reading I recently came across the following mediation on time in Jesus’ own earthly life. It is worth pondering, especially to the degree that we think we can be the master of time:
When Luke writes that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature” (Lk 2:52), he is saying by this that Jesus respected time. He was not in a hurry. He could wait until “time” was right. This is also abundantly clear from his unusually long, hidden life at Nazareth.
We, on the other hand, are, in practice, inclined to deny time. We try to step over time, make decisions that we are not ready to make, and carry out task that have not been given to us ….
Everything good comes from God, but he does not give everything at once. Sin is to want to have something that God does not yet wish to give, … to seize immediately what he wishes to bestow only gradually.
… The New Testament speaks insistently about patience. It is a question of waiting, of staying awake, of being prepared. We cannot go into the wedding feast whenever we wish, but only when the bridegroom comes (Matthew 25:1-13). Another text warns “Behold I am coming like a thief.”
(Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, O.C.D. in Eternity in the Midst of Time, pp. 39-40)
Thus, time and the Lord of Eternity insist that we wait and that we be ready. Time belongs to God. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8).
Every Easter we bless the Paschal Candle, which denotes the Year of the Lord. As the priest uses the stylus to cut or denote the year, he says,
Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and forever. Amen.
Yes, all time belongs to Him. He has set the limit of our days. He has always known us (see Jeremiah 1:5). He summoned us to be; He knit us together in our mother’s womb and every one of our days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). He is the Lord of time and history. He is the Lord of the present, and our future has always been present and known to Him.
We do well to remember all of this and to be grateful and humble. Our language about time bespeaks a certain pride and even a sense that we can beat or master time somehow. Consider some of these saying regarding time:
- Making time for things
- Killing time
- Wasting time
- Turning back the hands of time
- Fighting against the clock
- Being behind the times
- Having too much time on our hands
- Being a day late and a dollar short
Yes, we often think we can make time, or alter it, or know how much time we should have. Instead, we should humbly admit that we cannot alter time, turn it back, kill it, or make it.
Other expressions speak to our recognition that certain things are appropriate to certain times. Why exactly this is remains mysterious. Thus, we say things like this:
- It’s high time
- No time like the present
- Right time, right place
- This is the moment of truth
- This is my hour of need
- I’m having a hard time
- I’m having a moment
- I’m having a whale of a time
- We had the time of our lives!
- I finished in the nick of time
- The time is ripe
- Time flies
- It will happen in due time
- It has stood the test of time
- Time is on our side
- For the time being
- You caught me at a bad time
- Time is of the essence
- God will bide his time
- He’s doing time (in jail)
Expressions such as these show how time frames us and shapes our experience. Time is experienced, not altered or mastered. Time belongs to God; by it, He frames our life and shapes our experience. We sense time’s passage, its appropriateness, its givenness.
Be humble about time. You are not its master, God is. Festina lente. (Make haste, slowly.)
Here is a video set to The Byrd’s 1965 recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn (to Everything There Is a Season),” the lyrics of which are based on the Ecclesiastes passage above.
The video below is set to Carl Orff’s composition of “O Fortuna,” which contains a far darker assessment of fate as the wheel of fortune turns. The world and all its glories are fading!