Keeping God’s Time
Does God Keep Time?
Have you ever considered the way in which we keep time? We do it with more than the minutes of a clock. We keep time with anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, potlucks, holidays. “It’s that time of the year again” we say—by which we mean “that time of the year which we mark by doing this or that thing in this or that special way.”
Humans keep time, but does God? We hear often the statement “God is outside of time” proof-texted with scriptures like 2 Peter 3:8, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years.” Stated like this, it suggests that time, and therefore history, is a thing with which God, in his unapproachable eternity, does not reckon.
Because secular modernity has made us careless about our own history (since, after all, we’re the final stage of history—i.e., we’re the modern ones), we have assumed the same about God. We have rendered his eternity in competition with history. We seem to assume that because the Lord is eternal he cannot also be fully involved and invested in time.
Insofar as we make such assumptions, we are dead wrong. Yahweh cares as much for the sparrow and the hairs on your head (cf. Matthew 10:29-31) as he does for the hours of your day and the seasons of our year (Psalm 31:15, 65:11). He’s the Creator of time and therefore the sustainer of it.
God’s eternity does not merely mean “outside of time” but rather “full of time.” He is the one who sent forth his Son into the world “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4–7; cf. 1 Timothy 2:6). John the Baptist began proclaiming that the times had been fulfilled, and that it was the time to repent for the Kingdom was at hand (Mark 1:15). He did not proclaim “God in is immeasurable omnipotence, not knowing seasons nor hours, has at last, in his frail grasp of how long we’ve been waiting, arbitrarily deigned to elect this moment for the coming of the Messiah.”
God works in and through time, not in spite of it. And the way Christians keep time should celebrate and follow the way in which God keeps time.
A Biblical Theology of Godly Time Keeping
In the beginning God created the lights of the heavens, the sun, moon and stars, “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14). His ordering of the heavenly bodies comes with the express purpose of ruling over times and seasons, because he delights in times and seasons. He did not have to make things this way. He delighted to do so, for he does everything he pleases (Ps. 115).
Those who by God’s grace have been adopted as his children and heirs of the kingdom of light (cf. John 1:12–13; Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:12) are said to “shine like stars in the firmament” (Daniel 12:3). Those in the Church, regenerate through the Holy Spirit, are now like new and better “lights of heaven.” We are now called, like the sun moon and stars in Genesis 1, to mark times and seasons. For we find all the times fulfilled in the fullness of time which was the Advent of our Lord, and we continue to tell his story as his story continues into its longed-for consummation.
What is called “the liturgical calendar” is not a Roman Catholic invention of the late medieval era. It is the way in which the early church saw the biblical year (e.g., the festivals of Israel and the agricultural year) fulfilled in the fullness of time that was the person of Jesus. All of Israel’s festivals are fulfilled in Christ. All of the agricultural rhythms of rain, flood, harvest, and the waxing and waning of the sun, likewise find their fulfillment in him who sits above the circle of the sun to order our seasons around his salvation (cf. Isaiah 40:22).
Peter’s epistle, with which I began, is written to encourage the church in difficulty not by suggesting something like “God doesn’t care too much about time, therefore neither should we,” but rather “God’s eternity means he cares about time, therefore live in time with the hope that marks them as the people of God.”
Proclaiming the Gospel with the Liturgical Calendar
The liturgical year tells us just how much God cares about history by telling the story of Jesus each year—by keeping time according to the “bright lights” of the Gospels.
In Advent (the four weeks before Christmas), the church remembers the anticipation of the arrival of Jesus in his first coming and simultaneously anticipates his promised second coming. We gather all of the festivities that occur in the darkest season of the year and mark them with Christian waiting that produces hope.
At Christmas, which is twelve days long (Christmas and the next eleven days after it), we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation and the birth of Christ. In the dead of the year, light came down from heaven (John 1:4–9), and the kings of the earth did not know what to do with it (Psalm 2; Matthew 2:16–18).
During Epiphany (the season that runs from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas to Ash Wednesday) we are renewed in our witness of Christ’s ministry. We find ourselves in all of the gospel stories: We rejoice to find him turning water into wine, we delight to hear his teaching, we struggle to bear his hard sayings, we follow him from Galilee to Transfiguration and marvel at the wondrous mystery of him. Some things are mysterious because they are dark and enigmatic. Epiphany is mysterious, however, not because it is so dark, but because, like the Sun, it is too bright and our gaze is confounded by its brilliance.
During Lent (the forty days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter Sunday), we follow our Lord in “carrying our crosses after him” (Mark 8:34). Once a year we set aside a time to teach on true repentance, true holiness of life, true life in the Spirit. We often think of Lent as this miserable invention of dour papists. Not so. It is a season for Gospel-loving people. Once a year I renew with my brothers and sisters my call to costly discipleship. Once a year the church jubilantly proclaims: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” but that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
During Easter we celebrate the Great Victory which God wrought in time: the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead. This is not merely a Sunday, though it is that, it is also a fifty-day season (longer than Lent, you see) of festival brightness. Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. We modified our calendars once because of this (from B.C. to A.D.) and the church modifies its annual calendar around this day as well.
At Pentecost, the church remembers her birthday—the day when the Spirit descended on the disciples like a dove in the same way that it had once descended on Jesus (Luke 3:22 and Acts 2:1–4). On this day we remember that first Pentecost which made “we who are many one body” (Romans 12:5) and points us outward in mission towards the world that “all the kingdoms of the earth would become the kingdom of our God” (Revelation 11:15); and we renew our call to add to that great harvest “from every tribe, tongue and nation” (Revelation 7:9–10).
Trinity, at last finishes the liturgical year by naming the largest part of the church's year as dedicated to Life in the Spirit. Trinity season flows out of Pentecost. We are seated with Christ in heavenly places, and are called to bring all our life into the service of the kingdom. Trinity is about the life of God being magnified in the life of his people. Trinity is the yearly celebration that Christ’s life is in us, and that we are called, whatever we do, to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Far from being a dated and theologically problematic practice, the church calendar presents us with a mode of keeping God’s time by telling his story each year. It brings all of creation, with its various cycles and seasons and hours, into collaboration with the Church in celebrating the Good News of Jesus Christ. It also helps make sense of each of our own stories by the guiding light of God’s narrative. A difficult week is brought into the themes of the season. A bountiful month is enlightened by its situation inside of the annual telling of God’s goodness.
As we minister together for the Gospel in the islands, especially in communities who are stuck between multiple calendars (American holidays, bank closures, overlapping ethnic and cultural festivals, etc.), the Liturgical calendar can serve to orient all of our time-keeping towards the eternal glory of the God who is full of time. To say this in the form of a question: If our lives are already marked and “clocked” by schedules and calendars, why not order all these schedules and calendars towards the Gospel of Jesus and the witness of his Church?
Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, Raymond Brown
Sermons on the Liturgical Season, Augustine of Hippo