From the next edition of the Catholic Key comes our first Advent reflection on the Christian conception of time from Fr. Ernie Davis:
I’ve had an irritating song lyric stuck in my head on and off for thirty-five years. All of you baby-boomers will recognize it immediately, and fans of the Steve Miller band will remember it too.
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.”
It is irritates me not only because it sounds whiney, but also because no matter how hard I try to see how time could act that way, I simply cannot. The present doesn’t slip into the future, it slips into the past. Whatever awareness I might have of the “now” is already past as soon as I reflect on it.
I love traveling, and I love reading history. I’m interested in reading about and in seeing what people in various times and cultures accomplished and how they lived. As I look at the great Pyramids of Giza or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or the bullet holes in Berlin, I experience not only the present reality, but also a past reality that was once as present as the moment now. Once present, they all slipped into the past. We experience bits of long-gone present moments as we encounter their relics.
I can also see how the past may be slipping into the present. We are continually on the leading edge of a wave that has already been somewhere. We remember past experiences and they continue to shape us. We avoid some things in the present because of past bad experience, and we hope that something that happened in the past will happen again. Isaiah remembered the great deeds of the Exodus and hoped that God would make them present again, helping and saving people from the distress they were experiencing. We read about his remembering, and kindle a similar hope that God will act for us in our present distress.
It seems to me that Jesus invited his disciples – and us – to experience another reality in relationship to time, different from the way the present may slip into the past or the past into the present. When he told his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” he was not recalling a past action that could shape the present, and he was not looking at a present evolving moment. He was looking ahead to a reality already present with God that is now breaking into the human present. Rather than looking at relics of past events, he was inviting his disciples to look up and look ahead to events that are already rushing into our experience. He invited, warned, encouraged and cajoled them to reorient their lives to that new reality, a future reality charging in our direction.
"Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'" (Mark 13:33-37)
The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent seems to catch this invitation to reorient ourselves:
“Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.”
Advent is an invitation to allow God to reorient us now to the coming reality. It doesn’t invite us to make a pious wish, but step into a reality that is coming and eternal and becoming present. That reorientation involves our human choices and it involves God’s action in our lives. Our collect prays that God will give us the resolve we need to live in accordance to that new reality, that we may be truly righteous, just and loving. When we catch glimpses of that reorientation in ourselves and in the lives of others, we might want to sing a new song, one the angels and saints are singing now and we’re just learning how to sing.
Fr. Ernie Davis is administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish in Kansas City.