Time and the Word – reflections for the feast of St. John the Evangelist
Something strange has been happening to time. What day is it? I can’t remember, sometimes. Was it only March when this all began? It feels like another aeon. Time is both stretched and blurred; at home one day is much like another … and yet no day is like any day we have known before. An article I saw today calls it the “loss” of Time – “In a city frozen in fear, time freezes too.”
I want to suggest, today, that there is an antidote. It’s built right into our life, as Christians – because our time is God’s time, and so it is never lost, and so it is never frozen. It is always alive, and it is the place of hope.
Our time is God’s time. Augustine calls it Providence, Douglas Farrow says:
“Because God is providential—because his providence extends beyond the provision of a garden in the East and pursues us into the desert of sin and death—there is progress, there is history. Disasters notwithstanding, we are going somewhere, not nowhere.” (Douglas Farrow, The Secret of the Saeculum, First Things, May 5, 2020; online https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/05/the-secret-of-the-saeculum)
Disasters (and the sameness of days in a city shut down) notwithstanding. In the midst of this strange time, we are in the midst, too, of the work of God. And this work has a beginning and an end.
“History does not go around in circles, time itself does not go around in circles, though people may go around in circles. History, thanks be to God, has meaning and purpose” (Farrow, Secret)
It is a good beginning, and it is a good end, this work of God that is our time.
St. John knew this. His gospel – like the Scriptures themselves (a fact of which John is not unaware) – begins “In the beginning.” John begins in the beginning, in the time when God made the garden and the heavens and the earth. John moves to “it is finished,” to the time when Jesus (Word, in John’s Gospel, who speaks in the beginning) speaks again from the cross. And John takes us in his Word’s good time to the garden again, the garden that was “in the beginning,” the garden that was lost sometime on the way to the cross; the garden that is found at dawn one day again, in the time when Jesus lives.
“Just as it had a beginning in Eden, the garden designed by God for his cultivation of our race in the life of love, it shall come to the end that providence has devised, an end far more glorious than the beginning.”
This is our time: the time when Jesus lives. It is not time that has reached its end – “an end in which man, with God and like God, will love in such a way as to be non posse peccare and non posse mori,” no longer sinning and no longer dying (Farrow, Secret).
But it is time that has reached its completion. It is the time when Jesus lives. It is the time, John tells us, when all through the round of days two words rise together: “In the beginning,” and “it is finished.” These words rise, framing our days.
They frame our days as Scripture does, in the Word of God. And it is a word of love.
It begins in love: In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. The Word was with God. John says it twice in two verses. It begins in the love of the Word who leans upon the Father’s breast.
It continues in the love of the Father who gives his only Son.
It ends in the love of the Son who gives his life for us. “It is finished,” Jesus says in John’s gospel from the cross. This is the Word’s last word. This is where the love that leans on the Father’s breast comes to its completion: in the life of the son poured out for the life of the world.
There is a time that frames our days. It is the Word’s time, and it has the shape of love.
The marvel of it, John says in Gospel and in letters alike, is that it is so real, this love, this time of our lives. It is “what was from the beginning,” 1 John says; “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands have touched.” It is Jesus, and his nail-marked hands and feet. It is holding in our hands the bread that is his body. It is hearing with our ears his word.
These things we write, John says, so that our joy may be complete – so that you may have fellowship with us, he says, communion with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. These things we write. We have come full circle, to the word that was in the beginning. The Word rests on the Father’s breast, now as in the beginning. Only now, we rest there too.
The Word frames our days. In the beginning as in the end, he frames our days with love. It is a love living and active; it moves towards communion.
So, too, our week. In the beginning, every week, is the Word. And the Word is with God and the Word is with us, and we come, on a Sunday morning, to the table and the Word. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what our hands have touched.” This is where our week begins, and it is where it ends too, on a Sunday morning at the table again. Every week we move toward Communion.
Time does have a shape, even in the time of the virus. It is Communion that frames our lives.