Friday, November 04, 2022

On death and Christmas parties, or How to inhabit time

The office Christmas party - more likely in my experience to be the office meal out - is a standard fixture of December, and often the only occasion when colleagues will socialise together.  I've been out of the office environment for a number of years, and this is one of the things I've really missed.  But this year I've noticed that it doesn't seem to be really happening.  I know people whose 'Christmas' meals have already happened; others who will delay having lunch together until January.  The festive period is just too busy already, perhaps with work or perhaps just with the preparation for Christmas proper.  So the office do gets moved, one direction or the other.

At one level this is just perfectly sensible pragmatism, and it really doesn't matter at all.  But on another level I wonder what it says about the way we view time.  I think we are used to being able to rearrange time around ourselves.  It doesn't suit me for it to be Christmas right now, so I'll move the date.   This picture - the individual sovereign over time - really doesn't sit well with the biblical picture of time at all.

Consider the structure of the biblical account of time.  The first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is built around the seven days of the week; it is a time focussed account of creation.  (The second, in the rest of chapter 2, is space focussed.  One of the reasons I think it is a mistake to try to harmonise them is the loss of these two crucial perspectives on created life).  Time is given, according to Genesis, by God as the gracious framework for human life.  That time is a gracious gift is underlined by the institution of the Sabbath, a day of holy rest, for worship and the enjoyment of God - not to be filled with the strivings or the pleasures of the individual, but to be entered into as a thing prepared by the Creator.  The Sabbath gift shapes and defines the rest of the week.

This pattern continues through the history of Israel.  The weekly Sabbath, along with the annual festivals, define time as something which relates the history of the nation with God, and therefore as a means of living into the relationship established in that history.  Israel is not to claim mastery over time, but to live in its God-given rhythms.  It is only as part of the covenant curse that the relationship with time becomes fraught and desperate.

This matters for two reasons.  Firstly, in a big picture theological sense, time is the created echo of God's own eternity - his gift to us to allow us, finite beings, to enjoy relationship and being-in-sequence, analagous to his own eternal Being and Trinitarian relationship.  So to inhabit time properly matters.  Time, with its proper structures, is to be received and entered into as a gift, not regarded as a resource to be infinitely manipulated for my convenience.  Time is about knowing God and relating to him.  The church, I think wisely, has followed the example set by the Lord for Israel and related time to salvation history through the calendar of fasts and feasts, and I see that as an important way to reflect this approach to time.  It isn't necessary to do it this way, but it is important to do it some way.

Second, one day you will die.  Time, you see, is not infinitely malleable.  There is a date and a time marked in the calendar - not in your calendar, not on your personal timetable - when the last bit of time (as far as you are concerned, at least) will befall you.  (The only way this will be avoided is if Christ returns first, in which case your last bit of time will be everyone's last bit of time; at least, time as we know it).  Pretended sovereignty over time in the day to day of our lives does not prepare us well for the fact that we will one day hit an appointment we can't shift.  It certainly doesn't prepare us to receive that appointment as coming from the hand of the gracious Lord of our time and all time.

So anyway.  Have your Christmas party as and when, I guess.  But don't kid yourself that you are master of your time.  It is a gift; enter into it with joy, and perhaps then you will leave it when you have to with contentment.

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