It has been nearly one year since our parish last gathered together for worship without any COVID-19 restrictions in place. We had an Ash Wednesday service together, but only a few weeks later we were holed up in our respective homes and celebrating Holy Week on Zoom. Our great joy at the resurrection of Christ was overshadowed by our overwhelming sadness at our being unable to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection as we would have liked: with feasting, laughing, drinking, singing, and of course, sharing in the Holy Sacrament. In all likelihood our Holy Week this year will be similarly bitter-sweet.
There has been a lot of talk about secondary casualties that have been brought on by the strict lockdown measures during the pandemic. Notably, mental health crises and incidents of domestic abuse have increased. But I am not writing to you now to suggest that the measures in place are disproportionate. Social distancing and staying home is saving lives. We need to do our part and we need to discover creative ways to help those who are experiencing some of the severe social and mental side-effects of our current lockdown.
One of the less extreme, but no less significant, side-effects has been our loss of time. I do not mean we have less time to accomplish tasks. Rather, for many of us, time has simply become a way of counting, devoid of its meaning. It simply passes by. The occasions by which we mark time’s meaning have spiraled into the chaos of our cabin fever.
Consider for a moment the meaning of “time.” in English we only have one word for time, but much is expected of that little word. We use time to express scientific fact (the location and angle of our planet in relation to large orbs of gas and other space-rocks). We also use “time” to express occasion or, as Robert Farrar Capon puts it in An Offering of Uncles, “high time.” Most of the time (pun intended) we use the word to signify a point where these two meanings meet. But the basic difference is important.
And it is easy to illustrate. When I ask our toddler, “What time is it?”, she does not reply, “8:00 am.” Rather she states the occasion: “breakfast time.” She knows what this time is for.
In Greek, there are two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the distinction isn’t absolute, the two terms generally express these alternative ways of thinking about time. Chronos is scientific, linear time (8:00 am). Kairos is existential, human time (“breakfast time”). The former is concerned with the question, “what time is it?” The latter asks the question, “what is time for?”
The Gospel writers seem largely unconcerned with scientific time. So much so that they seem to get it wrong and to contradict one another (on which day was Jesus crucified? How many years was Jesus’ ministry? When did Jesus turn over tables in the temple?). The apparent contradictions are, at least in part, due to the fact that historical order is not what matters to the evangelists. Rather, they are very concerned with the occasion and with the purpose of time. As in Mark 1:15, “the time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.”
Time, when considered this way, does not merely order our lives chronologically. It orders our lives existentially and teleologically. In other words, kairos time is about meaning and purpose. Spring is not simply March and April. Spring is seedtime.
For many of us, the pandemic has dragged us further and further from meaningful kairos time and exclusively into the realm of chronos. I have certainly spent much of the last year spinning in chronos time, quickly and unreflectively moving along the linear line of moments and days, waiting for it all to be over. But the peace of Christ isn’t waiting for us at the end of a linear timeline. The presence of Christ is found in the kairos, the meaningful occasions upon which we unite ourselves to the only one who isn’t bound by chronos.
The seasons and festivals of the Church, much like our seasons of harvest and weather, are not, in the first place, chronos seasons but kairos seasons. Church time is meaningful time. It is attention to these occasions and to the meaning of this churchly time which re-orients us towards Christ. The Lord Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). But this resurrection life is not awaiting us in the future, further along our chronological timeline and after COVID-19 has come and gone. It is present now, available as we attend to the meaning and purpose of time in Christ. The rhythms, rituals, and meanings of the Church’s calendar, including Lent, serve as the very means by which time is redeemed and we are renewed in Christ.
Do not misunderstand me here. Lent does not save anyone. But the meaning of Lent certainly does.
Pause now for a kairos moment. Just what is Lent for, anyway? Why all the asceticism, fasting, and austerity? Why do we give up anything at all?
Lent, it must be remembered, has no meaning without resurrection day. It is a part of the “Easter cycle” for a reason, just as Advent is a part of the cycle of Christmas. Both are kairos seasons of orientation, pointing us towards the two greatest mysteries of our faith: the incarnation of the Word of God and the crucifixion and resurrection of that very same incarnate Word.
Our Lenten vigor should not be viewed as mere liturgical snobbery. Our concern is not that we might let Lent pass us by unawares. It is much more grave: we may just miss Christ as he passes by. We may just miss Easter. Strictly speaking, Lent is not necessary, but it is good. It is good because of what it is for and who it brings us nearer to. Lent is “high time” to prepare our hearts to encounter the living Christ.
Perhaps Lent feels impossible for you this year. Are we not already sacrificing enough? If this sounds like you, I would encourage you to consider the matter carefully, and in conversation with your priest or spiritual director. It may indeed be the case that you ought to let Lent pass you by this year. But we must not let Christ pass us by!
As for myself, I’m not convinced this is the year to pass on Lent. On the contrary, if you, like me, find yourself stuck along the chronos timeline, then Lent just may be your lifeline. Not primarily through the strict fasting or solemnity most often associated with the season. But in our reorientation towards its kairos meaning. This is the season for us to reclaim lost time. “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
The how is another question. I will not here prescribe a Lenten practice. I will, however, say this: consider first the church’s traditional Lenten summons of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. In particular, take time to pray. Take kairos time to pray. The rhythm of the church’s kairos calendar is as expansive as an entire year and as immediate as every hour of the day. Perhaps you can begin to reclaim lost time this Lent by entering into the rhythm of praying the Daily Office.
Most importantly, do not let Jesus pass you by. If you, like me, find yourself stuck in chronos, perhaps Lent can re-orient you towards the one who saves us from the end towards which chronos leads: death.
Bless the Lord who forgives all of our sins. For his mercy endures forever. Amen.
Paul Robinson is a transitional deacon in the ACNA, currently serving St. Thomas Mission in Vancouver, Canada. He and his wife Kristin have one daughter and are expecting their second child in March. They live at “The Burrow,” a community home and centre for study and hospitality at the University of British Columbia. They are passionate about hospitality and liturgical life together.