“Time keeps on slipping . . . into the future” (“Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band, 1976).
Have we lost a year? The pandemic has disturbed our patterns and sense of time.
Immanuel Kant argued that the human mind imposes structures of time and space. The Biblical creation account depicts time and space as God’s structures. Light gives us the cycle of day and night and the lights give us the patterns of seasons, days, and years (Gen. 1), and it is good.
The Byrds sang of this order in 1965 with Turn, Turn, Turn!, turning Pete Seeger’s song into a #1 hit. Putting Ecclesiastes 3 to music they proclaim the patterns of our experiences and plead for peace. Although most words are borrowed from Ecclesiastes for this song of hope, they are taken out of context.
Ecclesiastes recognizes order, but it cries out because people do not know what time it is. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11). As Chicago sang, “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anyone really care? If so, I can’t imagine why. We’ve all got time enough to cry.”
This is Ecclesiastes’ frustration. We do not know the time, nor do we control it. We sense patterns, but we do not understand what God is doing. This is time without God. “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 1:2, 12:8).
How then shall we live? “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 3:12–13).
In the newer movie version of The Lion King Pumbaa and Timon wrestle with time. Is it a line that just ends in death or a spiral or circle of life? Disneyism optimistically celebrates the circle of life, but Hinduism and Buddhism seek to escape Samsara, the karmic suffering cycle of death and rebirth, to enter Nirvana (also a more iconoclastic rock group). A person loses their sense of individualistic being, entering either non-being or all-being. Time is to be escaped.
Biblical tradition celebrates time. Biblical narrative surrounds the frustrations of Ecclesiastes giving it context. The story starts with the patterns of creation. Darkness and light are ordered. The Jewish day starts in darkness at sunset and leads to light. We follow the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans starting the day in the meaningless middle of the darkness, the opposite of the noon high point of the day. The Hebrews gave time meaning.
The week in Scripture is patterned to lead to a culmination, a celebration. There is a time for work and a time for rest, a time to till and a time to be still. Then there is newness again, a new first day. There are new beginnings, hope and excitement. Resurrection.
The Hebrews tied the seasons to their religious history. The year starts with preparations of Rosh Hashanah leading to the Day of Atonement and then the Sukkot or Tabernacles pilgrimage. Passover is the people’s deliverance celebrated in the Spring at the start of the planting season. Shavuot or Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Law at the time of spring harvest. Tabernacles, the great national campout, celebrates the last yearly harvest. Seasons celebrated their history.
The Christian church year does the same. We begin in Advent at the end of the year preparing for the new. We celebrate the new beginnings in Christ Jesus. Lent leads to longing for winter’s end, and Easter to new life. Pentecost initiates a summer of growth.
May we find our patterns again, patterns of day, weeks, and seasons. “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years’” (Gen. 1:14).