"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, December 31, 2007

Chaos or kairos?

What does the calendar year, and thus the change of it, really mean? By American convention, today is a socially acceptable opportunity to make a fool of oneself by drinking too much, watching a big bright ball drop on countdown, and making resolutions everybody knows one won't keep. But that's not what I mean by 'meaning'. By that term I mean something that animates and enriches life by giving it a worthwhile point. New Year's Eve does nothing of the kind for me; so far, all that this day has really meant to me is that it ends an income-tax year. That means something to me only because it means something to the IRS, which can easily make my life miserable and has done so before. That's not meaning as I mean 'meaning'. But I think there is meaning to be found in the calendar year, and therefore to its end. The meaning comes through the relation of the calendar year to the meaning of other, overlapping years.

As a kid, I did not understand why there were so many different "years" that did not begin at the same time as each other. The school year began in September; the liturgical year began in early December; the fiscal year for the organizations my father worked for usually began in July. And then there was the calendar year, which people pretended was the "real" year but which bore little relation to the actual rhythms of their lives. Why couldn't people agree on when "the year" really started? When I was twelve—one of the relatively few years in my life when I've actually felt pretty pleased with myself—I conceived the vague idea that there was some ideal "time" in the mind of God that we weren't following but should. Such was the thought of a budding young philosopher; the whole "year" thing, indeed the human organization of time itself, seemed like chaos to me. The few adults with whom I raised the issue suggested, gently and in so many words, that I concern myself less with such unprofitable mysteries and more with learning things that could help me make money when I grew up. But as I grew through adolescence and young adulthood, I began to understand a few things.

For one, I learned that there were good reasons for so many "years." The school year began and ended when it did because summer was inhospitable for study but rather necessary for farm work. The liturgical year began roughly when, harvest time having ended, food was put away for the winter and the shortening of days caused people to look forward to their lengthening again. The downtime corresponded nicely with Advent; the hope for longer days looked forward to the celebration of Christ's birth on a day when the lengthening of days after the winter solstice began to be noticeable. The start of the "new" calendar year a week thereafter, during the twelve days of Christmas, was one more celebration of light and hope. Epiphany wound up the celebration and signaled it was time to return to ordinary business. Of course I still can't figure out the whole "fiscal year" thing; but it seems to have a lot to do with politics, accountancy, and other games I don't like to play. It is purely human time: neither of nature nor of God.

It was meditation on such facts that prepared me to appreciate the essentially religious notion of kairos, that of a specially significant or appointed time, as distinct from chronos, that of clock and calendar time. I was enabled to understand that God's time, sacred time, was not the same as either natural time or human time, but overlapped and interpenetrated both. The temporal rhythms of nature, those of the seasons and agriculture, signify the deaths and rebirths we must undergo so as to grow spiritually; and each highlight of the liturgical year bears an obvious relationship to the seasons. But the plasticity of time in human hands, though limited, also signified to me that we are not limited to nature in how we appropriate spirit. We are of nature, but destined beyond nature. What seems like the chaos of the "years" thus tells of both the striving and the groaning of creation awaiting its redemption. Kairos embraces chaos, but in the end overcomes it.

Happy New Year!
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