by Deryl Davis
“Time is time and runs away,” a young T.S. Eliot wrote near the turn of the last century. Like many poets intent on detailing the passages of life, Eliot was obsessed with time. His spiritual masterpiece Four Quartets is in many ways a meditation on the subject, the poet coming round again and again to the question of what time is and what it means for human life:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
(“Burnt Norton,” I)
As Christians, we have inherited from Greek philosophy the dual concepts of chronos, clock time, and kairos, the opportune, although unbidden, moment. Ancient statues of kairos depicted a young man racing on tiptoe, a shock of hair hanging over his brow and a bald patch behind. If prepared, one could catch him by the hair as he sped by; for the unprepared, there was only the bald pate of lost opportunity. If one were “present” (i.e. attentive), the moment of opportunity did not go unnoticed.
Kairos is something of a two-way street in Christianity. Not only do we look for the opportune moment, we expect it. Not only do we act in that moment, but God acts with us; in fact, kairos is the moment when we are called to respond to God’s revelation. Jesus proclaimed this at the beginning of his ministry, announcing that “the time [had] come” for the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). Kairos moments seem to abound in the New Testament, nowhere more obvious than in Paul’s encounter with the Athenians on Mars Hill regarding the “unknown God” they worshiped. The time was ripe for proclamation, and Paul was ready. Something similar occurs in the story of Esther in the Old Testament, when Mordecai suggests that God has placed Esther at the side of the king for a specific moment – when the Jewish people are threatened with annihilation.
In Western culture, we have become attuned to thinking of kairos as a series of fleeting moments, largely in the past – Wordsworth’s “spots of time” or the mystical “moments of illumination.” But a more complete understanding of Christian teaching suggests that kairos is always the present moment, and that this is the opportune time for God’s action in the world. Rather than something to be won or lost, according to Greek interpretation, the New Testament makes clear that kairos is the fulfillment of time according to God’s purposes. The most important action, God’s redemption of the world, has already happened in historical time and continues to happen in the present moment of our lives. We think of the sacraments of the church – baptism and the Eucharist – as recurrent instances of this ongoing divine intervention.
Is time really “unredeemable,” as Eliot appears to suggest? Is the past – our lives, relationships, decisions – lost to us forever? Only in the sense that these things have a fixed and unchanging identity, or only if we allow ourselves to be trapped in them. A Christian understanding of kairos suggests that time, in its many forms, is being redeemed by Time in the person of Christ, “who is and was from the beginning.” In Christ, we have the union of chronos and kairos – human time and divine time, the one constantly transforming the other. Past events may not change, but their meaning does; it expands, evolves, and becomes part of a larger, unfolding purpose. In Christian, as in Hebrew thought, time is predominantly a linear concept – everything moving toward the eschatological goal of judgment, resurrection, or the fullness of the kingdom of heaven – at which point time ceases to exist altogether. Kairos replaces chronos for good.
If, then, we redesign the ancient Greek representation of kairos, what does he look like? In the Christian understanding, he is not racing past with his eye on some distant prize, a lock of hair taunting us with the possibility of lost opportunity. Rather, his compassionate, unhurried gaze is directed outward, looking for us. He leaves the main path, if necessary, for stragglers on the road toward fulfilled time. When he engages us, we utterly forget the movement of chronos, that alluring baby who quickly grows into a withered old man. Kairos waits for us to see him, however long it takes, until we realize that he is eternally present. Then we understand that every moment is the right, exact, opportune time for our response to the divine; that, as Eliot says, “all is always now.”
Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary. His work on religion and culture has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines and on public radio and television.