A Timely Word About Time

In his book, The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli points out that, prior to the development of the railroads, there was no such thing as a standard time. High noon was when the sun was directly overhead, so if you lived in Boston, it would arrive some time prior to its arrival in Agawam. Gentlemen would set their pocket watches according to the only option available – local time, which varied from locality to locality. There were no time zones or any thought of such a thing. The railroads changed all that. Trains scheduled to use the same tracks, one traveling east and one west, had better be run by people who shared a common sense of time. Today, we are so thoroughly scheduled that any other way of living seems – and probably is – impossible. Such was not the case for people in biblical times. There were not even mechanical clocks to set to chime the hours simultaneously. There were sundials, of course, which told when the sun was directly overhead. Otherwise, time was quite variable. The day was divided into twelve parts, but this was according to the rising and setting of the sun. “The first hour was dawn,” writes Rovelli, “and the twelfth hour was sunset.” Therefore, the sixth hour – beginning about 12 noon – would be considerably longer if the day were a summer day, for it was the daylight that was divided, not a set twenty-four hour period. Fourteen hours of daylight was divided by exactly the same number as a day with only ten hours of daylight. The hours would simply be longer or shorter according to the season. An hour on a winter night could stretch considerably beyond sixty minutes. No one cared.

It was the times, not time, that mattered when Christ was born. Kairos was about the times. Chronos was what we think of as chronological time. In our culture, their importance has been utterly reversed from what it was for people living in biblical times. Astrologers – Wise Men – the Magi – whoever they were, they were concerned with the birth of the Christ child as a sign of the times, and of things to come. King Herod was at least as concerned along similar lines, but for very different reasons.

We are so busy looking at our watches, clocks, and cell phones to try to squeeze in another appointment, another activity, another commitment, that it seems doubtful we have the opportunity to reflect on the bigger – more important picture – the times we live in.

Perhaps we called them the Wise Men for more reasons than we now realize. They knew what mattered. Their reading of Scriptures – and whatever other signs they observed – led them to make a journey to meet one who would tell us that the poor will be blessed, while the rich have already had their reward. He would see women as deserving of all the respect men expected and would treat them accordingly. “Let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” He would note that learning the Scriptures was more important than housework. And he would die, having told the local political leader that, “You would have no power over me unless it were given you from above,” (John 19:11). I hear his tone as explaining, “Pilate, you’re so full of yourself. Get over it.” And when he was put to death, he rose above even that. Yes, the Wise Men were onto something.

I have come to wonder, after several recent conversations, how many of us have read the Scriptures – even once in our entire lives – from cover to cover. Or at least the New Testament. Or at least even one of the Gospels. The Wise Men knew their stuff. That’s how they knew an important sign of the times when they saw it. Are we too busy to acquire that kind of wisdom?

See you at worship?