This past Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, which means two things: First, Christians around the world have entered into a month of waiting in joyful expectation for the coming of Christ. Second, people everywhere (including Christians) will soon find themselves especially pressed for time in the midst of the flurry of holiday activity and therefore less inclined than ever to wait patiently for anything.
Whether you are the sort of person who starts playing Christmas music the day after Halloween or the sort who insists that Christmas celebrations be strictly contained to the month of December, this is the part of the holiday season that nobody likes—longer lines at stores, more traffic on the roads, extra items on the to-do list. With so much to do and a limited time to do it, this season can seem like one big race against the clock before Christmas Day all-too-quickly arrives.
Although people tend to complain about this part of the holidays in particular, the truth is that the holiday rush merely accentuates what seems to be the case for most of us year round—there is just never enough time. Besides the regular demands of work and chores, we have yoga classes and volunteer commitments, family visits and planning committees, fundraisers and the kids’ practice schedule. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. If only we could add a few more.
At least that’s what I sometimes say to myself, but let’s be honest. If I somehow came up with a few more hours in my day, I would find a way to fill that time too and then I’d be right back in the same situation. In truth, the problem is not that I don’t have enough time. The problem, I believe, lies—as with many things—in the attitude I bring to the situation.
Psychological research is increasingly drawing attention to the ways in which a person’s mindset affects his or her experience of reality. For a recent example, a fascinating recent study found that Norwegians who go months without seeing the sun do not fall victim to the seasonal affective disorder that affects so many here in the US because, among other reasons, they focus on the special joys of winter and avoid complaining about poor weather. The human mind is much more powerful than we often give it credit for, and a little mental adjustment can turn a dreadful situation into a delightful one without altering any of the externals of the situation itself.
So what kind of change in mindset can alleviate our stressing about our perpetual shortage of time? We might begin by asking ourselves how we think about time. What kind of images and language do we use to describe it? For example, we have all heard it said that “time is money.” Now even if you are not a corporate CEO, you have probably internalized this way of thinking about time to some extent. Most of us think of time as a commodity in short supply, something that we never have enough of and therefore need to spend frugally. We talk about “running out of time” and having “no time to spare”.
Thinking and talking about time in this way has real consequences for the way we experience each day. For one, we are primed to feel anxious about the time we have, or rather the time we don’t have. If we think of time as a standard currency in which every hour, minute, and second is worth the same as any other, we are bound to develop a hoarder mentality toward time, to assume that more time (for projects, on vacation, in a lifetime) is always better. This inevitably gives rise to the feeling that we are always working against a running clock.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. Rather than thinking of time as money, we can think of time as seed. The wonderful thing about a seed is that it yields far more than its face value, as in the biblical passages that describe a seed yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold (Mt 13:8). A seed when planted and nurtured grows into something much larger and more complex than what it started out as.
Though less pervasive in our everyday language, most of us have some familiarity with this metaphor for time. It is this sort of metaphor that underlies sayings like, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” (This particular saying has become trite, but it conveys a profound truth nonetheless.) The ancient Greeks, too, distinguished between these two ways of thinking about time, employing the words chronos and kairos to differentiate them. Chronos is mundane time, time that plods along predictably in hours, days, and years. Kairos, on the other hand, is a special moment in time. It is historical time opening up and giving way to something momentous and perhaps transcendent.
For Christians, Advent and Christmas embody kairos rather than chronos. Christmas celebrates the most kairotic moment in human history when the eternal God took on a particular creaturely form in a particular time and a particular place. Not only that, but God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth performed temporal actions that resulted in consequences of eternal significance for humanity. Jesus was able to accomplish this universe-altering feat despite the fact that he spent a relatively short time on earth and an even shorter time in active ministry. He healed and preached for no more than three years, acquired a relatively small number of followers, and then died a premature death. If quantity is the measure of time that matters, then Jesus’ ministry can only be considered an abject failure.
But that is not the measure by which Christians have judged the significance of Jesus’ work. In only a few years’ time, Jesus spoke words and performed deeds with the power to break human beings free from the chains of time and death. Because of Jesus, we need not march through life like death row inmates whose breaths and steps are numbered. Rather, Jesus calls us as workers into the field to sow with the hours and minutes of our earthly life the seeds that will bear fruit in eternal life.
This, I suggest, is the image of time we should bring to Advent and, indeed, to every day of our lives. Yes, it is true that there are limits to what any of us can do with the time we have. If I squander my time, I may not complete a work project on time or get all my Christmas shopping done or make it to the gym at the end of the day. These are worldly tasks, and they must be done on worldly time (chronos).
But when it comes to the things that matter most, the actions that will reverberate in eternity, God gives us all the time (kairos) we need. If you have ever been caught by surprise by daybreak after spending the night staring into the eyes of your beloved or held your newborn child for the first time and felt that nothing else matters, you have had an experience of chronos giving way to kairos and you know what it means for time to be truly well-spent… or should we say well-sown. When moments such as these come along, we need to recognize them for the golden opportunities they are, for these are the seeds of happiness in this life and the next. Happiness cannot be bought regardless of whether the currency we deal in is money or minutes. More minutes does not translate into more happiness. We discover happiness when we receive those kairotic moments as a gift and, like the merchant who found the pearl of great price, drop everything else to invest ourselves in the gift we have received.