Holy Time Among the Abrahamics
It’s often been said, or more exactly complained, about contemporary peoples that we worship money. At least a part of that is true. But if there’s a more certain thing most individuals worship it’s time.
Time, of course, is money. We watch the clock, keeping track of lost time. We take offense when someone wastes our time or if he or she fails to value our time. Most human records of achievement focus on the amount of time it takes to do something. We tell someone hurrying to take his time. We ask for time to figure things out, if we have time to spare. Retirement
is when we’ll have all the time in the world. We make pledges to one another to the end of time, or at least until time runs out.
Emile Durkheim describes this common, secular sense of time
The individual lives in time, and…has a certain sense of temporal orientation. He is situated at a determined point in space, and …all sensations [he feels] have something special about them. He has a feeling of resemblances: similar representations are brought together and the new representation formed by their union has a sort of generic character. We also have the sensation of a certain regularity in the order of the succession of phenomena…(480-1)
In other words, the experience of time, while it takes on a characteristic individuality, relies on
a common experience outside the individual for its grounding.
The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism and its descendents Christianity and Islam,
however, share a concept of time outside this regular or ordinary, secular understanding of time. The Greek term for this “breakthrough of the eternal into history” (Tillich 534), is kairos.
Kairos, Paul Tillich writes, “means time, the right time, the qualitative time in contrast to chronos, clock time, quantitative time…[Kairos] is a biblical idea attached in particular to the…messages of John the Baptist and Jesus and to Paul’s interpretation of history” (534). The nearest Hebrew equivalent to kairos would seem to be zeman “season” as it’s used in
Ecclesiastes 3:1 (Blueletterbible.com). Monford Harris claims that
Jewish existence has always been characterized by a sense of time and history…its celebrations
have always been historically oriented…This historical consciousness must have been deeply rooted in the life situation of the Israelites. It did not come about by intellectual fiat or
by contemplating alternatives to the archaic mentality. (2-3)
This concept of zeman or of holy time is connected via explicit means to Sabbath, the covenantal time of the Jews (and hence to Christians and Muslims) during which rest is the
means for contemplating and celebrating God. “Sabbath has been celebrated for the most part in Exile because much of Jewish experience has been spent in Exile” (9). While its roots are ancient, zeman is not simply an anachronism in the modern world. In her book focusing on a contemporary New York Hasidic family, Lis Harris quotes one of the daughters as living “from one Shabbos to the next…I look forward to it all week. We almost always have three or four guests…In the last month we’ve had people show up from England, Iran, and South Africa;
the door is never closed. It’s totally unlike what I was used to growing up…I didn’t really understand what the Sabbath was about; no one ever talked about it” (55). Later, Harris clarifies, “If [Jews] live in a kind of perpetual Biblical present, in which the events of their everyday lives
are constantly being linked to their spiritual past, their rebbes have traditionally been the guides who have interpreted the interconnectedness of the two” (76).
Tillich credits the Pauline writer with the shift from zeman to kairos:
[The] appearance of Jesus as the Christ…happened in one special moment of history when
everything was ready for it to happen…Paul speaks of the kairos in describing the feeling that the time was ripe, mature, or prepared…There are things that happen when the right time, the kairos, has not yet come. Kairos is the time which indicates that something has happened which makes an action possible or impossible. We all experience moments in our lives when we feel that now is the right time to do something, now we are mature enough, now we can make the decision. This is the kairos. It was in this sense that Paul and the early church spoke of…the right time for the coming of the Christ. (1)
This concept of kairos is so fundamental to what would become Christianity that Hoyt Hickman titles his subsection about it “Time is Important,” and emphasizes, “Christianity takes time seriously” (16). Hickman continues,
Christianity talks not of salvation in general but…accomplished by specific actions of God
at definite times and places…of climactic events and a finale…In the fullness of time, God invades our history, assumes our flesh, heals, teaches, and eats with sinners…Christian worship uses time as one of its basic structures. Our present time becomes the occasion of encounter with God’s acts in time past and future. Salvation…is a reality based on temporal events through which God comes to us. (16)
This experience of God coming to us is also Sabbath. But Giorgio Agamben points
out an inherent paradox to the Pauline kairos. “Paul decomposes the messianic event in two
times: resurrection and parousia, the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. That’s why theologians define the Pauline conception of redemption as an already and a not yet: the messianic event has already happened, salvation is already accomplished, and yet, in order to be really achieved, it needs a supplementary time” (6). In explaining one solution to this paradox Agamben refers to Franz Kafka’s assurance that, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last”, and quotes Walter Benjamin that “every instant can be the little door through which the messiah enters” (7).
In reminding us that “In our new cosmic story, time is irreversible, genuine novelty results through the interplay of chance and law, and the future is open” (105), Sallie McFague in presenting a dynamic universe still in flux reminds us of the Muslim, and specifically Sufi, term waqt “the present moment,” which “reflects…time not as a linear sequence of units of a measured duration, but as an existential, vertical moment…characterized by a strong emotional response to an inner experience” (Sviri 18). Sara Sviri illustrates waqt through a Rumi poem.
At the time when in the company of that selected group I began to meditate,
Stepping out of myself,
The soul got rid of all time that turns youth into age.
All change arises out of time:
He who gets rid of time gets rid of change.
Oh, my heart, for a while be out of time, get rid of change.
Oh, my heart, for a while be out of time to be free from “how” and “why.”
Time does not know the nature of Timelessness,
Because only wonder can lead to it.
Sviri explains: “For the mystic…Life’s goal becomes simply this: to return to the very beginning…to return to the dawn of the existence, to return to the Source of Being, to return home” (127, emphasis in original).
Huseyin Algul explains that during waqt, what he calls their “blessed days and night,”
“Muslims…evaluate their actions in their social life, and they have the chance to renew or change their behavior. From time to time, human beings undergo a process of change; in such a situation, it is important to ensure that the direction…is toward what is positive, beneficial, or appropriate. In this way, the blessed days and nights open a door toward positive change, enabling one to overcome life’s obstacles more easily and to gain easier access to the road to
success” (4). These blessed days and nights are, in effect, Sabbaths spread across the panoply of the Islamic calendar.
Perhaps reflective of McFague’s dynamic universe still in process, the Islamic year is based entirely on lunar observations, sometimes locally observable, sometimes globally, so that a year, and hence time itself, often mistaken as static, fluctuates. On a Muslim’s Sabbath, “Worship includes the environment and everyday life, as well as other forms of worship, like prayer, fasting, paying alms, pilgrimage, and sacrifice; worship makes a whole…At the same time, each [Sabbath] is an opportunity to take stock of one’s relationships with one’s children and relatives” (4-5).
It is in this reflection and potential improvement that the concepts of zeman, kairos, and waqt come together as a way of explaining the Abrahamic emphasis for allowing the open door of covenantal time to make its impact on the individual. Through the physical inactivity of Sabbath God’s presence can be felt and there is the opportunity to be at peace with that which is on the other side of the open door.
· Agamben, Giorgio. 2002. “The Time that is Left.” Epoche. Volume 7, Issue 1.
· Algul, Huseyin. 2005. The Blessed Days and Nights of the Islamic Year. Jane L. Kandur,
translator. Somerset, New Jersey; The Light, Inc.
· Blue Letter Bible. 2012. “The Preacher Solomon - Ecclesiastes 3 - (NIV - New International Version).” Blue Letter Bible. 8 Mar 2012.
· Durkheim, Emile. 1968. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Joseph Ward Swain, translator. New York; Free Press.
· Hickman, Hoyt, Don Saliers, Laurence Stookey, and James White. 1992. The New
Handbook of the Christian Year: Based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Nashville; Abingdon Press.
· Harris, Lis. 1985. Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family. New York; Summit Books.
· Harris, Monford. 1992. Exodus and Exile: The Structure of the Jewish Holidays. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.
· McFague, Sallie. 1993. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.
· Sviri, Sara. 1997. The Taste of Hidden Things: Images on the Sufi Path. Inverness, California; The Golden Sufi Center.
· Tillich, Paul. 1968. A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. Carl Braaten, editor. New York; Simon and Schuster.