Advent introduces a new year into our lives, as the church’s version of the civil new year that occurs every January 1st. It’s a helpful reminder that time marches on, and brings us along with it. Some of us are largely neglectful of time, and its meaning for and impact on our lives. Others of us are quite concerned about time, and the influence it exerts on us. A few of us may be obsessed with time, to the point where it dominates us and makes us its captive.
When we’re young, past time is usually not a major preoccupation for us. In the first place, there’s not that much of it in our lives to this point, and, secondly, what there is of it, has been largely a preconscious period that has not engaged us very consciously, except perhaps for some memorable event of such intensity that it has left an indelible impact on our young self: perhaps a melody that was frequently played or hummed in the house, or a particularly violent thunder storm that rocked the house in which we were staying, or a frightening argument among the adults of the household. In any case, it is our memory that serves as the medium containing echoes of such occasions lingering in our past. It classifies us as the victim of circumstances engulfing us. It epitomizes us as still on the edge of a future yet to emerge, in which our agency will be more prominent.
When we’ve grown into adulthood, we’re ordinarily busily engaged with life as it unrolls before us, and carries us along with itself like flotsam floating on the surface of a river in flood stage, which seems to control us along more than we guide and influence it. Much of our adult energy is expended in just keeping up with things, trying to keep our heads above water and not allowing ourselves to be swept under the flow and disappear beneath it. Time glides by at an alarming rate, seldom allowing us the opportunity and leisure to disengage ourselves so as to take adequate stock of what is happening to us. This is the stage where we were engaged in shaping our selves, producing the person we finally managed to become. Here our own freedom was busily engaged in producing the person that was emerging, though not without turmoil and effort.
And then, as we slip into old age, if we have survived to this point, we have amassed a presumably rich time period on which to look back, and enough time and capacity (hopefully) to reflect on it. Here, unlike the early first stage, we have a memory chock full of persons, events and impressions some of which have perhaps indelibly inscribed themselves on us, having shaped us into the kind of person that we have become. At this final juncture we may be may be surprised, as we take a step backward to look at ourselves, asking: is this who I planned to be years ago? Did I follow a line of continuous and harmonious development all along the way, or were there abrupt course changes resulting from unforeseen intrusions in my life and changing the course of action I was pursuing throughout my life? Did I remain master of my own destiny, or did I become the product of unplanned events in my life owing to other persons or events?
In recent years we have become adept at citing conditions prevailing at the times when we grew up, which influenced and formed us for our life ahead, and loom largely responsible for whom we have “turned out” to be, for good or for bad. And, then, we coped with the life unfolding before us and struggled to survive and succeed at what life found us doing, during which we frequently kept our eye on a future time when things will be made right for us, promising that “all, at long last, will be well with us”. Maybe yes, or maybe no. But at times this retirement hope for a better future can take our eye off the present. But living too much in the future can cause us to take “our eye off the ball presently coming at us”, lessening our chance to get on base. But Jesus had a word of advice for such occasions. We are to live in the present more than in the past or the future. As He says: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Mt 6.34)
Here is presented a three-fold division of our life cycle: the past, the present and the future. This simplifies what the ancients suggested, such as Ovid, with his four ages facing the human person, and Hesiod, describing five ages confronting us, while Shakespeare famously referred to the seven ages through which we live. But none of these matched the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes in its remarks on “the flow of time”:
“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away. A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.” (3.1-8)