And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.”
Genesis 1:14-15 ESV
It is customary in our culture to take time to reflect during the New Year season. We consider the previous year and look forward to the year to come, perhaps making a list of resolutions, re-visiting personal goals, or just making a mental note of desired improvements. Seasons of self-reflection are recommended in Scripture. With the aid of the Holy Spirit we are called to consider the direction of our lives. As the psalmist implored, Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139: 23-24 ESV). Paul exhorts the Corinthians regarding the communion, Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (I Cor. 11:28). And again, to the same Corinthians, Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves (II Cor. 13:5).
Our custom of reflecting in the New Year is a function of chronos, chronological time. Our planet completes its journey around the sun and another page is turned. In fact, time is both the catalyst and the object of our reflections. Our reflections, prompted by the time of year become considerations of how we have spent and how we will spend our time. This is another biblical theme, captured by the psalmist. Psalm 90 is a reflection on the nature of time, God’s lordship over it, and our place within it. For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night, and again, So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:4,12).
The church father, Augustine, reflected in depth on the nature of time in his masterpieces The City of God and The Confessions.
For eternity and time are rightly distinguished by this, that time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change, who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change, — the various parts of which motion and change, as they cannot be simultaneous, succeed one another – and thus in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time would begin? Since then, God, in whose eternity is no change at all, is the Creator and Ordainer of time, I do not see how He can be said to have created the world after spaces of time had elapsed, unless it be said that prior to the world there was some creature by whose movement time could pass.
The City of God, XI, vi
Let them therefore see that there could be no time without a created being . . . Let them also be extended to those things which are before, and let them understand that thou, the eternal Creator of all times, art before all times, and that no times are co-eternal with Thee…
The Confessions of St. Augustine, XI, xxx
In other words, time is a child of the created order.
In general, the scripture speaks of two kinds of time – chronological time (measurable time denoted by the Greek chronos) or season or opportunity, often denoted by the Greek kairos. Though these concepts overlap in both Greek and Hebrew, I think they are helpful distinctions, especially as we examine our use of time in the New Year. As Augustine noted, time is a creature of God. It is also a gift to be stewarded with great care.
We see these concepts side by side in the beginning of the beautiful poem which opens Ecclesiastes chapter 3, For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven (Eccl. 3:1 ESV). The poem goes on to speak of seasons of opportunity for the various events of life.
If I were to make a distinction, I would say for purposes of reflection that chronos is measured time, intellectually understood and precisely defined, like the movement of the planets. Comprehension of kairos on the other hand, is a matter of discernment, even spiritual insight. Winter begins on the solstice, but winter weather may not. There may be a mandatory retirement age in some jobs, but there is a greater or lesser capacity to continue working depending on one’s physical and intellectual vigor.
Discerning the season of opportunity is reflected in our folk sayings: “Strike while the iron is hot,” or “A stitch in time saves nine.” Biblical Proverbs carry a similar meaning, The sluggard does not plow in autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing (Prov. 20:4). Jesus tells us, We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no man can work (John 9:4). Paul exhorts the Galatians, And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season (kairos) we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity (kairos), let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal. 6:9-10).
Shakespeare ties the concept of chronological time and season of opportunity together, “Time and tide wait for no man.”
The mighty acts of God reflected in prophecy move in sync with his pre-determined seasons, But when the fullness of time (kairos) had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman…(Phil. 4:4). Jesus spoke of the kingdom in terms of ripening seasons, The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground…But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26,29).
So many opportune seasons rise and fall before our eyes — receptive hearts and teachable moments with our children, opportunities to serve our neighbors or minister to our parents or church family, job prospects, and political or economic climates ripen or sometimes rot as we observe. It was often the job of the Old Testament prophets to determine and announce what God was saying and doing in the seasons of Israel’s history.
Time is a gift from God to us. Our time on earth and even time itself will one day be consummated.
Because of sin we often miss or abuse our seasons of opportunity. These wastelands of regret need redemption through Christ’s great act of atonement on the cross. Because of grace we can approach God for understanding and aid as we walk into the future. The just, we are told, shall live by faith.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.