Jesus said, “Stand firm”!
There may be wars going on around you. There may be a famine. There may be a plague. There may be a persecution. Such things are normal in a less than perfect world. They indicate man’s inhumanity to man. They indicate the cruelty of nature, of biological life.
But said Jesus, Stand firm! These signs don’t mean the end is near. They don’t mean everything is about to finally collapse. No. By standing firm one gathers insight, one gathers wisdom to see what actually is constant in a world of change. I mean by that one gathers the wisdom to see what really counts to make your life worth living.
When the end finally comes, it will sneak up on you, catch you unawares. You construct your world in your thoughts. Your personal universe will be undone, the sky will untune itself.
So, it is a marvellous piece of advice, stand firm in your faith. Because no matter what life brings, your faith can generate hope and hope can generate love, and love can generate a new, perspective.
The Eschaton and the Parousia
All this talk of final things has a technical theological word to describe it, the eschaton. The theologians call this subject eschatology, the study of the end times.
What Jesus indicated about the eschaton was something like this: “I don’t know, and neither do you, when the final curtain is coming down, but all of us need to live as if this hour, this day, this week really counted. We need to be filled with a sense of right now, for right now is always the critical hour.”
Hence, it is always the critical hour to forgive. It is always the critical hour to seek reconciliation. Right now is always the time to seek God’s strength and incorporate it.
I personally love the subject of eschatology. It crops up in so many ways, so many places. Think of Shakespeare and how many of his characters can't sleep at night. They fear for their sanity, fear for their lives, because they haven’t sought forgiveness and reconciliation. Lady Macbeth, wakes, shivering - here’s the smell of the blood still. Richard the Third is troubled by his coward conscience. Hamlet stalks the parapets looking for the ghost of his murdered father.
Sleep, waking, dreams, conscience: all converging to set the stage so that the human life, with its errors, mistakes, vanities, pretensions, all its sin, is set against the backdrop of time running out. Life is in time but whatever lies beyond time is set against the backdrop of eternity and infinity.
Eschatology thus relates time to eternity. In a sense, it maps the end of time to the beginning of eternity. How's that?
How Much Time Makes Eternity?
A huge amount of scholarly ink has been spilt writing about time and eternity.
But there is a wisdom insight which is not commonsense and which cannot be proved, yet it is stubbornly and effectively true. It is a truth of the implicate order of things. It is this. Eternity is encapsulated in a single instant of time. This concept of time is the an elusive idea. Its almost a complete contradiction of human experience. How can an instant be eternity? William Blake put it this way:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
And again he wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
The hint is in our every-day speech. We say by November, let alone December, I don’t know where the year has gone. We say time flies.
Yet children ask, sometimes, will school term never end? And I can remember as a young boy, at the start of the Christmas holidays, thinking that first Monday in February was never going to happen.
Objective and Subjective Time
In other words, the second really significant fact about time is that it has both an objective and a subjective side to it. We know objectively that every year the sun rolls around in its orbit and we divide this up into twelve parts roughly the same, the months of the year, and these into weeks, hours, seconds, nanoseconds, etc, etc.
In the world of objective time, though, even commonsense can lose its grip. As the physicists have demonstrated, the closer an object approaches the speed of light, the more its objective time slows down. What is almost an eternity to you edging fast to the speed of light is quick time for me. No wonder Einstein declared time to be a stubborn illusion.
But subjective time is the timeless moment in us. This is where time ceases to have any meaning except the thoughts we give it.
The thoughts we construct with our mind can remain blissfully unaware of any sense of objective time. They are dreams at night where time has a different meaning, of visions where new ideas and concepts rise into the conscious mind, as if bidden by God. Equally, they are those moments where we laughed with our children or friends and forgot who we were. We were taken so far away from ourselves and our concerns that the world became a timeless instant to be enjoyed forever.
Which one is the true nature of time: the outer objective reality, or the inward, subjective reality? Both are true but I do believe the inward has the greater gravitational pull.
Nothing could be more glaringly obvious today where material progress has not resulted in much greater spread of social happiness let alone spiritual progress. We live much more influenced and driven by the social media than we realise. Does the pace of life seem more hectic? Why? Where has that time gone? Why it hasn’t gone anywhere, but the way our thoughts are directed have robbed us, not just of a few hours of a week, but an eternity.
To stand fast might involve sufficient commitment to plant your feet firmly in eternity, to feel the inward vision as the vision by which life can be really lived to the full, in both objective and subjective time.
Robert Browning put it like this in a well known stanza:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made,
Our times are in his hand,
Who saith, "A whole I planned
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be afraid."
The vision there is inward, overcoming fear and, working outward: see all. The thought is that all time is God’s gift. Yes, that’s the truth. Time is God’s gift. Eternity in an instant is God’s gift. Providence is the way in which these two gifts of time work together.
Belonging to the Church in its widest, most broad sense, is a bringing into all aspects of time, the inward and the outward, the actuality of God’s kingdom, the rule of God. These are the great tasks. To do them, to live them, to understand them. Stand firm in the faith.
Text David Bell & Graphics Melissa Martyn