There’s a not-so-old proverb that says that a “Man who has a watch knows the time, but a man who has two watches is never quite sure.”
If you’ve worked with me or, God help my wife, if you live with me, than you know that I’m more than a little concerned about time. When I worked at Bell Labs, five minutes early was on time and on time was late. In football, managing time is of the utmost importance, as any Giants fan can tell you after their most recent of many losses this season.
I bring this up because Advent is all about time. The season of Advent encompasses both measurable time and the fullness of time, the chronos and the kairos.
“The ancient Greeks had two words for time, and kairos was the second. The first was chronos, which we still use in words like chronological and anachronism. (We refer to an illness as chronic if it lasts a long time) It refers to clock time – time that can be measured – seconds, minutes, hours, years.
“Where chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. It measures moments, not seconds. Further, it refers to the right moment, the opportune moment. The perfect moment.”1 Kairos is about the fulfillment of time.
Advent most certainly gives us the chronos. The Church calendar begins with the first Sunday of Advent, not with the first of January. We are careful to mark time physically during Advent: we light candles on a wreath to map out our march toward Christmas; even secular kids don’t give up the chance to pick up an Advent Calendar at the drug store, so much candy could go wasted. Speaking of wasted, adults can now buy Advent Calendars with twenty-five different whiskeys or vodkas, an ounce a day.
But Advent also gives us a nice chunk of time to contemplate kairos, the other kind of time. “Strictly speaking, we don’t measure kairos. We don’t ask someone, for example, “How much Christmas did you have?” We inquire, rather, “what sort of Christmas did you have?” With kairos we employ the category of qualis, not quantum.
“The reason that time in the sense of kairos cannot be measured is because it is always a now. A now is obviously indivisible; an instant is, so to speak, too brief to account for. By the time you stop to measure a now, it is already gone. Now is punctuated by a swift, indecipherable passage from this to that. Furthermore, if now cannot be measured, it can also not be counted. It is futile, for example, and probably a threat to sanity, to ask how many nows there are in an hour.”2
To God, time is always kairos – it’s always now to God. That’s a tough one to explain because we don’t get to experience kairos moments very often, and when we do, we get bogged down in the chronos that we can’t shed until our last day. Tradition holds that at the Mass, at the moment or moments of consecration, when the bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood, time stops; chronos fades and kairos invades. Maybe you’ve experienced other moments like this, moments when God seems so close, when the outside world doesn’t so much fade away, as become what it was always created to be.
Advent and Christmas lets us mark some really big kairos moments. We will recount the stories, stories of angels appearing to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, to random shepherds keeping their flocks by night; stories of the Holy Spirit enveloping Mary and being so present in John the Baptist, even while still in Elizabeth’s womb; stories of the infinite piercing the finite, of making things so incredibly now.
In the fullness of time, God sent His only Son to be born for us, to live and die as one of us, to be with us in our time, however that time might be treating us. I invite you this Advent to mark the time, both chronos and kairos, as we prepare to meet our Savior once again.
2Fr. Patrick Reardon, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/ReardonChronos.php