Christmas, the New Year, and the Fullness of Time

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“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

And so wrote St Paul to the Galatians, setting forth his argument that the Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled with the coming of Christ, and that the faithful no longer needed to wait for God because God had entered existence in the flesh.  For Christians, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and His birth at Bethlehem, signaled the dawn of a new era: God became man, and eternity entered time.  It was the decisive moment in the history of the world — the moment when history gained direction and purpose.  It was the moment when time itself began to matter.

The celebration of Christmas, a season that begins on December 25th, is the celebration of God’s participation in our daily lives.  No longer a distant figure dwelling in the heavens, God became flesh and blood — the Christ — through divine intercession.  “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” begins the Gospel of John, and it was this understanding of God entering history by which our perspective of time changed radically.

Why is this change so radical?  To the extent they devoted any energy to historical thinking, ancient philosophers conceived of time as a series of never-ending cycles.  But Christianity put history itself on a different trajectory.  As historian Christopher Dawson wrote nearly a century ago, “the Christian view of history is not merely a belief in the direction of history by divine providence, it is a belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place.”  As we enter the new year, we are well-served to remember that for Christians our measure of temporal time is traced from this intervention.

But our traditional understanding of time is obscured, I believe, by the idea of progress that began to take hold on the Western mind beginning in the mid-eighteenth century.  While progress as an intellectual tradition has arguably existed in some form or another since the time of the pre-Socratics, it was not until the era of the French Revolution that it transformed into a mythical philosophy and attained a quasi-theological status.  To the progressive, time was no longer measured in God’s terms, but in the attainment of abstract scientific advancement and freedom.  In this view, time could not reflect the Divine’s place in existence, but became something entirely distinct and measurable on a clock.

Despite, however, that our understanding of time has changed, time’s fundamental character has not.  Our individual understandings of time may differ, but the objective reality of God remains unaltered.  Scientism, positivism, and a plethora of other modern ideologies have influenced our perception of reality, but not the fundamentals of reality itself.  Despite the best efforts of the last century’s philosophical leaders to explain God away, God is not dead and time persists.  Our willingness to ignore God, on the other hand, grows commensurately with our willingness to acquiesce to ideological abstractions, which are man-made ideas intended to create heaven on earth.

To understand the reality of time, we must look deeper into the meaning of existence than what mathematics and the physical sciences can offer.  Time has purpose and meaning, and is not merely the measurement of intervals beginning and ending at subjective points; rather, time is a concept imbued with an ultimate purpose that transcends individual human will or the will of the masses.  Time itself is sanctified by God’s purpose.  This is the essence of the Christian view of history – the very understanding of time and eternity upon which Western civilization is built.

Why is this at all relevant to us increasingly secular “post-moderns” in the twenty-first century?  Because time spent without purpose is time wasted.  Even in moments of leisure, we must aim to fill our time with some purpose, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.  Simple critical reflection or prayer is more than sufficient to sanctify our daily, often mundane tasks and give them higher purpose.

The problem becomes when we believe that certain “inexorable laws of history,” as philosopher Karl Popper called them, will automatically inject time with meaning in the absence of human choice and God.  It is when we embrace this view of history that progress becomes a default faith.  It strips time of all purpose, eternity of any meaning.  When we embrace this view of progress we embrace nothingness, for progress can only be defined in relation to some permanent criteria.  This explains why secular conceptions of progress are mere sandcastle citadels, imperiled by each new tide.

But for Christians, the gift of Christmas is the gift of time with purpose.  Each new year, we are given the opportunity to embrace this gift so that we may truly participate in the “fullness of time.”  If we accept this gift, our other “New Year’s resolutions” will be superfluous.