Words on the Word

3. Sunday B

Jonah 3.1-5, 10: In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed!
1 Corinthians 7,29-31: The time is short.
Mark 1.14-20: The time has come.

The first thing Our Lord says in the Gospel of Mark is, ‘The time has come’. We are confronted with a fundamental Biblical topos, the thought of the ‘fullness of time’, the ‘right time’. Presupposed is the notion that time, and history, follows a rhythm; and that it is futile to seek to disturb it; that it cannot be accelerated.

We can relate to what is said from experience. Anyone who has played in a band or an orchestra knows how infuriating it is when the clarinettist or the bass doesn’t manage to keep time and is a quarter-bar ahead of or behind everyone else. What was meant to be music turns into noise. The conductor must stamp his foot, cry ‘Stop!’, and give corrections.

Let’s take another example. If we’ve a kitchen garden, we learn that there’s a time for different task. We must follow the course of the seasons as we compost, plough, sow, and plant. Once we’ve sowed and planted, we’ve to simply wait. A mangetout needs time to ripen. A tomato must redden properly before we can eat it.

In the same way, God’s plan for the world follows a rhythm, Here too there is a right and a wrong time. Only God possesses the score; he alone knows when the different instruments are supposed to come in, when the cadence will be played, and how long the concerto will last. Our task is to keep our eyes fixed on his hand in order to keep time.

For this, we need to be able to interpret both the signs of Scripture and the signs of the times.

Throughout Advent and Christmas we contemplated the preparation of Jesus’s birth. We saw that it points back to the origin of all things — ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Then God readied the world to receive its Saviour. The processes can seem to us painfully slow. Ahaz, who received the oracle of Emmanuel, lived 700-odd years before the birth of Christ. 700 years between prediction and accomplishment! This is hard to swallow for us who have quite lost the habit of waiting for anything at all, regarding the instant satisfaction of our wishes as our right. The message the Church gives us today merits attention: it speaks of the dignity and worth of waiting. Great things take time. They require preparation.

That having been said, the incarnation transformed humanity’s concept and experience of time. What happens when the Word becomes flesh is that eternity irrupts in time. That is why Jesus can say, ‘The kingdom of God is among you.’ In other words: ‘What you have long waited for is no longer merely prospective, it has begun.’ The Lord’s presence among us introduced a Now that will never end. We touch this Now in the liturgy. When we go to confession and receive absolution, we are touched by God’s eternal mercy. When at Mass we acclaim the Lamb of God we are simultaneously on Calvary, beneath the Cross, and in the New Jerusalem, where the Lamb is Shepherd (Revelation 7.17). In the Church we transcend time. We must always be mindful of this.

In sacred actions, in the sacraments, the ‘fullness of time’ reaches an objective density. We can deal with the fact that something unique happens when we’re in church. But what happens when we step outside, into ordinary life? Eternity may then seem very remote. We must practise living on the wavelength of eternity. That is were we find the rhythm establishing the right pace for the rest of life, the pitch by which all other tones can be tuned. It is this way of living that is Paul’s object in 1 Corinthians, when he exhorts us not to become ‘engrossed’ in the world. He does not tell us not to take the world seriously. The world is entrusted to us; we have to answer for it. That is an earnest responsibility. What we must remember is that ‘the world as we know it’ is ‘passing away’. It is not our definitive reality. We may stay in it awhile to grow, mature, and thrive; but one day when our own time has come we must bid it farewell and go home. It is good then to be able to depart in peace, gratefully and freely. It is good to be able to say, like the apostles, ‘Yes!’ when we are called.

Here in Tromsø we keep the day of the sun today. The sun was last seen here in town before Advent started, on 27 November. Today we glimpse it for a few minutes. Then we can rejoice in a daily increase of light until the night fully disappears and the sun shines uninterruptedly. This seasonal rotation lets us experience what it means to say that ‘time has come’, a time that can be predicted with mathematical precision.

This powerful experience of the natural world has its equivalent in our spiritual life. Christ is the sun of righteousness rising with healing in its wings (cfr. Malachi 4.2), he is the perennially contemporaneous dawn, the morning star rising in our hearts (cf. 2 Peter 1.19). For us, the time has come now; the fullness of time is today. May we not harden our hearts (cf. Psalm 95.8), but instead step out of darkness, rise from sleep and forswear the deeds of darkness. Time is short. There is much to prepare. Our faith is not just a comfort to us; it is no less a solemn task.

Arise then, and be light! By God’s grace this is possible (cf. Isaiah 60.1). We are to be bearers of life, to pass on the hope given us, to witness to the fullness of time before the world, that it may believe. Amen.


Photograph: Hans Arne Paulsen on www.foto.no