By Mary Marrocco
“My soul too is shuddering greatly — and you, Lord, how long?” (Psalms 6:4)
“The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping … they will turn back in sudden disgrace.” (Psalms 6:9,11)
This new year, perhaps more than most, stirs up awareness of time and its strange ways. Through the unsettling days of 2020 and 2021, some have found the time long and heavy, waiting for the lonely burdensome time to pass so they can regain their lives.
For others, time has come to an end as effects of the coronavirus or other painful happenings claimed their lives. Still others have found time opening up for them, enabling them to do or explore new things. Some have spent more time in prayer.
Time, our invisible companion, has grabbed our attention in new ways, raising again an ancient question that has haunted humans at least as far back as the writing of the psalms: How long, O Lord?
God so often takes his time when we need action now or takes away the time we thought we had when we need it most. The enslaved Israelites groaned to God for over 200 years in Egypt before anything tangible occurred. How long, O Lord? This is a question we recognize instantly.
How long must we suffer, how long must we wait, how long do we have, are questions forever in our hearts. No wonder we often are seduced into skipping ahead, ending the suffering, escaping the wait.
Time, Augustine thought (in the fourth century), is not our enemy, as it often seems, but rather God’s gift. It is the container God creates for us, so that we can receive God’s life. And by receiving God in time, we learn to live and come to be more and more like God.
If God gave us everything all at once, without the protection of time, Augustine thought, it would be too much for us. We would be shattered by the limitlessness of God. Instead, God gives us a way to receive and come into the divine life, as we move through time.
We can come to an awareness of ourselves as beings-in-time — not as prisoners completing a sentence, but as guests being offered life eternal. Still we must ask, How long, O Lord?
How long? As long as it takes for us to encounter God. From verse 4 to verse 11, as David shows in Psalm 6. That time can also come in an instant, suddenly (verse 11).
God, who is beyond eternity, descends into time, choosing to be contained by it so that we can be held within it and come to life. We touch one another, as we touch God, within time — so that we can go beyond time. When the time is right.
We sense this in the deep encounters of our lives, when we feel time breaking open. Between “I love you” and “I love you too.” Between “let it be done unto me” and the Incarnation. In the encounter between the paintbrush and the canvas, between the baby and the breast, is the infinite moment in which God offers himself and waits for our “yes.”
In the encounter with the Beloved, we discover what time is for. And we discover that it is not so much we who are waiting, as God. “For God, time means the duration of the expectant waiting between his knocking on the door and our act of opening it” (see Revelation 3:20), writes Dumitru Staniloae.
Time is painful no matter what, and can carry greater pain still, such as the anguish of separation from the beloved who went ahead of us into eternity. Yet time is brushed with the divine and intertwined with eternity.
Time and eternity aren’t parallel or opposing things, after all. We absorb this most intensively in the Eucharist, where time and eternity meet.
That’s why there can be unity among us, between one person and another, one group or nation and another. Unity among Christians means all Christians around the world, but also all Christians across time. This is the “apostolic” faith, the faith of the apostles who walked the Earth a long time ago.
God, the same God, meets humanity down through the ages. The God who met Moses in the burning bush and David in his writing of Psalm 6 is the same God who took flesh in Bethlehem, was pierced by nails in Jerusalem, harrowed hell — and waits for you and me to open to his knock.
So let us be at peace in our time.
Mary Marrocco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.