Time… and… time

‘Welcome the wild one’: John the Baptist

This week’s lectionary blog reflects first on ‘time’ and then draws attention to the way that John the Baptist offers a ‘timely word’ in the season of Advent. The focal Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe


One day,  fifty years ago,  I shall never forget.  It was when I was sitting my university entrance exam,  a General Paper where questions ranged widely.  One of the choice of subjects listed for the day was ‘Time.’  I felt as if all my Christmases must have come at once: for I had just received at school a good grade for an essay on ‘Time’ where I had drawn upon John Robinson’s (then) recently published book In the End God which reflected on the difference between time as chronos (a period of time) and time as kairos (a moment in time). Occasionally I wonder if my life would have taken a different trajectory if the topic of ‘Time’ had not come up on that particular day.

I am still fascinated by ‘Time’. And in particular the question of the relationship between chronos and kairos. When we use phrases like ‘Time lags’ or ‘Time passes’ we are thinking of time in terms of chronos. When we say ‘It’s time’, we are thinking of time as kairos. It has often been said, and I think there is certainly a degree of truth in it, that the biblical understanding of time is much more closely allied to kairos than it is to chronos. That was (as I remember it) the basic thesis of In the End God. These days I would probably put it slightly differently however – namely that the Bible encourages us to take seriously the jarring dissonance between chronos and kairos, these two different aspects of time. Somehow the Bible is encouraging us to be prepared to live in and with this dissonance.

And if we are thinking about the uncomfortable nature of biblical time the season of Advent is surely a prime exemplar of it. Karl Barth once strikingly said, ‘Whatever time or season can the church ever have but that of Advent?’  For Advent seeks to hold together three ‘times’, which are both deeply separated in chronos terms, but are intricately bound together as all part of one immense kairos moment. Christian tradition has spoken of the distinct three ‘comings’ of Advent. The challenge for us is to appreciate how they belong together. This is what the writer Guerric of Igny said in the 12th century:

              As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first… between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time.’  

Perhaps with more of a sense of poetry is also this note found in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures,

There is a birth from God before the ages and a birth from a virgin at the fulness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.’

Advent requires us to live in the uncomfortable ‘time’ of preparing for Christmas while being also acutely aware that Christmas is not the story’s end.

This week’s lectionary Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6 in which the ministry of John the Baptist is announced. (Next week’s lectionary Gospel will be Luke 3.7-18 in which more detail will be given to fill out John’s call to repentance in practical terms.) It is interesting that in the current Common Worship/Revised Common Lectionary John the Baptist features in the Gospel readings for both Advent 2 and Advent 3 in all three lectionary years. The Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge comments slightly caustically that John the Baptist is the ‘foremost figure of Advent’ – but that she has never seen a picture of John on any Advent calendar. It is a valid point she makes. She also notes ‘Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches uncomfortably upon us, making us feel some degree of dissonance…’

There’s a striking Advent song about John the Baptist by the hymn writer Brian Wren that reflects on this deep uncomfortableness Welcome the Wild One – Hope Publishing Company, ‘Welcome the wild one, the desert declaimer… camel hair coated, unkempt and unbending… outspoken, uncensored’. The song then continues by ‘welcoming God’s love-child’ (Jesus Christ) but makes it clear that this second welcome cannot take place until we have ‘welcomed’ John first.

If we look carefully at the six verses of this week’s lectionary Gospel we can note Luke’s distinctive touches – which also offer clues about the dissonance between different understandings of ‘time’.

It is interesting to note the time-frame in which the episode is set, ranging from the global to the local, and the secular to the ‘religious’. As Luke does also when referring to the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.1-2), he mentions first of all the Roman emperor of the day, ‘The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius’ (Luke 3.1). Luke then goes on to refer to the local client rulers of the Romans , and finally the Jewish high priests. All these details are part of the world of chronos.   But then Luke sets alongside then the kairos moment in which John is summoned to preach and baptise. Uniquely to Luke it is introduced by the remark, ‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’ (Luke 3.2) That phrase ‘The word of God/the Lord came to…’ appears again and again in the Old Testament to describe the call of a prophet (e.g. Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah) and its use here places John the Baptist firmly in the line of such as these (probably especially Elijah).

John is not living by the timescale of chronos but, like his prophetic forbears, by the time of God’s kairos. Past, present and future are (as is the case with Advent itself) somehow held together in the person and message of John. It is interesting that the quotation from Isaiah 40 here in Luke’s Gospel extends for extra verses (beyond what appear in the other Gospels) and ends with the assertion ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’ (Luke 3.6).  With these words John himself seems to be being pulled into the future – to be the herald of that kairos moment when finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, God’s salvation will be offered well beyond traditional boundaries of time or space or religious tradition – to all people and for all times.

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