Before Lent: "Atomic Time"

The Revd Brutus Green


There is a theme consistently deployed in the Bible and running through most of our liturgies and hymns, which is so at odds with contemporary life that it is easily overlooked, ignored as part of an old world, no longer true or relevant. Certainly it would have been more evident a few thousand years ago, but the only reason we don’t notice it today is because we have carefully concealed the evidence. We have found more and more ways of evading the truth about time:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Out of our wealth and technology we have successfully flattened time, to the point where we feel in control of it.  We are always in season.

Flattened time has its advantages. It gives you strawberries all year round, heat and clothing to stave off the cold, and a comfortable working environment in uniform temperature offices. Flattened time means you can go shopping on Sunday or at night when you’ve run out of milk, or wine. It gives us cities that never sleep. We no longer wake and sleep with the sun so the bright light of productivity need never go out, except for weaklings who need their brief hours of sleep. Flattened time gives you the means to keep away the signs of age. No longer need you say with pride or resentment that you are six or sixty and three quarters, enjoying or lamenting the advancements of age. Now, with a little care, you can stay twenty six till the day you die.

 More than anything flattened time allows you to be constantly busy. We do not reach the end of days, nor the end of seasons, nor years so there is no need to stop. Flattened time has turned the world into an infinity pool, a horizonless sea, that goes on and on without demarcation or obstruction.

 And if the French get their way Greenwich Mean Time will be replaced with the cold precision of starkly named Atomic Time, ending the relationship between time and the spinning of the earth and the position of the sun.  We would gain perfectly regulated, even time and we really could fill the unforgiving atomic minute with 60 atomic seconds worth of distance run, a never ending flat marathon of being forever “on”, morning, noon, night.

 And with this time has become money. We are payed by the hour, the month and the year, just as we are charged for phone calls by the minute; and I have a meter now that tells me how much electricity I am using - measured in pence per hour.

 And with all this busyness, with our hours and days being measured out in pounds and pence (and coffee spoons), it’s easy to start to feel a little bit self-important; to think that our achievements will last; we will not grow old; to think with all our technology and progress we have conquered our environment; we have mastered time.

 But all the clocks in the city
 Began to whirr and chime:
 O let not Time deceive you,
 You cannot conquer Time.
 In the burrows of the Nightmare
 Where Justice naked is,
 Time watches from the shadow
 And coughs when you would kiss.
 In headaches and in worry
 Vaguely life leaks away,
 And Time will have his fancy
 To-morrow or to-day.

There’s plenty of busyness in today’s Gospel. We have a whole city crushing around Jesus. We have the mother-in-law healed, who immediately sets about serving the disciples, and with the onset of Jesus’ celebrity status we’ve got the beginning of his tour of Galilee, accompanied at every stage by crowds and demons. But in the midst of it all we have Jesus getting up while it’s still very dark to go out to the wilderness and pray.

 Why does Mark record this? Is he making the point that because Jesus is so highly driven, in addition to his high profile public career, he also makes time to keep up his Zumba and Pilates? Well, perhaps, in a manner of speaking. But this is not about self-improvement and the endless pursuit of making every moment worthwhile; of maximized potentiality. It’s the opposite, which is why it’s appropriate for Jesus to go in the dark to the middle of nowhere.

 Because prayer is a waste of time. It doesn’t burn carbs. You don’t do it to become fitter, healthier, happier or more productive. There are, I think, benefits to prayer but it is not instrumental - you don’t do it in order to achieve them. Prayer is about listening to God and so it’s not primarily about us at all. If anything it’s supposed to move us beyond ourselves. And there are times when I bitterly resent this. When you have a lot to do, when you wish you were asleep, you’d rather be watching old episodes of Frasier; when the house is full of washing up and you haven’t phoned your mother since Christmas; we all jealously guard our time, so there’s no doubt that prayer is costly. And in a world that never ever has to stop, we become unused to it. Doing nothing has started to feel unnatural.

 But Jesus goes out, while it’s very dark, to a deserted place. To listen to God.

 And we need this. Because humans aren’t designed to be always on. To be constantly active. We do not need to be always self-improving; to be productive, to be worth our pounds per hour value. Because actually we’re much more suited to seasonal behaviour. Our productivity, our mindfulness, our kindness and irritability rise and fall through each day, each season, each year. We don’t operate steadily on atomic time but flow with the seasons with all the wastefulness of Seasonally Affected Disorder, afternoon naps, caffeine highs and hung-over lows. Last week I decided that it was too cold to run and stayed in bed. Human time is not flattened, atomic time. The seasons are hidden within us. Fighting against them is not always wise.

 The church’s year is arranged seasonally. There is the build up to Christmas, the after-glow of epiphany and then the withdrawal of Lent before the joy of Easter. It provides a structure to express the many seasons of the soul. Like the agricultural metaphors of Isaiah, we find ourselves in constant need of putting to death, of rebirth and regeneration.

 Baptism is the beginning of this - our entry into the ebb and flow of liturgical time. Little Joshua may well have an iPad and a cell phone by the age of 6; technological education seems to happen earlier all the time and the onslaught of emails, texts and calls cannot be avoided forever; but he will need his family and god parents to help him understand the seasonal movement of his emotional and spiritual education.

 And in order to know these seasons within ourselves we need to find time to withdraw. Time to listen to God - to access a deserted place while it is still very dark - whether it’s five minutes in church, twenty minutes before everyone gets up, in the shower, running through Hyde Park or relaxing with a cup of tea. We cannot always be like Simon’s mother-in-law dragging ourselves out of the sick bed to entertain guests.  And we may often find ourselves like Jesus being ‘hunted’ by the disciples. But finding time to listen to God will enliven us with a renewed perspective and sense of purpose; and it will take us out of ourselves.

 So it may be that we are no longer trapped in Winter with no work to do except to stay warm and fed. It may no longer be the case that we need to stop what we’re doing at dusk and sleep through to dawn. It may now be possible with a nip and a tuck to extend our 20s until some way into our 40s but we remain seasonal creatures and with that there is a time to reap and a time to sow, a time to break down, a time to build up, a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to be born and a time to die. And, lest we forget, “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”   

 Amen.