Of Calendars and Clocks

D. Brent Laytham

Your dog doesn’t wear a watch and your cat doesn’t keep a calendar. Sure, they have a pretty clear idea about when it’s time for supper. But they don’t structure and arrange time in ways that then structure and arrange their lives; they don’t mark time in ways that give their lives meaning. We humans do, and doing so is part of our humanity. In his book Calendar (Abingdon, 1996), Laurence Stookey asks us if we could imagine negotiating life without a clock or a calendar. (Nowadays, for many of us, that doesn’t mean a watch or a paper calendar, but various programs synced to one another via the internet and multiple devices. The grunts and dings of my smartphone run my life as imperiously as a prison warden. But more on that in a moment.)

Calendars and clocks are unique manifestations of our humanity. Whereas other living creatures obviously live within the natural rhythms of the created order, we humans are capable of ordering our lives according to a variety of temporal sequences, both natural and constructed. Most of us have allowed non-natural formations to overwhelm the natural. For example, we’re far more likely to track a church or civic or personal holiday than we are to celebrate a solstice or equinox. We’re more likely to rise and rest by the clock (and usually at a time divisible by 5) than we are according to the rising and setting of the sun. So both calendar and clock can be invested with human meaning.

Obviously People of the Book are also people of the calendar. Israel’s identity is attached by God to the annual remembrance of a liberative night — forever after rehearsed as “this is the night” (Exod 12:42). The church, too, at its annual Easter Vigil, rejoices in the words of the Exsultet: “This is the night.” Even more fundamentally, People of the Book are people of the week. Israel’s Shabbat is a weekly pilgrimage in and out of Sabbath, a “temple in time” (A. J. Heschel). The church’s Lord’s Day worship is a weekly walk to Emmaus, hearing the risen Christ break open the Scriptures to the paschal mystery and knowing the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. (For more on that, see my essay, “Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, no. 1 [2007]: 101-15.)

In short, there are patterns of time that speak our faith and shape our hearts, precisely because they remember our core story, the one that roots us in God’s temporal activity to create and redeem our lives, most centrally in the resurrection of Jesus “on the third day.” I am convinced that these patterns are means of grace precisely because they are modes of knowing and being known by God. Attending to them is yet another way to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the gospel story. Those five verbs were first deployed by Thomas Cranmer in a petition for the right reception of Holy Scripture. I use them here to suggest that internalizing scripture — “eating the book” in such a way that we embody it in Christ-like performance — is never a timeless literary act.

So calendars and clocks are symbolic of our existence as timeful creatures, whose schedules speak faith, or don’t, whose rhythms rhyme the gospel, or don’t. I think we increasingly find ourselves living “or don’t” lives as the calendar is scheduled by our entertainments, and the clock by the digital demands of 24/7 instantaneity. Finishing this column on the night of the Oscars, poised between a Winter Olympics just concluded and March Madness nigh to begin, I am extremely aware of how the seasons and festivals of “my entertainment” can so easily overshadow (if not eclipse) the season of Lent and the Festival of Easter (a thirteen-week cycle that begins in just three days). Working on a laptop in an airport, I am also mindful of how the ubiquitous availability of my digital technologies has all but erased the difference between work and leisure, all but flat-lined the rhythm of Lord’s Day followed by servant week. With a smartphone in my pocket, with the Oscars one streaming app away, the paschal shape of a Christian calendar and a Christ-shaped week are all but leveled into the simultaneity of the ceaseless clamor of the digital apotheosis of entertainment, into the inexorability of the unending tick-tock of constant digital contact.

Thank God I will soon be invited to enter and embrace restraint, remembrance, repentance. Thank God that we are being given another Lent.

Posted Mar 10, 2014

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