Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

How long, O Lord? The question is posed repeatedly by the Psalmist. It continues to be posed across the ages, uttered even by our lips in the shadows of a dark season. How long must I suffer this illness? Drag through this labor? Bear with evil men? Did not our Lord himself wonder this aloud (Mark 9:19)?

The underlying motive for such a prayer is often an instrumental hope: a plea to fix the problems we face. “How long” is fueled by the more stark and pressing “How?” How to bring this to an end, how to make this right? Time here seems a kind of matter, raw material malleable in my hands or my enemies’, or by luck or blessing, God’s. Our petition amounts to: Shorten the time; repair the time; shape the time.

The instrumental conception of time is driven by an understandable pastoral challenge: We need help getting through time by making time work for us, and tips and tools are in great demand. Preaching and teaching thrive on temporal instrumentalism, on making the most of the time allotted. Congregations and classrooms rise and fall on this basis. And not just today. The Christian tradition of Scripture-reading and catechesis has been driven by “tropology,” the discernment of the “moral sense” of Scripture so that we can do the great work of “applying” the Bible to “real life.” In this light, Scripture reveals the “how-to’s” of remaking time: Abraham on how to have faith, Joseph on how to be prudent, Esther on how to be brave . . . and Jesus on how to suffer quietly and be resurrected as a reward.

The Nativity of our Lord is also about time, but in a different way. “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). One can read St. Paul’s assertion in an instrumentally temporal fashion: Jesus’s birth is presented in a predictive flourish, with a long-planned moment “finally come,” as if God had been counting down to the liftoff of redemption.

But “fullness” here—the translation of the Greek pleroma—is a richly connotative word. It took on a technical sense in later Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, referring to the totality of Being. Paul himself uses it to speak of the “fullness of God” that dwells “bodily” in Christ (Col. 2:9). “Fullness” is, in New Testament terms, a divine perfection, and when it qualifies an entity other than God, pleroma seems to indicate something divinely wrought according to its final purpose, which is to say “fulfilled”: the Law, the Scriptures, the cosmos. In the case of the birth of Christ, the “fullness of time” means time as it is meant to be and, in this case, actually is. Completed and fulfilled—perfect time.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is not “in time”; rather, the Nativity gathers time into itself. This fact stands in tension with our desire for application, which tends to see the coming of Jesus “into time” in medicinal terms. God “applies” Jesus to a diseased and broken world as a redemptive therapy—though instead of “take three times a day,” we get the “cure” in a single injection. Although this image has some practical value as encouragement, it is ultimately misleading and disappointing. After all, disease and brokenness seem to persist, in time, long after the divine therapy. So perhaps the whole temporal framework we take for granted is faulty.

St. Augustine offered daring reflections on the strange character of time as God deploys it in the world. The opening verses of Genesis—the puzzling temporality of “days” that precede the sun and planets by whose movements we normally mark time’s passage—as well as human history ordered by providence led him to see time as a subjective human experience, utterly subordinate to deeper and prior realities of God’s counsel. Time, Augustine came to realize, is not a mechanism for practical management, but part of the offering of God’s own creative self. Time is the divinely given milieu in and through which his human creatures receive him.

The “fullness of time” is thus the perfect, “completed” gift of God’s self in creation. The perfect time is not when God becomes man; perfect time is the Son, who is “before” even the “foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20). The fullness of time in the Son’s Incarnation means that the details of Christ’s life are metaphysically prior to all the particular times of our own lives. This priority is stated explicitly of Jesus’s cross: Our names are written in the book of life of the Lamb “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). More widely, the time of our life is enrolled in his flesh, his words, his touch, his movement across Palestine, his clothing, his mother, his family, his birth. All of this, the detailed life of Jesus, constitutes all time, fulfills all time, including our own.

Put simply, the Son did not enter into our time; rather, our time flows out from his. We too have flesh and words, parents and neighbors, a particular ground beneath our feet. We too have our births and our deaths. But we have these things—our lives—only as they derive from the perfect time, the perfect life and death, the perfect human being. The Son of God did not come to be applied to our lives, as too many preachers pretend; we are called to be applied to him. Our times shimmer with the gleaming ripples that spread out from the fullness of his time. This is what it means to glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20).

The aching question “How long?” is properly answered with, “Look to Jesus!” For even now “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). Our turning toward Jesus does not require us to subordinate or depreciate our temporal existence; rather, it allows us to see our time “whole,” how it adds up and is incorporated into God’s purposes.

There are still things to do, promises to keep, sacrifices to make. But their temporal force and meaning derive from their origin, Jesus of Nazareth’s time. We can speak of our desire to live in “imitation” of him, and that desire is proper. But the imitation is not of our making; this life of ours, our time, already conforms to his. I weep because Jesus first wept; I pray because his prayers precede my own; I live because he was born.

There is nothing wrong with tropology, with “showing how” we can fix our times. Our lives invariably demand discipline, intentionality, effort. But beware simply using Scripture as a collection of examples, for doing so can feed our incompetent self-making. Instead of following examples, let us aim for recognizing truth. The goal of our faithfulness is to see, as Moses sought after the face of God; as Elisha’s servant was granted sight of the host of heaven (2 Kings 6:17); as the blind man perceived the Son of God (John 9:38).

Or simply as the shepherds: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:15–17). They beheld the nature of time itself, of “this is how it is,” of God’s making, of our image of the Great Image, the Son, who, in the fullness of time, comprehended law, prophets, psalms, mountains, oceans, light and darkness, beginnings and ends. And the world was filled with the sound of their praise.

We puzzle about the meaning and direction of our lives, especially when we suffer doubts, afflictions, and evils. There are answers in the manger on Christmas Eve, in the fullness of time. Those answers do not present us with advice about how we are to shape our time; they are given in time’s shape according to the days of Jesus, born of a woman. How long, O Lord? No longer or shorter than Jesus’s time; just this time, applied to us in just his mercy.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Detroit Institute of Arts on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines