The Christian is one in whom the past and future meet in the present and unfold into a new vision, a new life. In Advent, especially, the Church invites us to reconsider our lives as the intersection of our history and our future. We remember the birth of Jesus and live in hope of his coming Kingdom.
Related to this Christian theme, in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens puts Ebeneezer Scrooge into contact with his own past, present, and future. This secular myth primarily reveals Scrooge’s hidden fears and regrets and drives him to change. Able to stand outside of the narrow constraints of time, Scrooge is able to realize what he has lost and otherwise will lose through his cold, miserly ways.
Our faith, conversely (and fortunately), reveals not only what is lost but what is gained through the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ–not simply what this reveals but makes possible. In faith, we are forgiven and thereby transformed into sons and daughters of God and heirs of the Kingdom. On this point, Pope Benedict writes in Spe Salvi, “The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” As Christians, we live in hope of our salvation, a hope which empowers us to suffer in this life as we evangelize and preach the Gospel.
In order to effectively evangelize, however, we must never forget or lose sight of the historical event of our salvation that occurred on the cross 2000 years ago and at the moment of our birth into Christian faith in Baptism. As Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, “The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore.” Occurring in history, Christ’s death and Resurrection permeate history, in every time and age, especially in the Eucharist where the bloodless re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice provides infinite grace as we continue on our journey. Francis writes, “Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover.”
In light of this, it is especially strange to hear about Christians who doubt the historicity of Jesus and the events recorded in the Gospels, or who take the view that Jesus and the Gospels must be contextualized entirely by Jewish culture and history given the Roman occupation and so on. As Pope Benedict discussed in the forward to his book series, Jesus of Nazareth, historical-critical methods of exegesis can provide valuable insight. But he also insists that Christians who long to know the “real Jesus” must never set aside belief in the Jesus of the Gospels as a “historically plausible and convincing figure.” Benedict writes, “I wanted to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, ‘historical’ Jesus in the strict sense of the word. I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades.”
In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis describes faith as memoria futuri, described as a memory of the future or a “memory of a promise.” This phrase beautifully captures the essence of Christianity in relation to our experience of time, where both past and future come together in the present to shape our lives. St. John the Evangelist wrote that Jesus was not of the world, but he came into the world (cf. John 17:16). Christ redeemed the world and filled it with his grace. In other words, we can say that Christ entered into time and redeemed us from the narrow constraints of our earthly experience. Through faith, we can participate in eternity. Today, in the present moment, Christians are united to our Father in Heaven through our faith in Christ Jesus who suffered, died, and rose from the dead 2000 years ago. How can Christians ever fear the future when the eternal God lives in us?
This Christian experience of time, however, often conflicts with a secular view. For many, time is an insurmountable obstacle in our drive for progress. Modern media and technology entrench the false belief that we will “miss out” if we don’t experience as much as possible as immediately as possible. Today we have an entire virtual world where interactions happen instantaneously, and we often neglect the importance of visiting others and spending time in their physical presence. Time works against our youth and vitality. It reveals our fragility and our lack of commitment.
Sin perverts our sense of the eternal. Whereas holiness is a participation in the timelessness of God, we often seek out the opportunity to be “holy” only when it suits us. We might only turn to our faith in times of convenience or crisis. We fail repeatedly to make an enduring commitment to our faith. It’s true that growth and development in holiness can take years, but rather than embracing the pain and suffering that come with our perfection in Christ Jesus, so many of us shirk these ongoing trials and instead resolve to undergo transformation sometime down the road. “Make me holy, Lord. But not yet.”
This is reminiscent of one of Pope Francis’ favorite principles, that “time is greater than space.” Space is about power and control. Instead of allowing authentic spiritual development, we might seek to overpower others by our will and leave little room for the Holy Spirit to act in time. Conversely, Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
“Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events.”
The practical consequences of the Christian experience of time is discussed in the Vatican document Donum Veritatis (essential reading for anyone discussing the faith, especially on the internet). In this document, the CDF–under the leadership of then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger–incorporates the principle of time into its analysis of the problem of dissent from the Magisterium. The document explains how theologians who disagree with certain teachings of the Church can still contribute to authentic development of Church doctrine. We know that some of the Church’s teachings can and do change, and many papal statements can appear to conflict in meaningful ways from those of their predecessors. Donum Veritatis points out that, when it comes to Church teaching, some aspects of the teaching are perennial or “necessary” and that other aspects are “contingent or conjectural.” Most importantly, the CDF states that, “It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent.” In other words, it is sometimes only after years, decades, or centuries of reflection and discernment that the Church can tease out what was merely prudential in a teaching–given in response to a certain time, place, and set of circumstances–and what contributes to “true doctrinal progress.” Christians must be patient.
Austen Ivereigh’s new book, Wounded Shepherd, contains important insights into Francis’ understanding of time. First of all, the work put into the book itself is indicative of how time can change our understanding of what is worthwhile. A well-researched, 400-page book that takes time to write, edit, publish, and read is exponentially more valuable than (for example) hasty tweet-storms, which are often written without sufficient reflection or understanding of the facts. Sadly, it is the latter that is more likely to capture the attention of a wide audience.
In his book, Ivereigh was very effective at describing the scope of Francis’ papacy, now in its seventh year, and all the ground that Francis has covered in that time. Over the book’s 400 pages, the fruit of some of Francis’ initiatives is revealed, which in many cases were never designed to create immediate results. Ivereigh discusses how Francis could have easily sacked all the worst influence-peddlers in the curia and attempted to create a new Vatican from scratch, but this, in itself, would not be a solution. Doing so wouldn’t fix the old bureaucratic structure that fostered the perverse or corrupt practices in the first place. Rather, Francis chose to reorganize the processes themselves, leaving in place many of the existing personnel. By doing so, Francis aimed for verifiable positive change over a period of years, slowly allowing people to leave their curial roles as terms expired. It has not been easy. Ivereigh describes the situation very well, especially with regard to the Vatican financial situation. Certainly, the Vatican’s financial condition is vastly improved from a few years ago, but it sadly continues to present problems for the Church.
Perhaps nothing is more indicative of Francis’ approach to “time” than his handling of the clergy abuse scandal. Francis undoubtedly has a mixed record here, but the full extent of his reforms can really only be meaningfully judged over a period of time; decades perhaps, not years or months. Through promulgation of his motu proprio, Vox Estis Lux Mundi, Francis has put into place processes that will, by the grace of God, bear fruit over time. In it, Francis wrote, “Even if so much has already been accomplished, we must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope towards the future.”
We Christians must not be bound by our earthly experience of time. We must appreciate how the Spirit works over generations and millenia. We must trust that our good works that are motivated by true faith and love for God will bear fruit for the Church, though perhaps not during our earthly lives. God has won the victory; death has been destroyed; God’s kingdom reigns. Solutions created for our present crises that aren’t rooted in trust and hope in God easily run the risk of creating future crises and frustrating God’s will even further.
The Church, and especially her apostolic successors, connects us to our shared history and gives us our perspective for the future. As Francis puts it in Lumen Fidei, “Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church.” Memoria futuri… Faith is a “memory of a promise” that gives birth to hope, which in turn “propels us to a sure future.”
On a personal note, I pray that you have a very blessed Advent.