You parted the veil of eternity
and entered time in the person of Jesus
born to Mary and Joseph;
new life, given to change all lives.
Be born in our hearts and minds to touch and change this world. *
What is it that so fascinates us about time? If you’re old enough to remember watching the original Star Trek series on a black and white television, you’ve likely experienced that nagging sensation that time speeds up as you age. Whether this phenomenon has more to do with increasing age or busier schedules, I can’t say, but it certainly seems to be a common and shared human experience. I suggest that this feeling might be associated with that deposit of earthly experience we have stored up over the years. It’s difficult to articulate, but it’s almost as if we reach a tipping point where we have more time completed than to come, and the sense is that time is rushing by us more quickly as we speed downhill towards that unseen finish line. If something like this is indeed true, then, what do perceptions along these lines communicate about eternity: the eternal present? More important today, can it be said that there is a unique understanding or grasp of time evident within Catholic theology and tradition? I’d like to offer three examples of Catholic belief that shine a light upon our broader understanding of time, then follow up with the words of some other Catholics.
If we understand Mass for what it is truly is, we must recognize the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Holy Sacrifice, it “makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church's offering.” When we receive the Eucharist we are acknowledging a divine mystery which itself lies outside the scope of time and space. In the brilliant light of Christ’s passion and sacrifice, this mystery further illuminates how we as Catholics understand time, because we firmly hold that Christ is “really, truly, and substantially present” within the Eucharist. The truth of John 6:54 leads us to the certainty that our Lord is not bound by the chains of time or space, and His actions are not restricted by a linear understanding of time. He stands outside and above the human timeline and history of man.
This is also abundantly clear in our tradition of prayers for our deceased loved ones. If there is no death in Christ, then we understand that those who have gone on before us are experiencing a life much more real and vibrant than our own--like C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce. If God is outside of our time, then there is absolutely no reason to abstain from praying for those who have died in His friendship. In fact, refusing to do so suggests a God who is constrained and restricted by His own creation of time and space, yet “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
The Immaculate Conception is the third example today, and what a powerful example it is! The Catholic understanding of Mary hinges on an acceptance of her as the new Eve. Where Eve disobeyed, Mary obeyed. While Eve is viewed as the mother of all persons and Adam as their father, Mary is seen as the mother of all Christian believers, although it is most likely the Catholic who would recognize this. It is through our faith and the grace of our Lord that, in essence, our family tree is miraculously altered to reflect a new heritage of Mary as our spiritual mother when we are made new in Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Catholics pay her particularly great respect for the contribution she voluntarily made in making the birth of Christ a reality in Bethlehem. In this way, the Catholic says that her "cooperation" was a vital component in the saving grace we receive through the death and resurrection of her Son. It was her willingness to bear Jesus which made His existence in the world possible at that time and place. While some might argue that God could have chosen any number of other methods to send His Son into the world, the fact of the matter is that He selected Mary.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, made official by Pope Pius IX in 1854, declares that Mary was free from the stain of original sin. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it, she was "redeemed from the moment of her conception." While this mystery may be challenging to grasp at first, it makes greater sense if one reflects upon it. If we acknowledge that God is outside of time, then we can understand the implication of Mary's predestination as hinted at in verses such as Ephesians 1:3-4. God was precisely aware who was destined to bear His Son into the world before even the arrival of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If we accept God is omniscient and possessed foreknowledge of the details of this miracle, then it only stands to reason that God would shelter this chosen one from the harmful effects of original sin. After all, how can the stain of sin co-exist so intimately (both physically and spiritually) with true good or "life itself, immutable," as Saint Augustine describes God in his Confessions? Of course, another argument supporting the Immaculate Conception is found in Luke 1:28. How could Mary be "blessed among women," if she harbored the stain of original sin? I suggest that the Immaculate Conception is one of the clearest and most powerful examples of the elegant nature of Catholic time.
Now, let’s turn to some fresh words relating to how other Catholics see and understand the nature of time and faith. I’m only too happy to let much stronger and clearer voices do the speaking for a while. What follows are excerpts from Catholics concerning this question of time. While the length and content vary considerably, they all offer an important glimpse into this dimension of our lives and our faith. Special thanks to Father Patrick Toner, Anthony Esolen, and John Carroll Collier--as well as the others who have gone home to be with the Lord.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica)
Now God knows all contingent things not only as they are in their causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself. And although contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God knows contingent things not successively, as they are in their own being, as we do but simultaneously. The reason is because His knowledge is measured by eternity, as is also His being; and eternity being simultaneously whole comprises all time, as said above... Hence all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality.
Saint Augustine (Confessions)
But how do we measure present time, since it has not space? It is measured while it passes; but when it shall have passed, it is not measured; for there will not be anything that can be measured. But whence, in what way, and whither does it pass while it is being measured? Whence, but from the future? Which way, save through the present? Whither, but into the past? From that, therefore, which as yet is not, through that which has no space, into that which now is not...
They even endeavor to comprehend things eternal; but as yet their heart flies about in the past and future motions of things, and is still wavering. Who shall hold it and fix it, that it may rest a little, and by degrees catch the glory of that everstanding eternity, and compare it with the times which never stand, and see that it is incomparable; and that a long time cannot become long, save from the many motions that pass by, which cannot at the same instant be prolonged; but that in the Eternal nothing passes away, but that the whole is present; but no time is wholly present; and let him see that all time past is forced on by the future, and that all the future follows from the past, and that all, both past and future, is created and issues from that which is always present? Who will hold the heart of man, that it may stand still, and see how the still-standing eternity, itself neither future nor past, utters the times future and past?
Monseigneur Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (Proposed Big Bang Theory)
If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world happened a little before the beginning of space and time.
(Anthony Esolen, professor and author)
Every moment of time is filled with the presence of God. Just as in space there is no part of God here and another part of God there, but the fullness of His divinity in "the smallest of the seeds," as Chesterton put it, so in time there is no part of God's providence here and another part there, but the fullness of His providential power, both in His direction of all things and in His grace to men, and in His granting them the freedom to accept or reject Him. We can have no full appreciation of what this moment in time means; we have not the slightest notion of all the things that prayer achieves. We do not know for certain whether or not our prayers work "backwards," from our point of view; for there is no past or present or future with God, and who knows but that the prayers of Christians work to save those who have come before them? We cannot suppose that God is like us, experiencing the time that He Himself created as we experience it, in a succession of moments.
Also, we cannot suppose that for God, as for our machines for telling time, one moment is exactly like another. Why should it be? There are holy places; there are holy moments. Why should God not allow the salvation of a human soul to depend upon what I, his neighbor, do or neglect to do at this moment? Any moment may be the moment of truth. Any act of love may be the hinge of the world. In the great and true history of the world, which only God knows, there have been glorious victories whose existence we do not even suspect. Now is the acceptable time, says the prophet.
Father Patrick Toner (“How Long is Eternity?”)
...The point of the exercise was to reflect upon the relationship between the eternal and the temporal worlds. The Protestant Reformers chose Christian Humanism as the philosophy they used. The questions are very different. Coming from scripture, they would describe eternity as an infinite series of seconds where “one second is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a second.” The answer then depends upon where you are. If you are in Heaven, it will seem like a second. If you are in Hell, it will seem like a thousand years. Those moments would continue to unfold without end.
Scholastic Philosophy, the method that the Catholic Church prefers, would have a different answer. There is no time in eternity. Eternity is an everlasting Present with no Past and no Future. Time is a creation of God that exists for our sake. God didn’t just wake up one day and say “I think I’ll create the heavens and the earth.” There was no time before creation and there will be no time after the world ends.
This “Eternal Present” is important for Catholics. While most individuals would be more influenced by the Christian Humanistic interpretation, the Catholic Church officially subscribes to the Scholastic view. Catholics believe that the Mass is a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. Those moments are celebrated as if they are really present, not anniversaries or commemorations. Christ died “once for all” and is not re-sacrificed at each Mass.
In his book “The Lamb’s Supper”, Scott Hahn discusses the Mass as heaven on earth. Drawing from the Book of Revelation, he describes the mass as the key to understanding what John witnessed. This reflects that idea of “Eternal Present”, that the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is still ongoing and we on earth share in at every Mass.
Imagine a series of slides. Each slide represents a moment in history from creation to the end of the world. If you line them up and could look through them, every moment would be present to every other moment.
No matter how you view time, the eternal consequences are well worth considering. Our experience of time is that some things end. With Eternity, there is no end. So the answer, once again, is still that it depends upon where you will spend Eternity.
John Carroll Collier (Catholic Artist)
It always seems to me that the Resurrection implies things about heaven and eternity that we might not get otherwise, because in the Resurrection we will have our bodies back. There ought to be floors in heaven, because we’ll have feet: feet imply floors and hands imply things to be grasped, and eyes imply things to be seen. It doesn’t mean we won’t be more than we are now, but we ought to at least be what we are now.
The Catholic Church has consistently presented a clear picture of God inhabiting a place outside of our own time, while remaining closely connected to His people. Reflecting upon the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent nature of God, this shouldn’t come as a shock to most of us. What can be surprising to a new Catholic, though, is the elegant logic and beauty of Catholic beliefs and tradition--especially perhaps when it comes to this quality of time. Seeing time through the lens of faith reveals the nearness to which we stand to God and the loved ones who have passed on. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.… (Hebrews 12:1-2)
I hope you enjoyed this brief discussion of the nature of Catholic time. Special thanks to "Mike" for the opening Eucharistic prayer used with permission from his blog Sketches on the Spiritual Landscape. This topic has been on my mind for several years, but, truth be known, a fellow writer unconsciously deterred me from undertaking this essay when she innocently remarked that she had no appropriate expertise on which to comment on the subject matter. It made me question my own interest in this subject until I eventually realized that few of us really are qualified to talk about it, but this shouldn’t prevent us from attempting to begin an honest discussion. Lord willing, I may decide visit this subject matter again at some future point. If you’re a Catholic with a unique observation on the nature of time, I’d love to hear from you!