Time and Eternity
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
25 December 2007, 10:30 (Christmas Day)
Are you one of those people that sends out circular letters each Christmas to keep in touch with friends from years and places gone by? Gill and I have been doing this for nearly thirty years and it is fascinating to watch and see how the news changes over the years.
When we first started out, all the news was about engagements, then about marriages and then about babies. Then there followed years and years of little Johnny is doing X. Little Joanna is doing Y. We had a lovely holiday in Z.
A few years ago I detected a subtle change. So and so is getting divorced. Then a big string of fiftieth birthdays. Now its “Our children have got engaged. Our children have got married. Our children are having a baby. We have become grandparents”. And then, most recently, the letters are dotted with, so and so has died. Tempus fugit.
Despite wilful acts of self-denial and the contradiction of faces that appear to have got stuck in a time warp some years ago, I have recently had to come to terms with the fact that Gill and I are now in that phase of life commonly known as middle-age. Bodies are changing, hormones are getting out of balance, relationships are different, children are leaving, hills are being crested.
So this year I finished my annual letter with a famous phrase from a prayer dating back to the Sixth Century and written by a no-doubt middle-aged mystic:
‘Grant that we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal’.
Time and eternity. The temporal and the eternal. Life’s brief span.
Another ancient mystic, the Venerable Bede, used a famous analagy around about the same time that people were first praying the words of that prayer. He said that life was like a bird flying in through the window at one end of a great banqueting hall, soaring along its length and then flying instantly out through a window at the other end.
Life passes, said Bede, using a very modern phrase, “almost in a flash”.
Just as there are times or seasons in your life when you are more aware of your mortality, and of the fleeting nature of your earthly existence, so there are moments in the calender of the year that remind you to look for the eternal within the temporal.
Christmas is undoubtedly one of these. It’s a stopping point, a pause to think about a spiritual dimension to our existence. I presume that’s why you’re here in the Cathedral this morning. To stop, even if but for a moment, to reflect on your life, its meaning its purpose, its direction. And we recognise all of us the special nature of the life of Jesus of Nazarath. His influence on history, the inspiration of the way he lived and the legacy of his teaching.
However sceptical any of us are about religion, it is hard to look at the life of Jesus Christ and not to feel drawn to the possibility of the eternal. There is a quality about his life that makes us question the scientific concensus of the modern world. Somehow in him, time and eternity seem to meet. God becomes visible. Knowable.
The name Jesus literally means God saves. And if you go on to ask, saves us from what? (Hell, ourselves, futility) The answer probably boils down to this. In Jesus, God saves us from the consequences of attaching ourselves too closely to the temporal things of this world. We too easily allow ourselves to be seduced and defined by things which are of fleeting and temporal significance.
The alternative Christian magazine Third Way runs an icon of the month column. These are not religious but cultural icons, aspects of life that help define our culture in these early years of the Twenty First Century.
I have compiled a few such cultural icons myself.
David Beckham. He stands for celebrity fame and fortune.
The Lottery. It stands for riches to escape the limiting reality.
Sky. Not the blue stuff up there but the satellite TV company which stands for entertainment and amusing ourselves to death.
Google which stands for information but not knowledge, facts but not wisdom, and
Facebook which stands for virtual relationships but not real ones.
I’m not saying that these things are all bad. I use and enjoy many of them. But do we really want them to define the world we live in? Is this all there is?
I guess we all followed the story about John and Anne Darwin with a mixture of wonder, amusement and amazement. The man who appears to have staged his own disappearance in a canoing accident, in an attempt to escape from the harsh reality of debt, and invent a new identity.
People’s grasp on things temporal can get out of hand. They will go to enormous lengths to try and save themselves. And no doubt we all find something attractive in the idea of exchanging some aspects of our lives for a different reality. Trading in the new for the old. How quickly we grasp for the illusion that ultimate happiness is attached to things temporal.
Sugina Hesketh told me a staggering statistic the other day. Apparently eighty per cent of National Health Service spending goes on the last eight weeks of life. If that is correct, how hard we find it to let go of things temporal.
CS Lewis once said that our natural inclination is to pray this ancient prayer the wrong way round. To pass through things eternal so that we finally lose not the things temporal. He was right. How hard we find it to let go.
True wisdom is knowing how to relate to the things of this earthly life in such a way that they do not come to trap, control or define us but help us understand ourselves as eternal beings. To live life in a way that prepares us for the greater and deeper reality of eternity.
That God should come to us wrapped in a bundle of baby shows us that time and the material world are valued by God. Things temporal are hallowed by the Christmas story. The incarnation is God’s yes to the world as we know it.
It is, however, a yes but. Yes the world is good and to be enjoyed and cared for, but do not overattach.
Jesus in his birth, life, death and resurrection has opened the door to eternity for us and the truly wise will live today with that very imporatnt tomorrow in mind.
So, wherever you are this morning on your brief, bird-flight through the hall of life, God grant that you may so pass through things temporal that you finally lose not the things eternal. Amen.