From time to time I think about time, but especially on New Year’s Day, when regrets are washed with resolutions.
In my novel, Angel Mountain, to be released this year by Wipf and Stock Publishers, a hermit preaches repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. A Holocaust survivor reminds her students to remember the past, to never forget. A geneticist sees God in a genome and all creation, and his life is changed forever. A librarian searches for truth in word and story, searching for herself. All of these characters wrestle with time and memory, with past, present, and future, asking, who are we? Where are we going? What are we meant to be?
Christians following the Church calendar of festivals and seasons are reminded that we are in time, bound by time, heading to a place outside of time. We organize our years around time—the festivals of Christmas and Easter anchoring winter and spring—and we populate the rest of the calendar with saints, penitence, sacraments and scripture, telling and retelling the story of redemption: the unloosing of the chains of time, so that we are free to enter eternity, life everlasting.
When I was young I peered down the long road of my life, my future. I knew that death was at the end of that road, that time would stop, but what did that mean? It seemed far off. I didn’t need to think about death for many years to come. Perhaps middle age would be the time to consider the end of my time. Perhaps old age.
Today, at seventy-two, I see the road I have taken in my time on earth differently. Most of the road has become my past; less will be my future. My time will come to an end in a decade or two, or today or tomorrow. As my time slips away, even as I write this, and my present becomes that future my younger self briefly pondered, the value of time remaining looms large and immensely present.
Every day is a gift of time, of life. Every hour, every minute. Tomorrow, surely, the years will run out, the sand in the hourglass will be gone, forming a soft pile of white in the lower chamber.
New Year’s resolutions mark time as it careens into the future. Our secular culture halts for a brief moment on New Year’s Eve or Day to recognize that a year has passed. Many resolutions are material: better diet, more exercise. A few resolutions are spiritual. I will say my prayers. I will listen more. I will love more. The late Archbishop Robert Morse said that he often confessed, “I have not loved enough.”
We can never love enough, for in this time of our lives, we do not know what love is. We guess it is more than a feeling. We intuit that love means the giving of self, the sacrifice of time for another. For that is the greatest gift, the greatest sacrifice, the giving of one’s own time for another. For the gift cannot be retrieved. The time is gone, is past, and lives only in memory.
We divide the time of our lives into units. In times past, the bell-tower tolled morning, noon, and night. Eventually clocks ticked, seconds disappeared, minutes were marked and gone. In time, watch faces bound our wrists to give witness to the time in our lives. Today, bright digits blink on blackened screens. Numbers absorb time, time we cannot save.
Except in memory.
Many have said that dementia is hard to bear. Senility means forgetting, and forgetting buries the self in the past. Our identities have been informed by our past, the good and the bad. So we confess, repent, and are forgiven, so that our slate of time is wiped clean of wrongs done, our bad choices no longer chosen.
As a culture, as a nation, we must remember our story, redeem the bad and celebrate the good of our past to understand our present, and to choose our future.
The Judaic-Christian world is schooled in painful penitence. We are taught to feel guilt and shame. We are taught to look back and assess, to cherish the good and to punish the bad. We are given a measure—the ten commandments, the golden rule—by which we measure our world, ourselves.
And so New Years reminds us to remember, to think back on the year. What was good, what was bad? What should be abandoned, and what should be nurtured? Do I feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt? I try to re-member those memories created in those fifty-two weeks, those 365 days, those 8,760 hours.
We stumble into the bright new season of Epiphany, following the magi following the star, bearing the gifts of time’s terror and history’s memory. Evening darkens our world, and we confess wrongfulness, praying for righteousness. We search for the messiah-king and find him a child in a manger in Bethlehem beneath a bright star.
As evening falls, and earth turns away from the light, we vow to repent daily, not yearly. We resolve to renounce the bad and embrace the good.
Yearly, daily, hourly, we resolve—remember—to love enough, to redeem our past with our memory, to tell the story, our history, to our children, the amazing story of grace. Like the hermit on Angel Mountain, we tell the story of who we are meant to be, who we are meant to be as a culture and a nation, calling on heaven to re-member us with the light of time and eternity.