Wrinkles in Time
"Uncanny" was one of the vocabulary words on my sixth grade vocabulary list, which was to be found within the book we were reading as a class. I remember thinking Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was exactly that—uncanny, peculiar, and uncomfortably strange. Yet I also remember that it stayed with me—the story of a quirky girl named Meg, her overly-intelligent little brother, and their time-transcending journey to save their physicist father with the help of three mysterious beings. Madeleine L'Engle, the writer whose books invite readers to see time itself differently, passed away not too long ago. But her stories will continue to perplex sixth graders, and stay with us long after we have set them aside.
L'Engle is the writer who first showed me the incredible difference between two words in Greek, which we unfortunately translate identically. To the English reader, chronos and kairos both appear to us as "time." But in Greek, these words are vastly different. Chronos is the time on your wristwatch, time on the move, passing from present to future and so becoming past. Kairos, on the other hand, is qualitative rather than quantitative. It is time as a moment, a significant occasion, an immeasurable quality. The New Testament writers use the word kairos to communicate God's time; it is real time—it is the eternal now.
So it might be said for the Christian that when Jesus stepped into time to proclaim the kingdom of God among us, he came to show us in chronos the reality of kairos. "Jesus took John and James and Peter up the mountain in ordinary, daily chronos," writes L'Engle. "Yet during the glory of the Transfiguration they were dwelling in kairos."(1) With this story in mind, L'Engle describes kairos as that time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, time where we are completely unselfconscious and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are continually checking our watches.
Whatever your view of religion, it is likely an experience you can recount; a moment so sweet or magnified it seems to stop time, an ordinary or extraordinary moment wrinkled with something other than time. But L'Engle presses the Christian to see this as something to be expected. "Are we willing and able to be surprised?" L'Engle asks. "If we are to be aware of life while we are living it, we must have the courage to relinquish our hard-earned control of ourselves."(2) If we have the courage to see it, the kingdom of God is close at hand; kairos breaking through like Christ into the world.
I imagine Jacob, too, discovered the difference between chronos and kairos when he set aside the past which was about to catch up with him, along with his paralyzing fear of the future, and found himself living in "none other than the house of God." The prophets and poets describe similar moments of waking to the present and finding the eternal dimensions of time. The shepherds in Bethlehem were going about their ordinary work when the glory of the Lord captured the moment. "Do not be afraid," the angel announced. "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you" (Luke 2:13-14). At this invasion of kairos into the routine of chronos, the shepherds chose to respond with action: "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about" (2:15).
Uncanny encounters with time are a part of the human experience. The Christian is given a language to explain these encounters. We live somewhere between the already and the not yet, caught by the eternal now and the one who dwells within it. The implications are both temporal and unending. Will we have the courage to look for glory in the ordinary? To release control of our calendars and watches and note the eternal in our midst? The apostle joins every prophet and poet who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah in history and the return of the king to come, "Behold, now is the time (kairos) of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Like Christ, glimpses of the eternal come quietly and unexpectedly; they come and upset our very notion of time and all we discover within it. Why should we be so unreconciled to time if the temporal were our only concern? Or could it be that the eternal Word stepped into flesh, into our bounded realm of time, and literally embodied the reality that time is meaningful because of the eternal one in our midst. The Christian insists that kairos is breaking into chronos and transforming it. With Christ it proclaims, "The kingdom of God is close at hand"—and the temporal world invited to break in along with it. In ordinary moments that hint at such a radical invasion, might we have the courage to be surprised by one who comes so near.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Bantam, 1982), 93.
(2) Ibid., 99.