Skip links

What Is Time?

So often in funerals I hear proclaimed the familiar lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the great mystery we call time; more on its text, in a moment.

If I were to ask you to define time, could you do it in a way that really satisfies? For example, some have defined as “the measure of change.” Well, OK, but that doesn’t satisfy, does it? Ultimately time is deeply mysterious; our attempts to nail it down in words betray its depths more so than reveal it.

The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:

Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.

Kairos is related to our concept of something being “timely.” There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”

Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Thus, God alone has aeon in its full and perfect sense.

The book of Ecclesiastes speaks beautifully to both kairos and aeon. In its most familiar lines it expresses the kairos notion that there is a fitting time for all things:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

…I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).

We can all sense the truth of these lines; certain things are fitting certain times. We are startled, grieved, and even offended when things take place outside of our expectations. That we all have this sense is clear, but where it comes from is less so.

Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes continues on to describe the much more mysterious concept of aeon, the fullness of time:

God has made everything appropriate to its time but has put the timeless into our hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. … I recognize that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. What now is, has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).

Read more at Archdiocese of Washington. 

Share with Friends: