Friday 6 May 2016

Time it was, and what a time it was...

The Ascension of Christ - Giotto

Yesterday was Ascension Day for Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, and Jewish Passover and Easter, according to the Julian calendar, are over by a few days. And this reminded me the confusion in which I "lived" time when I was a child.

Time is something seemingly easy. 

We are born on a certain day of a certain month of a certain year, we live during a certain number of years, and then we die. This is very simple and linear. Similarly, days are straightforward. They start at midnight and go to the next midnight. The year goes from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. This is all encompassed in another straightforward system. It has been decided that Christ was born on a certain year. All that was before this date is BC (before Christ); all that comes after is AD (anno Domini that is "year of our Lord"). 

Easy for a child.

Morgenstunde - Moritz von Schwind

Morgenstunde - looking at the composition as a triptych:
day (left), morning (centre), night (right)


But when the child, like me, is treated with Church every Sunday, time becomes soon more difficult to understand. 

Jesus is born at Christmas, on the 25th of December. The four weeks that precede this date are preparing his birth. But his birth is not really his coming. 

The Gospels do not talk much about what happened before his birth, except for Luke, who tells us about the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Being reasonably talkative, Gabriel adds some gossip about Mary's cousin Elizabeth, a mature/senior woman, past childbearing, who nevertheless "is with child". Mary, being Mary, probably manages her own affairs (after all she has to tell her parents and her betrothed - Joseph - that she is pregnant - and think of the scandal!). She organises her travel, with permission from her parents, but it might be a good idea to have her away, in order not to shock the neighbourhood too much, and to let this poor Joseph gather his wits, and sends word to Elizabeth and Zachary - another household in turmoil: Zachary is even made dumb by the angel who has told him the news about his wife! Off Mary goes. And stays several months with Elizabeth and Zachary. Then she goes back to Nazareth. Somewhere between the end of her sojourn with the Zachary family and her return to her own village, John the future Baptist is born, Zachary speaks again, and Elizabeth looks after her baby. Meanwhile, Joseph, fully reassured and convinced by another angel, - angels are doing a lot of journeys back and forth between Heaven and Earth at this time: traffic jams are expected -, then takes Mary as his lawful wife, and to respect Tiberius Caesar's edict, manages their travel to Bethlem for the census.

Busy life in Galilea!

These are straightforward and understandable facts for a child. Afterwards comes the birth, the angels again, the shepherds, and the rejoicing.

Annunciation - Fra Angelico

Visitation - Fra Angelico
Nativity - Fra Angelico


But the gospels read in the Roman Catholic Church speak of the coming of Christ in a less material way. They make it part of the alliance between God and his People. They show how it is announced throughout the whole Ancient Testament and the New Testament according to Christians. Usually Advent starts with Christ himself telling of his last coming at the end of Times; then we have two Sundays where John the Baptist is fully grown up and prophesizing in a non-appetizing and thunderous way the coming of Christ, and a flash back to Mary visiting Elizabeth when they are both waiting for their respective children, Jesus and John, who are not yet born. As a little girl I was lost.

The same happens with Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas Day, Jesus is twelve or thirteen year old and tells all about the Scriptures to the Doctors of the Law in the Temple. But the Sunday after, the Magi come to adore Him as a baby in His manger - I always wondered if the Magi were particularly fast in their journey or why Joseph, Mary and their child stayed so long in the stable -. Then comes Jesus' baptism in the Jordan by John, and they are both around thirty. End of Christmas time. The Gospels read in church then tell us about the call of the Apostles. But, lo and behold!, on February the 2nd, Jesus as a child held in Mary's arms again, is presented in the Temple - Mary's Purification. A few more weeks, and he is back after his baptism by John and starts to the desert to pray and overcome the temptations of Satan. It is the beginning of Lent. The whole sequence of more or less temporally disjointed texts lead us to the Holy Week, Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsunday,  as well as to some two other special celebrations of the divinity of Christ, as if the Church was leaving reluctantly the joy of Easter. Finally, we are launched into a non-chronological account of Christ's life in between the desert temptations and the Holy Week. 

Where is linear time in this?

In fact, I acknowledged that time was something difficult and relative.


The Four Seasons - Walter Crane

Growing up, I began to see the meaning of this seeming disorder that was repeated each year. And the liturgical year does not coincide with the civil year. It begins at the end of November and ends at the end of November of the next year. Two different years. 

The Christian liturgical year is circular: the same events are celebrated every year. But so are the seasons. They do not start with the civil year and they go round and repeat themselves.

I discovered that there were different calendars: the Gregorian and the Julian, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Muslim ones, at least. The seasons may change when we change hemisphere: it is almost winter in the Southern Hemisphere when it is now almost summer in the Northern one. 

And what about the elasticity of time? Joyful hours, days, months went by more quickly than hours dedicated to maths, rainy days, and months of school routine. Nevertheless, when I was writing about a small incident that took seconds or minutes, but wanted to give it in full details, it would expand itself over pages and pages and took infinite time to write and read whereas long periods of boring time that took so long to live through would be dealt with in a few lines.

I discovered, before I attended philosophy lectures, that time could not exist without space. I had not yet understood Louis Aragon in "Les Beaux quartiers" or Virginia Woolf in "Mrs Dalloway." Nevertheless, there was something mysterious and beautiful about these books, and a "je ne sais quoi mais presque rien" - "ou presque tout" - to paraphrase Vladimir Jankelevitch, that slipped between my fingers while being  all at once most important and beautiful. All about time.


The Ascension service induced me to think about time again yesterday, and this took me back to my recent rumination about gardens and spring. 

I have been considering gardens of men, and gardens of wildernesses and gods, mulling over the beauty of Nature's growth and the works of Man, nibbling at their translation into literature, music and arts. However, I have done nothing but consider childhood, ageing, and time, times or Time.

It brings me back to my first awkward posts in this blog, a year ago: how to encapsulate a "moment of being", to quote Virginia Woolf again, in a memory, as a fossil can be held prisoner in a piece of amber from the Baltic? I remember I called these moments "black dots" in water flowing through my fingers, as time flows never to return again exactly the same. Perhaps, this is the secret: time goes forward relentlessly; we snatch particular moments that become our own memories in our own time line; and at the same time, time makes spirals, as the seasons come back but never the same. 

After all, the mystery of the liturgical time was its periodicity and the ever-changing way I was living it from year to year. April, in the same way, is not the same April as last year, and yet is back again. My joy over the Queen Anne's lace on the verges of the back lanes that go to The Village is not exactly as it was when I first wrote about it. Heraclitus is right: we do not bathe twice in the same waters but bathe we do. And we keep the memory of the first bath that informs the experience of all further baths. Until there are but the memories of the baths. 

Memories, like little bubbles of time kept in our minds, make us often scarred but rich and living human beings.


Remember this - with the scratch of the needle?

Old friends,
Sat on their park bench
Like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the 'round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends.

Old friends.
Winter companions,
The old men
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sunset.
The sounds of the city,
Sifting through trees,
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends

Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Old friends,
Memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fear...

Time it was, and what a time it was...
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories:
They're all that's left you.

"Old Friends" - Simon and Garfunkel

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