The enigmatic figure, John the Baptist looms over Advent. His stern voice of deep approbation pierces across centuries even to this day. Curiously clad, and yet more wondrously subsisting on crunchy honey, John is the last formidable voice from that bygone era of the prophets: Jeremiah and Isaiah; Amos and Hosea; Joel and Micah and others whose uncompromising message was not tailored to please anyone who heard it.
Yet, stridently uncompromising as his message is, there is an element of hopefulness in it. In a world that is unforgiving it is a hopeful message that repentance is possible. That one can change the direction of life before it is too late. That there is, as Psalm 130 would have it, the promise in that Psalm that with God “There is forgiveness with thee, therefore thou art to be feared.” The real, compelling message of John the Baptist and the real, compelling message of the Gospel is that new beginnings, so rare a thing in this life, are actually possible with God.
As you may have noticed from reading the Advent Booklets, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos, and Kairos. Human beings most usually live with a preoccupation of Chronos: the passage of time that is the never ending of seconds that pass into minutes, from months to years and from years to lifetimes. A thing is put in motion, and like a great and tragic machine it must run its course. That is what we call chronology. From the point of view of Chronos, there are only consequences. You chose to do thing A and thing B follows. The consequence is that you get what you deserve.
That is becoming ever more true in this computer era. This is the age of the death of privacy. Websites abound that invite you to google yourself. Credit scores and everything else instantaneously available.
As a culture, we have become essentially like characters trapped in a William Faulkner novel, who cannot escape the past because they are prisoners of it. Due to the miracle of Google and Facebook, you cannot escape the past. If you have Google Maps on your phone, it will track “your places” that is to say everywhere you went on any particular day. It can be turned off, but how many of us know that? Most of us don’t. So most of us participate in monitoring and tracking without even knowing it.
Only in Kairos, God’s time, is repentance possible. In Chronos, you can change direction, but you cannot escape the consequences of what you have chosen or what you deserve. If they were aware of that so keenly in the time of John the Baptist, how much more keenly ought we to be aware of it these days. The good news that is given by John is not that you need to repent; the good news is that you can repent. From the standpoint of Chronos, it is already too late. Only in the love of God has the dimension of Kairos entered into the world.