The sense of time as a chronological line is one of the casualties of the pandemic. The weeks loop endlessly, and we have to check the calendar to see what day it is. Some stretches of time drag on forever, and others speed away. The arrival of a vaccine is both impossibly slow and blazingly fast.
In other ways, time has seemed to fold in on itself. Life is so strange right now that we can’t help but look ahead and imagine what future historians will write about us. In fact, we spend a lot of time looking longingly at the future. We also look back. We examine the 1918 flu pandemic and wonder what we have learned in a hundred years. We study the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to see whether we have progressed.
Some days feel like an endless repeat of the day before, but paradoxically the world is also changing rapidly. Names fall from favor and immutable institutions lose their power. Did they collapse suddenly, without warning, or slowly and inexorably, like glaciers calving in a warming sea?
Chronos is one kind of time, the linear, quantitative kind. But the disruption of the pandemic has forced us into kairos—a time of opportunity, of action, of decision. The pandemic has caused grief and hardship; the upheaval has also rearranged time and given us a different lens.
Jesus spoke of kairos, asking the crowd, “but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). In this rather apocalyptic passage, he wasn’t speaking of the hour of the day or the day of the week. He was speaking of a divine season, a different sense of time that was breaking into the everyday world of his listeners.
As we peer into 2021, what can we expect? Perhaps a refining fire, as Jesus describes a few verses earlier. Perhaps a turning upside down of the power structures of the world, as Mary sang a few chapters before. Martin Luther King Jr. warned that those in power, who live by “a mythical concept of time,” should not “set the timetable” for another person’s freedom. If we seek to interpret the present time, we will need to set aside our clocks and calendars and watch for the kairos moment.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.