Last Christmas I gave my wife an hourglass. We use it to measure our daily quiet time for prayer and meditation. The hourglass feels more natural and organic than the digital timer we had been using, or the alarm function on my cell phone.
An hourglass, of course, has an upper chamber from which sand drains down through a narrow funnel into a lower chamber into which the sand falls and piles up. Reflecting on this hourglass I realized that each chamber can be imagined to depict a particular outlook on time. Each shows time in a very different way.
Seen from the viewpoint of the upper chamber, it appears that time is “running out.” We get this sense when we remember one of the most famous hourglass scenes in the movies: the witch’s hourglass dooming Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
From this perspective, the sand, representing and visualizing time, is flowing inexorably away, its volume ever diminishing. It inspires fear and panic. Time, represented by the sand, appears to be limited and shrinking. It is in short supply and drains continually down. Eventually it will be reduced to nothing. The chamber will be empty. Our time will be finished, exhausted, over, lost. This running out is inevitable.
The lower chamber, however, has just the opposite effect happening. It is being increasingly filled. Time, represented by the sand, is here not seen as running out. It is filling up. When the chamber is completely filled and the flow of sand has stopped, we could say that “time is up.” That is, the sand has reached its maximum level.
The image is one of fulfillment and completion rather than depletion and draining away. It is about addition, not subtraction. Instead of an empty chamber, the end result is a space full of time. It has all settled in one place, never to run out or be exhausted. All of time, represented by the sand, remains intact and complete, always present, always available. It is abundant, complete, and full.
As a metaphor about time, or as a symbol making visible our understanding of time, I think it makes a very big difference from which perspective we view the hourglass. The way we see the hourglass reflects the way we approach time itself, which is to say our own life and existence. We can either see our life as “running out,” or “filling up.”
In Mark 1:15, the first thing Jesus says when he begins his ministry has to do with time and the way we frame and appropriate it. “The time is fulfilled,” he says. He does not say, “Time is running out.” He does not introduce a note of urgency as if there were only a limited amount of time and people have to act quickly or be lost. No. He says, in effect, “Time’s up.” He is looking at our time from the perspective of the bottom of the hourglass; he says it is full.
The most basic way to understand him here is that the days of his people’s waiting for the coming of the Messiah are completed.
But I suspect we can hear him saying more than this. Jesus’ proclamation comes in opposition and contradiction to the standard view of time, that perpetrated by the ruling powers of his time. Every age has a manifestation of secular power, and it always assumes and imposes a particular view of time upon its subjects. Our time is no different. It always insists on viewing the top half of the hourglass as determinative. We are to see time as in short supply and always running out. This sense generates the fear of death that enables these powers to maintain their hold over people.
We all know this kind of time. It has been the grid upon which our lives have been laid out since birth. When we are under deadlines, when we have to use a time-management system to regulate our day, when we equate time with money, when we feel time to be slipping away, when we feel overwhelmed with responsibilities, when we are ever conscious of lateness or of where we have to be and when, when we find ourselves using words like “multi-tasking” to describe our work, and when we lose our consciousness of simple, enduring things around us... then we are being swept along by the Empire’s time. It is productivity-time. It is time that only has value according to what is accomplished in it. And it is running out.
This kind of time even gets into our heads. It can define our theology. We can believe that we are only valuable to God if and when we are productive. We can believe that our relationships with others depend upon our productivity, that we only earn and deserve the favor of others when we are giving them what they want.
Such is the result of seeing life from the top half of the hourglass. Life becomes an inexorable decline down the drain to death.
The first words Jesus says when he opens his mouth in Mark are: “The time is fulfilled.” I think he means that we need to learn to see our life and our time from the perspective of the bottom half of the hourglass, in terms of fulfillment, abundance, gift, and blessing. Instead of having fear as our main motivation, Jesus offers joy. Instead of gravitating inevitably towards death, Jesus says we are swimming in God’s Kingdom and eternal life. Instead of the belief that our lives are running out, and in the end we have nothing, Jesus says our lives are filling up and in the end we have everything. Instead of feeling enslaved to the compulsion to produce and acquire, we are free to love.