Thursday, June 12, 2008

Abraham Heschel: The Holiness of Time

When in Genesis God creates the heavens and the earth "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep." (1.2) Creation is presented in Genesis not ex nihilo (i.e., from nothing), but rather as a divine ordering of chaos. Slowly, methodically, God brings a shape and form to chaos. As land appears when the waters are set in their place, so to creation emerges from chaos as God brings order to the void.

For six days God labors to create and "when were finished" God "on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." (2.2-3) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his work The Sabbath that "In a well-composed work of art an idea of outstanding importance is not introduced haphazardly, but, like a king at an official ceremony, it is presented at a moment and in a way that will bring to light its authority and leadership." The Sabbath, the Seventh Day, is Heschel says is just such a kingly idea—it introduces to humanity not the holiness of place, but of time. "This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place—a holy mountain or a holy spring—whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first."

It is only after the holiness of time is proclaimed that God proclaims at Sinai "the sanctity of man." It is only after, as Heschel observes, that we succumb "to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf, that the erection of a Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded. The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses."

On the Seventh Day God proclaims the Sabbath: "The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world." The beauty that we encounter in the Church's worship, in the music, the icons, and the architecture of the church building, are all, I would suggest, the manifestation Eternity in Time. Beauty is the encounter, the experience, in time of the Eternal

And if, as Heschel suggests, there is a hierarchy to the sanctity of creation—time, the human, and only finally space—this doesn't mean that we can neglect one in favor of another. To use an image I have used before, the three are nested within each other—space is sanctified by humanity, humanity by time, time by God. Thinking about time as sacred opens up for us new avenues of understanding of the heavy, some have said over, emphasis on liturgy that we see in Orthodox Church.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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