Advent as “God's time"

Advent wreath (from Wikimedia Commons)
1 more photo

Advent wreath (from Wikimedia Commons)

A different understanding of time (photo by Gary Knight, Wikimedia Commons)

A different understanding of time (photo by Gary Knight, Wikimedia Commons)

Time. We never seem to have enough of it, and yet it dominates us, ruling our days and how we view and spend our hours, even our very lives.

Time was Professor John Swinton’s theme when he spoke a couple of months ago at Canadian Mennonite University’s J.J. Thiessen lectures (you can watch them here: He talked about how there are two different understandings of time. One is time as viewed in our capitalist culture, something with economic value as in an hourly wage, perhaps best summarized by the phrase “time is money.” This kind of time is all about efficiency and progress; it’s a kind of restless time ruled by the clock. He called this the “fallen” understanding of time, the kind of time which is “tyrannical” and excludes, for instance, people with disabilities and the elderly, because they cannot keep up with its unsustainable pace.

And the other, he called God’s time. This kind of time is slow, personal, providential. In the Bible, we’re told that God loves, rests, and waits, and that “Love takes time.” He talked about how God was patient with Moses, even though Moses was “slow of speech,” and that God incarnate as a human being walked slowly at 3 miles an hour, the average human walking pace. In this way, he argued, people with disabilities can remind the rest of us of several things: what time is really for – namely, gentleness and patience; that time is a gift we receive from God and share with one another; that God commands us to “sanctified rest and inaction” on the Sabbath; that “bodies take time and time takes our bodies.” With these realizations, those with disabilities and the "able-bodied" together become “friends of time.”

While I was listening to Prof. Swinton’s lectures, I couldn’t help relating these two contrasting understandings of time to the different gender expectations around time. Historically, when the spheres of women’s and men’s work were more starkly separated, men were more familiar with the efficiency-oriented understanding of time, since they operated their daily lives in the “real world” of work outside the home. Women, on the other hand, were expected to “waste” their time on the care of children, the elderly, and those with disabilities – something more akin to the slow, Godly, time of love. Though many have and continue to look down on this latter understanding of time, here Prof. Swinton was turning our usual expectations on their heads. Now, I am not saying that this understanding of time comes more “naturally” to women or is primarily their domain. Instead, I saw an affirmation of the value of what has primarily been women’s experience in Prof. Swinton’s ideas about "God's time," but applied and deemed relevant to the calling of all Christians.

During Advent, of course, we as Christians have a particular and peculiar relationship to time. For four weeks, we wait for something which happened two thousand years ago; we mark the passing of the weeks by lighting candles until the past slowly recurs among us and within us; we gather in the darkest time of the year to sing and read and talk about the Light of the World, who was before the world came to be. And who is our guide and role model for this kind of loving, expectant waiting? It’s not the child Jesus, who has not yet been born. Rather, it’s his mother Mary, the young, pregnant peasant woman, waiting with us for her child to be born, trusting in God’s unexpected ways, and knowing deeply what it means to say that “Love takes time.” As we move deeper into Advent, I invite you to ponder what it means to understand Advent as an affirmation of a young woman's experience of - and faith in - God's time, which chooses love over efficiency every time.  

I also agree with your point.

I also agree with your point. While caring for others, this kind of advice can reinforce oppressive gender expectations. I wonder whether you have any reflections of the traditional gender dynamics on the oppressive aspects.

gender balance

Thanks for your comment, Gerald, and for raising this issue. I think you're right that this kind of advice can reinforce oppressive gender expectations around caring for others. That was something I wished Prof. Swinton would have spoken to more as well. 

At the same time, though, especially as a Christian, I don't want to reinforce the idea that it's actually a "waste" of time to care for others (hence the quotation marks)! This is also a way of denigrating what have traditionally been women's roles and which a majority of women still do as unpaid/underpaid work (domestic work, childcare, etc.). This work is actually indispensable for any society, but it's not valued that way. That's why I was affirming it in my article.

But ultimately, I think it all comes down to balance - we need to share homemaking/childcare tasks and outside-the-home work, whatever our genders. For example, I've encountered families in which both parents work part-time so they each can parent their kids part-time as well, instead of one person being at work full-time (and missing their kids!) and the other being at home full-time (and wishing they could work outside the home sometimes!). Now if only we could get employers on board with this kind of arrangement...


Thanks for the response

Thanks for the response Susie. I agree entirely with you that Christians (should) have a different sense of what is a productive use of time than much of society seems have. That's why I copied your scare quotes. I agree that gender balance and a sharing of tasks and roles is a significant part of the answer. However, the questions I'm more interested in are where cultivation of voice/self and creating and maintaining good boundaries works with an ethic that has time for others. I also think the two points (sharing of domestic tasks and cultivation of self) are related. For the most part, I think that good mutual relationships are cultivated when people have cultivated a good sense of voice and are good at knowing and drawing their own and others' boundaries. Does this make sense, or am I too all over the map?

Gender roles: virtue or oppression?

Thanks for this post Susie. I had thought that some attention to gender would have significantly improved Dr. Swinton's lectures. I also hadn't thought of Advent time in terms of Mary's waiting for her child to be born. I wonder whether you have any reflections on the oppressive aspects of the traditional gender dynamics. Along with the responsibilities for those tasks that "waste time" came and comes invisibility, disempowerment, a loss of self/voice, burn out and exhaustion. I often think that as a man I need to hear messages like Dr. Swinton's about how I need to learn more skills of slow listening and attentiveness. But I question whether the women that I know (and they question it too) really need to be told once again that they need to slow down and be more attentive to others (and not themselves).

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