Passover: The Time of Our Lives

By Mann, Thomas W. | Interpretation, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Passover: The Time of Our Lives


Mann, Thomas W., Interpretation


To those who reenact the drama, the Passover narrative and ritual mediate the experience of both oppression and liberation. The Passover ritual provides an "order" by which the reality of suffering may be confronted and the earnest of hope celebrated. The sacred time of the Passover meal provides a rich spiritual heritage that nurtures not only Jews but also Christians.

"TIME is one of the world's deepest mysteries. No one can say exactly what it is. Yet, the ability to measure time makes our way of life possible. Most human activities involve groups of people acting together in the same place at the same time. People could not do this if they did not all measure time in the same way."1 This is the opening paragraph in an encyclopedia article on time. It suggests the almost paradoxical nature of that "fourth dimension" of reality, as it has come to be known since Einstein. On the one hand, time is a philosophical and scientific subject that eludes precise definition and leads the investigator into models of reality that defy ordinary experience. "Einstein," for example, "demonstrated that time is, in fact, elastic and can be stretched and shrunk by motion."2 On the other hand, virtually all human activities (at least in the socalled "civilized" societies) would be thrown into confusion if we did not treat time as an utterly practical dimension that we can neatly measure and record. Time is that easily quantifiable part of our experience that we can follow with incredible precision on an inexpensive digital watch.

How do we measure the time of our lives? How do we "tell time"? The utterly ordinary categories that we use in fact have little or no basis in physical or astronomical reality. The same encyclopedia article points out that our twelve months (etymologically related to "moon") "have no relation to the moon's actual cycle." Similarly, our division of months into weeks, days into twenty-four hours, hours into sixty minutes, and minutes into sixty seconds are impositions of measurement that do not necessarily fit with the physical universe. And if these measurements are arbitrary, how much the more are such notions as the "weekend." In short, the most fundamental categories of time that govern our lives are a synthetic framework-a fiction, you might say-that gives shape to an otherwise protean mystery.

How we measure the time of our lives is more than a scientific question that can be answered with "hours" or "minutes," or with sophisticated corollaries of quantum theory; it is also a metaphorical question that demands to know the very meaning of our lives. The way we answer this question reveals the extent to which that meaning is spiritual or merely secular.

Christianity enjoys a kind of monopoly on time in that the entire world follows a calendar that is anno Domini "in the year of the Lord," namely, the Christ. Yet Christianity shares with all religions the observance of sacred times during each year, times that are correlated with sacred stories. Telling time means telling stories. The liturgical seasons of the Christian calendar are symbolic reminders of the gospel, the sacred story of the Christian faith. Sacred stories of any culture are sacred not simply because they are about gods, but because they create and shape our "sense of self and world." Such stories "orient the life of people through time, their lifetime, their individual and corporate experience . . . to the great powers that establish the reality of their world."3 In a way far more profound than terms like "hour" and "day" and "year," such sacred stories provide the framework within which we determine who we are and how we are to live. They give a shape to time, and thus to our lives. As one theologian suggests, "Our sense of personal identity depends upon the continuity of experience through time.... Even when it is largely implicit, not vividly self-conscious, our sense of ourselves is at every moment to some extent integrated into a single story.

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