The ‘Kairos’ and ‘Chronos’ of Christ’s Nativity

The incarnation of the Son of God is the most momentous event in all of human history.

The birth of Christ is historical reality that finds its full meaning lived in faith.
The birth of Christ is historical reality that finds its full meaning lived in faith. (photo: Shutterstock)

The COVID-19 pandemic that sweeps across the world seemingly obliterates dates. For many who are quarantined, weeks pass with little notice paid to the particular identity of the days of the week. 

When churches are closed, Sunday no longer seems like Sunday. Weekends are absorbed into a homogeneous paste. There is no longer a beginning or an end of the week. One wonders if Christmas Day will retain its specific character this year.

Some have said that the date on which Christmas falls is not important since Christmas is a spirit that lasts throughout the year. 

“Christmas isn’t a season,” novelist Edna Ferber once wrote. “It is a feeling.”

“I will honor Christmas in my heart,” said Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol, “and try to keep it in my heart all the year.” 

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge maintained that “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” 

These sentiments are fine and above criticism. It is a good thing to extract from Christmas notions of virtue and goodwill and express them on a continuing basis. However, the essential point is overlooked. 

Christmas, the birth of Christ in a manger in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, was an event that took place on the stage of history. It is not, in itself, a feeling or a spirit. It is an actual event. This gives it a reality that can be commemorated and not merely a noble idea that can make us feel good.

Philosophy deals with notions such as justice, beauty, truth, equality, goodness, wisdom and so on. These are not historical things. We do not celebrate justice on a particular day because it did not come into being on a particular day. Philosophy is timeless. But Christmas came into being at a particular time.

The ancient Greeks distinguished between two kinds of time: chronos, which is chronometric time, the steady, unbroken flow of time that is inevitable; and kairos, which is the moment in which something of dramatic importance occurs. 

Kairos breaks into chronosto bring a message from another world. We get a sense of kairos when we read the following passage from the 18th chapter of the Book of Wisdom: 

“For while all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne ...”

Kairos is about something momentous, not merely momentary. The Incarnation of Christ, God taking the form of a human being, is the most momentous event in all of human history. It is honored, celebrated and commemorated essentially because it is real. It is not an invention; it is an occurrence.

The late comedian Henny Youngman quipped, “I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave it up — they have no holidays.” In the absence of any important events to honor and commemorate, life is nothing more than the humdrum passing of time, what inmates experience when they are “serving time.” Deep within our hearts, however, we yearn for momentous events that give meaning to our lives. We want to escape from drabness. Our lives need not conform to Henry David Thoreau’s gloomy statement, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

The Church calendar specifies holidays throughout the year that elevate our lives by uniting them to sacred events and with God. All these holidays are anchored in a specific day. Christmas is but one of them. We need these specific dates in order to focus on what they mean to us not only as individuals but as part of the community. We cannot be thinking of everything at any one time. Thus, we can celebrate Easter, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, Good Friday, along with the feast days of saints, together.

Pope Benedict XVI made a critically important point when he stated, “The Christian faith can never be separated from the soil of sacred events, from the choice made by God, who wanted to speak to us, to become man, to die and rise again, in a particular place and at a particular time.” 

Christmas is inseparably bound up with the Nativity that took place in Bethlehem. History is about real events. We do not want to undermine the historical reality of Christmas.

There will be Christmas this year, as it always occurs, on Dec. 25. That date cannot be forgotten, changed or effaced. When we celebrate Christmas, we do not celebrate a nice idea, but the actual birth of Christ. In this way, our celebrations are rooted in the “sacred soil,” to cite Pope Benedict XVI once again, of a real event. 

Let us derive from that holy event much love, generosity and goodwill. But let us not forget that we are celebrating something that is real, something that came into the world at a particular time and in a particular place.