The Infinite Mystery of Time

The Infinite Mystery of Time,  Rev. David Robins

Even though I mostly pass at making resolutions, the New Year holds a mystical quality of time’s possibilities that are expressed in William Blake’s words in hymn #398: “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

Sermon by Rev. David Robins:


JANUARY 2, 2005


Our new year celebrations and events are ways for us to measure what is essentially a mystery….Time. Time is a dimension that we inhabit in life, and its moves only forward, never stopping, never moving backward. There is speculation that a black hole in space can stop time, but I don’t think a black hole can come close to bending time and stopping time the way a teen-ager can.

“Religion approaches the mystery of time in two ways. Those that conceive of time as infinite conclude that it is uncaused. On the other hand, those that think time is finite and caused go further, wondering what was before its beginning and what will be after its end. Those who ponder the nature of time conclude with this final paradox; not only is temporal being dependent on time, but the time on which it is dependent appears in its most profound nature as infinite, unchanging, and eternal. Time breaks through the logic we seek to impose upon it; it transcends the timely and reveals itself as timeless.” (Barbara Sproul)

It is within the nature of being human, to organize what we see, touch, taste and experience. Thus we organize Time by measuring it. Yesterday, we all knew that we were measuring time into a new calendar year.

“Welcoming In the new year is one of the oldest customs the world over, but not every country or culture celebrates it on the same date. In the near east and parts of asia the new year is supposed to begin when winter gives way to the beauties of spring. The Chinese and viet namese celebrate their new year according to the first day of the month of the lunar calendar which falls between January 21 and February 19. Jews all over the world celebrate rosh hashana at the end of the summer, close to the autumn equinox.  In India, the hindus celebrate the first day of each season so they have four new years. The date on which the Americans and Europeans celebrate new year, January 1, is inherited from the romans. It was Julius ceasar who changed the date from march to January in honor of janus befors, a god with two faces. One face always looks back to the old year and the other looks forward to the new.”

People have a variety of ways of marking the new year: noise making, celebration, feasting for some and fasting for others; taking stock of the mistakes of the old year and pledging to do better in the next year; going to church, watching football games; gathering with family and friends, or being alone.

I will admit to having no set traditions for the new year. Some years I am here, with you, celebrating new years, or doing a wedding…other years, Jean and I spend by ourselves, often walking in the cold night air.

Celebrating the new year is one of the ways in which people mark the passing of time. But rarely, do I ponder the meaning of time, and the evidence that time is one of life’s deepest mysteries. No one can say, exactly what time is, where it is, how it came to be, where it is going, and why time is. Being able to measure this mystery, called time, makes our way of life possible. Our worship service is but one small example of how we all measure time in the same way so that we can worship together on the same day at the same time. We could not worship together is we did not all agree on the same measurement of time. If we did not measure time in the same way, we would be a world of individuals unable to plan or act in concert with one another.

We can measure time because of change. The sun moves across our horizon, changing its position each moment, and we measure it in seconds and hours, a measurement that probably comes from the Babylonians. The moon changes shape each night, and we measure it in the lunar cycle, or the approximation of a month. The earth changes its position in its orbit around the sun and returns to a similar position after 365 orbits., or a year. Within those 365 orbits, 4 distinct cycles, or seasons stand out. Change never stops taking place, particularly change that seems to happen again and again. Oddly enough, our week has no relation to any regular change in the sun or moon or earth. Our week is based upon the unit of time described in the book of Genesis, in which a day of rest is observed every seventh day. We measure this mystery called time, by the sun, the moon and the stars, translated into our many and varied timepieces called watches and clocks.

Physical Time

Albert Einstein’s work with the theory of relativity led to time being called a fourth dimension, after the three dimensions of space and mass, length, height, width. The advent of string theory has lifted up the possibility of eleven dimensions rather than just 4. Some theories hold that time will move forward as the universe expands. Other theories hold that time will flow backward if the universe collapses. Black holes are thought to stop time because of their density.

Biological Time

Much of nature is attuned to the measurement of time into night and day, or circadian rhythms. Growth, sleep, feeding, procreation, are stimulated by this biological time.

Geological time

GEologists have provided us with a new understanding of just how much time the earth has been here through dating with uranium and radioactive carbon.

Deep time looks at what existed before life, and what might have existed before the great singularity of the universe gave way into the universe as we know it. On the grandest scale, what we do not know about time, past or future, is staggering. What we know about the present time is frustratingly limited. Even with these limitations, we take stock of time on a smaller, more manageable scale, writing in our planners, and datebooks, making future plans, recording the present and the past in diaries and letters. We live in the vastness of the mystery of time, but we cannot operate effectively within this vastness of time. Instead, we measure time in the tiniest, most controllable increments. Still, we find within us a certain hunger after a deeper time, and a more vast time, and a timelessness. Wanting more for our time, we imbue it with a variety of meanings, purposes, goals, and accomplishments.

This aspect of time is religious time, or sacred timed. We measure time in ways that are based upon the observation that we exist in paradoxes of time. Time is cyclical in the seasons, and the moon’s cycles, and in the days and nights. Time is also linear in its beginnings and endings. There was a time when we were not, There is a time when we are, and there will be a time when we are not. From these observations, we devise creation stories, reincarnation stories, immortality myths, beliefs in nothingness, and in afterlifes. Our stories about sacred time are as numerous and as unique as are we. Each story is connected to our empirical experience, and each story is treated with our human imagination.

It is possible that God is another word for Time and the mystery of Time, containing attributes of timelessness, past, present , future, beginnings and endings, cycles of changelessness, infinity, eternity. It could be deep time and future time that connects onto human consciousness during the mystical experience.

Most religions divide their year into a cycle of events that mark the year with rituals that invite people to enter into sacred time that is based upon events in the life of their God or of ancient stories, or of the seasons. Most organized religions are highly structured in measuring time, as one sacred time flows into another, such as advent flowing into Christmas, which flows into Epiphany, which flows into lent, then into Easter, then pentacost, and around the cycle of the year based on the life of Jesus.

UU’s are less structured in marking time in such a way. WE know, sometimes intellectually, and sometimes intuitively, that all times are sacred. Each moment is a vehicle for the eternally timeless. The mystery of time is revealed within the now.

We are religious people for whom sacred time is based more upon making time for that which gives our lives a timelessness…..making time for compassion. Making time to change our world. Making time for beauty. Making time for relationship. Making time for personal reflection, meditation and prayer. Making time to define or discover our religious beliefs.  Making time to be useful. Making time to preserve our environment. Making time for worship of what we value, and what is yet, still a beloved mystery.

I wish you a happy new year, but more than that, I wish you a year in which you find the mystery of time, interacting creatively with what is in your calendars, date books and planners.

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