There are two very different notions of “time,” and, of course, classical Greek inevitably has a special word for each of them. The ancient Greeks had the right word for everything.
Should I ask, for example, “What time is it?” someone might well respond, “a quarter to 10” or “20 minutes after three.” Their reply in that situation would serve to give me a good and clear idea of where I might be in the course of the day’s morning or afternoon work. That would properly be what the Greeks call chronos. It’s the sort of time told by a wristwatch or kitchen wall clock.
That word for “time” therefore signals our sequence from winter into spring for instance and then finally into summer. Chronos would include the ideas behind the popular song from “Fiddler on the Roof” — “Sun rise, sun set, swiftly go the days.” Chronos is what the candles signify shining atop a birthday cake and waiting the customary secret well-blown wish. Whenever we want a word to suggest a sequence of before and after or anything in between, we talk about time as “chronos.” February and autumn and being old enough to appreciate the gift of friendship are all examples of time as “chronos.”
Someone else might well choose a very different take on the same question, namely “what time is it,” and reply, “Time to eat” or “Time to pay income tax” or “Time to leave for Sunday Mass.” Because that question (and its answer) seeks more than mere sequential arithmetic, but rather seems to require decision, we’re suddenly transported into what the ancient Greeks would label Kairos, which is very different from chronos. Whenever the circumstances converge around us to demand some sort of response or action, the issue is kairos. When Lent is welcomed as a time for interior change or personal reform, it’s the kairos of the moment that is at the heart of that season.
I can still recall very vividly instances from my teaching days at the seminary long ago when the members of a class were lingering in conversation at the beginning of an after-supper period, and I would ask in feigned innocence, “what time is it?” If they said, “7 p.m.,” I would launch into the classic distinction just noted and insist with a grin that it was rather “time to get to work.” I would then take a moment to explain the difference between chronos and kairos.
All of this comes to mind, of course, as we approach the final days of the liturgical season of Lent, which is heralded as a communal kairos for conversion and change of heart. The ashes of the season’s opener were intended, not to announce ourselves as involved in personal self denial, but to say rather boldly that we will be a decisively different people come Easter. Ash Wednesday signals a kairos season.
Some of our Catholic high schools have a retreat program called “Kairos,” designed for young adults on the junior level and aimed at producing a clear strong decision for Catholic Christian adulthood. The results are often startling and splendid.
That’s what the entire season of Lent is really all about for the whole Church: a time of year with liturgical readings carefully chosen to shape and form us into people committed to take the call and grace of baptism seriously. Lent, when fully embraced, makes saints. It is a “kairos-time” for change and renewal. If successful, we can never be the same people again, so embrace your kairos, even at this late stage of the season, and allow it to embrace you. Easter (and life) will never be the same again.