Like Sands Through the Hourglass
“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.” Those of you who follow soap operas will recognize that sentence right away. I have never watched soaps, but even I am familiar with the large hourglass and the opening words of Days of our Lives.
The hourglass is such an effective symbol for the passing of time, isn’t it? We see the sands running through the glass without stopping, knowing that the end is increasingly near. Unlike the clock with its endless cycles, the hourglass has a definite limit. Time is running out!
One way of reflecting spiritually on the hourglass is to focus on the themes of memento mori (reminder of death) and carpe diem! (seize the day!)—themes I previously wrote about here and here. The themes are, of course, classic. Think of Ronsard’s poem to Cassandre, Mignonne, Allons Voir Si La Rose—“O vrayment marastre Nature,/ Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure/ Que du matin jusques au soir!” (“O truly stepmother Nature,/ Since such a flower lasts only/ From morning until evening!”) Or, consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126—“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power/ Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour…/ If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,/ As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back.” Recall also the famous lines from Robert Herrick: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…” or the words of the poet of our age, Mary Oliver: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” And, of course, there are classic films like The Seventh Seal and Dead Poets Society. Even the inspired writer Ben Sira recommended a mememto mori, which we recognize as the Word of God: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (Sirach 7:36).
Think of your own experiences with hourglasses. Their most common use, arguably, is in board games that might otherwise drag on without the propulsion provided by the timer. I imagine their use added pressure and maybe even anxiety to your activity, forcing quick decisions in games like Monopoly and chess. The constant reminder that time is running out brings new intensity to the game, and it forces us to focus. Ready or not, we must move on. Imagine the giant Days of our Lives’ hourglass being present in our daily lives. What would change if we could see our time running out before our very eyes? What would we concentrate on? What decisions would we make? What would be our priorities?
Aside from this memento mori reflection, there is another lens we could apply. The hourglass is a reminder that, in one very important sense, time is not linear. The Paschal Mystery of Christ that we prepare to celebrate at Easter is the very center of time—the gravity, you might say, that gives time its meaning and that draws everything to Himself (cf. John 12:32). In linear thinking, Christ came thousands of years into human history. He has a specific place on the historical time-line. This is critical for our belief in the Incarnation. When Rome—symbolic of the whole world—was being numbered in a census, God chose to be numbered among us (cf. Luke 2:1-7). Still, in Christian thinking, kairos is more important than chronos. Chronos is the Greek word for linear time (we have the word chronological from it). The god Chronos was pictured as an old man with a beard and an hourglass. Kairos, on the other hand, is pictured as eternally young, for kairos is what we might call sacred time, measured not minute by minute on a historical time-line, but in terms of what Christians call “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). (See here for a blog post about these Greek terms, including images of the gods). It is in this sense, that Scripture refers to Christ as “the firstborn of all creation” and reminds us that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15,17).
The hourglass is usually associated with chronos, but if we think about Christ as “The Way” who said “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), then we might recognize Christ and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection as the center of the hourglass just as He is the center of time. Then we will realize that the sands are not running out, but rather gathering unto eternity as Christ draws everyone to Himself (John 12:32). Our focus shifts from what is transient to what is eternal. Most importantly, we come to see that everything and everyone must go the Way of the Cross. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”
Photo credit for the Cross: