"Time Marches On!" proclaimed the newsreels as they swept us along-in a straight line-from one historical event to the next. They thus reflected, or possibly anticipated, our modern view of the passage of time.
Time, for us, is linear; effects follow their causes in strict, logical sequence. Time moves straight down the hourly slots in our appointment books, straight across the neatly arranged rows of our wall calendars, and straight across the "Great Events" timelines in the margins of our history books. These straight lines always end with arrows: pointing on, straight ahead, into the ever-expanding future, never allowing us to look back.
It was not always thus. We once marked the passage of time not by lines but by circles: the sweep of the watch hands, the close observation of the moon's phases, the repeating change of the seasons. In cultures much more in tune with nature than our own, one could never forget that the passage of time was cyclical. In our modern effort to domesticate time by forcing it into straight lines, we have eclipsed our own awareness of nature's cycles.
Christianity was born into a culture that recognized its place in the natural order. It has thus retained an awareness of the circular movement of time, even as our secular society has lost it. The regular cycles of Christian prayer, the repeating scripture readings and feast days, and even the circular nature of the worship service itself (with processions and recessions)-all these are small reflections of the Christian understanding of time in its cosmic scale. Augustine referred to it with the words exitus and reditus: The whole creation moves out and away from God-and yet always longs to return to God, and thereby close the circle. "You stir us to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."