The Nature of Time
What is time?
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the nature of time and our use of the time that we’ve been given.
Preparation and materials
- Have available an image of the clock at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the means to display it during the assembly. An example is available at: https://tinyurl.com/ycqdoapy
- You may wish to display the timeline referred to in the ‘Assembly’, Step 8.
- Optional: you may wish to choose readers for the Bible passage in Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.
- It’s a funny thing, time. It can go quickly or slowly, depending on what you’re doing.
Pause for between 30 seconds and a minute.
- Days can feel like seconds, minutes like hours, months like years or years like weeks. The time for which I was silent just now was very short – infinitesimal, in fact, when compared with the amount of time that the universe has been in existence. My pause just now is small even when compared to a day, which is 24 hours, 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds.
- If we think about how measuring the passage of time has changed, perhaps we can consider how we value our time. Ancient cultures measured the passing of time by watching the sun travel across the sky or by using a sundial in its simplest form, the shadow stick. Nowadays, we have watches that we can wear on our wrists and sophisticated clocks on our smartphones. We have clocks that can tell us the time down to a hundredth of a second, dividing time into the smallest possible moments.
- Time is something that is constant and ever-changing. For millions of years, as the sun has risen and set on the earth, time has marched on relentlessly. It will continue to do so long after our civilization has fallen, as it did with the Minoan, Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires. It will continue long after you and your grandchildren. Time waits for no one.
- At Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, there is an amazing clock.
Show the image of the clock at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
The clock’s face is a stainless steel disc coated in 24-carat gold, and it has a diameter of about 1.5 metres. Instead of hands or numbers, it displays the time by opening individual slits in the clock face, which are arranged in three concentric rings that display hours, minutes and seconds.
- On the clock sits a terrifying sculpture of a metal insect similar to a grasshopper or locust. It is this that makes the ticking sound to mark the time passing. The clock’s inventor, John C. Taylor, calls this beast the Chronophage, which means ‘time eater’, and said, ‘Basically I view time as not on your side. He’ll eat up every minute of your life.’ The insect’s mouth moves, so it looks like it is eating up the seconds as they pass, and occasionally it blinks in what could be satisfaction. The constant motion of the Chronophage produces an eerie grinding sound, and the hour is marked by the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin in the back of the clock.
Below the clock is an inscription from the Bible (1 John 2.17): ‘mundus transit et concupiscentia eius’, which translates as ‘the world and its desire are passing away’. In fact, the clock is only completely accurate every five minutes. For the rest of the time, the pendulum may seem to catch, and the lights behind the slits may get behind or race to get ahead. The clock’s erratic motion reflects life’s irregularity and the Chronophage helps to remind us of the inevitable passing of time.
- However, when we speak about time, Christians believe that there is one being who can be described as being outside space and time. That is God. The idea of something being outside time and space is a difficult one to grasp, but let’s think about this example.
- Try to imagine an enormous timeline. You might like to start from zero, which is the Big Bang or the creation of the world, and stretch it out as far as you can go. You might want to add particular dates to make it easier. For example, the pyramids started being built around 2600 BC, the Buddha was alive in the sixth century BC, Jesus was crucified around 30 AD, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, the second millennium was marked in 2000 and today it is January 2018.
- Now imagine that you are floating above the timeline, so that you can see the past, the present and the future all at the same time. You look over it all, yet you are unchanging and ageless. That is what Christians believe: that God is outside space and time.
Coming back down to earth, though, the point of this assembly is that time is precious and important; all the seconds and minutes are precious and should not be wasted. Think back to the Chronophage: time is not on your side, and eventually, you will run out of it. We should make the most of the time that we have.
Time for reflection
You are now going to hear a famous Bible passage from the book of Ecclesiastes.
You may wish to ask readers to read the following passage.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
May we use our time well, today and throughout our lives.
‘We have all the time in the world’ by Louis Armstrong, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e_2_kVrSuI
‘Speed of sound’ by Coldplay