No Time at All

Throughout Lent, guest blogger Dr. Junius Johnson will be reflecting on the season through the lens of C.S. Lewis’s great series, The Chronicles of Narnia. We invite you to join him in revisiting this world of childhood imagination even while you prepare your hearts to rejoice again in the salvation Christ worked at the cross.

“‘But there was no time,’ said Susan. ‘Lucy had had no time to have gone anywhere, even if there was such a place.’ […] ‘I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch. 5

Famously, time doesn’t run true between our world and Narnia. A year in our world might be three years in Narnia, or it might be 1300. There is no discernible relationship, no way to tell how much time will have passed since your last visit, nor are there any factors that can be identified to determine why this amount rather than that amount of time has passed. It is a mystery hidden in the will of Aslan. But at the very least, we can say this with confidence: it is impossible to find the key to the relation between Narnian time and the time of our world because Narnian time isn’t keyed to our world. Because, however much our world has influenced the history of Narnia (and we have influenced them a lot), at the end of the day, Narnia is still its own world, with its own history (most of which we do not know). The two worlds come into contact, but each is pursuing its own history, and marching to the beat of its own drum.

Something similar happens when we compare the liturgical calendar to the secular calendar: they seem out of step with each other. In December, our culture dives into the Christmas holiday, celebrating and feasting while we keep the fast of Advent, watching for a promised Savior whose coming alone can make sense of our lives. On Christmas day, our holy joy and our secular joy coincide, and for once we feel whole. But by the afternoon, the secular celebration of Christmas is already drawing to its close, while the liturgical one is just getting started: twelve more days of feasting await, but it is hard to abide in this proper Christmas season when the world is already moving on.

. . . twelve more days of feasting await, but it is hard to abide in this proper Christmas season when the world is already moving on.

In some sense, their celebration of the new year helps, injecting one last bit of feasting into the secular calendar. But after that it becomes especially difficult to hang on to Christmas, for the twin mundane duties of work and school reassert themselves with relentless inevitability, declaring in no uncertain terms that the holidays are over.

One could multiply examples: the secular year begins on January 1st, because that was the beginning of the month dedicated to the Roman god Janus, the god of thresholds and beginnings; but the liturgical calendar begins on the first day of Advent, for His advent is the event that orders all of history. The length of Advent varies from barely more than three weeks all the way up to four, as the secular calendar allows. The date of Easter varies widely, and so interacts unpredictably with the secular calendar. So out of sync are they this year that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are the same day: an event as emotionally confusing as symbolically profound.

The reason for this seeming inability of the two times to talk to one another is the same as what we observed with respect to Narnia and our world: liturgical time, like Narnian time, is not keyed to our world. It is not keyed to our secular calendar.

. . . liturgical time, like Narnian time, is not keyed to our world. It is not keyed to our secular calendar.

This feels wrong: after all, the liturgical calendar was created on the basis of secular time. The same movements of the same moon and sun orders both, something that could not be said of Narnia, which has its own moon and sun (and astrophysics). Indeed, many of the liturgical festivals were made to line up with times that were already significant to us. Finally, liturgical time was made for us, for humans who inhabit this secular time. It therefore seems that the two times not only should be keyed to one another, but must be.

But this is to greatly misunderstand the situation. Yes, liturgical time was made for those of us who were born and live under the sign of secular time; but it was more specifically made for those who are being called out of that time and into a more fundamental and meaningful eternity. In a way we are like the Pevensies: though they spent most of their lives in England, even counting their reign in Narnia: Peter was 22 when he died, Lucy 17, and they only reigned in Narnia for 14 years. Nevertheless, upon their deaths, it is their lives in Narnia that turned out to have been the most important thing about them. For their parents, who had also died, found themselves in the part of Aslan’s country that is represented by England in our world, while the children found themselves in the part represented by Narnia. To be sure, they could cross over to their parents; but their core identity was as Narnians.

If we don’t get this right, we will wind up with a caricatured view of liturgical time. I think this is represented by the way we name the longest season of the liturgical year, the time between Pentecost Sunday and Advent: most people now call it Ordinary Time, a name which derives not from the idea that it is time “ordered” by the work of God, nor from the idea of “ordinary” means of grace, which means that these are God-instituted and reliable vehicles of grace; no, historically it comes from the word “ordinal,” referring to the idea that the Sundays have no special names, but will just be numbered from 1 to 34. It is, then, very ordinary in our normal sense of the word. What makes this worse is that this season occurs twice: once between Christmas and Lent, and again between Easter and Advent. The image is quite clear: secular time is the ordinary time, and it is time proper. Liturgical time is thus a series of interruptions, one day holidays or shorter seasons superimposed on a substrate of secular time that continues on its merry way between these intrusions. So absolute will this conception be that our language will follow, confessing a truth we live but may not be wise enough to speak: that all of our “holy days” are being transformed into mere “holidays.”

. . . all of our “holy days” are being transformed into mere “holidays.”

This is exactly the wrong way to look at it. And it is a new, and in many ways typically modern, error (it first came into wide use after Vatican II in 1969). The older conception was that Epiphany was not a single day, but a season that lasted until the start of Lent. Likewise, Pentecost was not a single day, but a season that stretched all the way to Advent. Thus, the vast majority of our lives is not lived in an ordinary time that lies between the great liturgical seasons, but rather in a time marked by the coming in power of the Holy Spirit.

And this reveals the truth we must recover. Liturgical time is not keyed to secular time, it is a wholly other time. The reason one could think otherwise is because it is addressed to those who, at the time they are addressed by it, live their lives according to secular time. But secular time is just history, and it will have its evening and give way to eternity. Eternity is not timelessness, not for us creatures at the very least, but is rather a different time, a truer time, the time of “the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which each chapter is better than the one before” (The Last Battle, the last words).

Eternity is not timelessness, not for us creatures at the very least, but is rather a different time, a truer time. . .

Liturgical time is an image of this eternity offered to us: not as something we can layer onto secular time, though we may have to start that way to begin to acclimate to it; but rather as a new reality that we must be transported to. At times we stumble into it as through a wardrobe; at times it raptures us, as it ripped the children from the train station in Prince Caspian or from the guest bedroom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; at times we may go looking for it and ask to be let into it, as in The Silver Chair (but only because Aslan was already calling us would we even think to look). But however we get to it, the goal is to transfer our identities to it, to let it become the time that dominates our lives, even while we constantly have to make allowances for the secular time we will only fully escape through death and resurrection. If liturgical time is, in a sense, our Narnia, then we must endeavor, as Puddleglum taught us, to live as like Narnians as we can until Aslan comes to set all things to rights.

Junius Johnson is an independent scholar, teacher, musician, and writer. He is the executive director of Junius Johnson Academics, through which he offers innovative classes for both children and adults that aim to marry the sense of wonder with intellectual rigor. An avid devotee of story, he is especially drawn to fantasy, science fiction, and young adult novels. He performs professionally on the french horn and electric bass. He holds a BA from Oral Roberts University (English Lit), an MAR from Yale Divinity School (Historical Theology), and an MA, two MPhils, and a PhD (Philosophical Theology) from Yale University. He is the author of 4 books, including The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty. An engaging speaker and teacher, he is a frequent guest contributor to blogs and podcasts on faith and culture, and is a member of The Cultivating Project.  Explore his work at
Note: Guest bloggers share their own thoughts as classical educators and learners and do not represent or Classical Academic Press. 

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