“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time [Gr: kairos] will come.”
For a brave band of women in Bolivia, Christmas Day, 1977, was a kairos moment. Nellie Paniagua, Angelica Flores, Aurora Lora, and Luzmila Penmental witnessed the government murder, imprison, or exile their husbands, all leaders of the tin miner’s union in Bolivia. For them, this suffering was a sign that the time of God’s deliverance, the kairos, was drawing near. And so, they began a hunger strike at the residence of Archbishop Jorge Manrique.
Three days later, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, their children joined them in the hunger strike. When people protested, the mothers responded by inviting adults to come and take the place of their children. Soon nearly 1400 people joined the hunger strike. Tension mounted, and international human rights workers and Church officials tried to negotiate a settlement. At one point, negotiations broke down and some strikers and human rights observers were arrested. The four women then began to refuse water as well as food.
Eventually, the government accepted the demands of the striking women in full, proving amnesty for 19,000 political prisoners and exiles, reinstating jobs for union activists, and granting freedom to all those arrested during the strike as well as the right to organize unions in the future.
The practice of justice, rooted in sacrificial love and subject to prayerful spiritual discernment, is the stance of alert watching appropriate to those waiting for the kairos, God’s saving action in history. The command to stay awake is not a counsel of passivity, but rather a bold assertion that almighty God is the Lord of history, and that God’s reign is a reign of justice.
Against the televangelists and authors of best selling books predicting when Jesus is going to return, Jesus himself says, “you do not know when the time will come.” I suspect that the kairos is a potential within every moment, equidistant from every time and place. It is not subject to calculation, like chronological time, it is not a matter of sooner or later. Nor is it subject to evaluation, like psychological time, a matter of better or worse, more or less interesting. It simply is, and it breaks in upon us as an expression of God’s inscrutable freedom and loving purpose. We prepare for it and we receive it as sheer gift.
Our job is not to predict the kairos. Our job is to get ready for it, to discern the actions appropriate to the times in which we live. Advent is the Church’s way of reminding us that time is not simply a chronological or psychological experience. The Church does not tell time with clocks, but with colors: the liturgical colors of royalty, sacrifice, blood, birth, life, growth, death and resurrection; each season a different practice of reading the signs of the times, reminding us that all of human experience is a potential kairos moment: pregnant with the presence of God.