Our Lord is not bound by time. But he chooses to act in time – in his own good time. The deacon says quietly to the priest at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, “It is time for the Lord to act.” The Lord acts in time. He is acting here and now in this Divine Liturgy. However, it seems to us sometimes that he takes his time.
Not until the fourth watch of the night did Jesus come walking on the water to his disciples (14:25). As soon as evening had fallen, the boat bearing the disciples was beaten by waves – and the wind was against them all night long (14:24). But not until the fourth watch of the night does Jesus come to them and cause the wind to cease. He had been alone in the hills praying.
What are these watches of the night? In the custom of the Roman military, the night was divided into four parts by soldiers who stood watch in shifts. That way, everyone could get at least some sleep and also the watch was kept unceasingly. Each of these watches lasted 3 hours so that the four watches of the night together made up the 12 hours of night. So, the fourth watch is the last three hours before sunrise, or from about what we would call 3 am until about 6 am.
This is when Jesus comes to them who are in the boat, walking to them on the windswept water, after they had been fighting the wind and waves all night long. “They had been in danger the whole night,”[i] but the Lord comes in his own good time.
We also wait upon the coming of the Lord. And maybe we are tossed about by the disturbances and cares of the world, by unremitting temptations, and by demonic provocations, just as the disciples are harassed by the wind and the waves. But the Lord is coming in the fourth watch – in his own good time. He will return perhaps to a roving and shipwrecked Church, but he will return.[ii]
We must wait upon the Lord, and, at the same time, practice an awareness of his presence in every moment of time, even when it seems to us that he is distant. Even when Jesus was praying in the hills, he who knows all things knew of the disciples’ plight in the water. And he also knew they would be alright. So, he let them struggle a little while, as he does with us. St. John Chrysostom says that “He was instructing them not too hastily to seek for deliverance from their pressing dangers but to bear all challenges courageously.” We must have a little courage for this life.
It’s clear that for his own reasons, the Lord allows us, his disciples, to be tossed about a bit. And it’s also clear that he brings some good out of our time of struggle. Through it, he increases our desire for his coming, helps us remember him, and reveals to us our complete dependence on him.[iii]
We must have a little humility for this life. St. Peter, who was in that boat, instructs us from his experience to “humble [ourselves] under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt [us]. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6). He will deliver us in time. We must have a little hope and a little trust and a little faith for this life.
St. Paul says to Timothy, that “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ… will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Tim 6:14-16).
As we wait upon his coming, let us paradoxically remember his constant presence with us. Every hour of the day and every watch of the night, let us wait and watch for the coming of the Lord. To help with this, in our Byzantine tradition, we have services of liturgical prayer for every time of the day and night.
One of our young parishioners recently asked me what are the times for prayer in our liturgical tradition. You can see in the bulletin, for example, that we often pray First Hour & Third Hour. You can tell that’s a reference to time, but to what specific time does it refer? In charts of Byzantine time, you can see that there are still four watches and 12 hours of the night and day. First Hour is the first hour of the day – so, one hour after sunrise – and it roughly corresponds to 7 am. First Hour is one of the morning prayers of the Church – the last one to develop, as it so happens. It is called First Hour simply because of the time of day we pray it. The psalms chosen for this service all make reference to the morning.
The times for prayer in our tradition begin with Vespers, which belongs to the time of the setting of the sun. “Evening came and morning followed, the first day,” we hear in Genesis. Days begin with sunset, not with midnight or with sunrise. Compline is next, which is prayed usually around 9 o’clock in the evening just before bed. And then Mesonytikon, which is the Midnight Office. That’s right! There is the tradition of rising up again to pray even in the middle of the night. Ancient peoples had no mechanical clocks and followed natural cycles, which often resulted in two sleeps. They went to bed earlier when it got dark, but rose for a time in the middle of the night before sleeping again until dawn. At dawn, we pray Matins – or Orthros as it is also called. Then there is the First Hour, the Third Hour, the Sixth Hour, and the Ninth Hour, each being that many hours after sunrise and so roughly corresponding to 7 in the morning, 9, noon, and 3 in the afternoon.
All this is to say, that all the time of the day and night is a time for prayer, for calling attention to the presence of the Lord in each time, as we wait upon the Lord to come to us in his own good time.
There was an elderly and saintly priest in the parish I grew up in whose sermons eventually got to the point of always being the same. In every sermon, every Sunday, he said the same things – perhaps in a different order, but there were several key phrases that always got said. One thing he said again and again was “…in almighty God’s own good way and in almighty God’s own good time.” Wisdom. This is a voice of experience, I believe. We must wait upon the Lord.
God will act on our behalf just exactly when he means to. We must trust in him and hope in him. As we are buffeted by the storms of life, let us wait upon the Lord, watch, and pray for his coming. He is coming and he will calm the storm in due time.
[ii] Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 14:14
[iii] Chrys.: “But He suffers them to be tossed the whole night, exciting their hearts by fear, and inspiring them with greater desire and more lasting recollection of Him; for this reason He did not stand by them immediately.”