“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” The phrase “In the beginning” reveals God created the physical universe with a “when” to start the cosmic clock ticking. God is outside creation and, therefore, outside of time, a created dimension. Time, in real life, not sci-fi, flows like a river in linear fashion from the past to the future.
The river of time leaves in its wake a great sea that we call “history.” In that great sea, there are islands which crave our attention. Mystery shrouds some islands because their former inhabitants left no written records of their societies. Historians call the era before written language “prehistoric.” That era varied from island to island. Other islands in the great sea left remarkable written records to tell of their long-gone inhabitants’ exploits. Regardless of their ability to read and write, our ancestors seemed preoccupied by time and the preservation of their memories.
Some of the earth’s greatest enigmas are presently entreating us to explain them. We study the Salisbury Plain in England and its great stone monuments we call “Stonehenge.” There are many competing claims about its purpose, but all claims agree that the structure marks time. The same can be said of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico. The Pyramids of Giza are connected to the immortality of the pharaohs and the nighttime skies. Apparently, nobody wants to be forgotten.
Which brings us to our own little timeless islands of remembrance. The last year and a half has been a journey for my grandson, Lincoln, and me. We visited more memorials than I could count. We visited museums, libraries, battlefields, and archives in a bid to research and explore some of history’s islands. Lincoln is only eleven years old, but he can read and retain college level history textbooks. He learns about our connections to the past and how the past is relevant to the present. One thing we wanted to do was visit cemeteries as these places of memory are common. We visited multiple cemeteries, but there was one that included a nightly salute to the honored dead.
Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of our nation’s primary focal points in time. The cemetery served the little town for decades when two massive armies collided there for three bloody days in 1863. Musket shots and artillery damaged the cemetery, then one army retreated to the South after losing an infantry charge on a nearby slope. The other army was too damaged and ill-supplied to give chase, but it did bury its dead. The United States Army had over 3,100 troops killed outright with thousands more missing or maimed for life. The population of Gettysburg in 1863 was about 2,400. The Army buried its dead in the local burial ground.
Four months later, the federal government acquired the cemetery and designated it as a national cemetery. President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to make a “few appropriate remarks.” The president, a self-taught man of books, relied on his memory of an ancient funeral oration to flavor his speech. The Greeks, thousands of years before, wrote down the eulogy of their greatest citizen, Pericles, so people would remember him, and by extension, them. Lincoln remembered those Greeks as he was awash in one of history’s bloodiest seas. To bury the casualties of one battle in a place where the dead now outnumbered the living must have been a humbling experience, but he dedicated himself and the suffering nation to finish the task they started.
When we were there, my grandson and I participated in the taps ceremony to honor the hundreds of unknown soldiers on the grounds. The officials visit one soldier known but to God each evening and invite Americans to participate in this gesture of ultimate patriotism. As we walked over the sacred soil, we observed a monument to President Lincoln and his dedication speech. We inspected the monument and saw graves behind it. The graves were American soldiers, but they were from December 1944. The Army transported these heroes across the sea from the town where they fell, Bastogne in Belgium. Then we saw others from Korea, Vietnam, and any other place our country put boots on the ground.
Time moves onward in an unrelenting march. Every day, historians find more evidence from our distant past that often puts forth more questions than answers. Literacy, man’s greatest invention, helps in our quest of remembrance. Indeed, we etched Lincoln’s speech in stone on his memorial that by design appears as a Greek temple.
I often wonder at our own hubris in the quest to be remembered for all time. In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley published a sonnet entitled “Ozymandias.” That is the Greek word for Egypt’s Pharaoh. The poem reflects on man’s unattainable pursuit of time’s commodity of immortality. The desert traveler of the poem happens upon Pharaoh’s statue amid the shifting desert sands and marvels at the inscription, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Deists like our own Thomas Jefferson believe a divine power concocted the universe. They liken that godly power to a clockmaker. Deism’s god created the universe and then started the great clock as a disinterested party never more to take part in creation. Jefferson cut out any references to miraculous events from his copy of the New Testament. He thought Jesus of Nazareth was a moral philosopher and teacher, but nothing more.
Christians, on the other hand, praise God, not only for the indescribable gift of time, but for our brain’s capacity to sense the passing of time. We are God’s only creatures who know that we exist and know we will pass away. Technically, the definitions of these attributes are self-awareness and death-awareness. Time is our gift. In the New Testament (not Jefferson’s) Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega. He started time and He will end it in His own way.
We stand on the banks of time’s great river and consider our places. Rather than trying to outfox time, we should treasure it and spend it wisely with the people who mean the most to us. Like time itself, they are inestimable gifts of a loving Creator who takes an active interest in everything we do.