BC and AD: today’s new meaning for legacy acronyms?

Dionysius Exiguus

“What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”– Jesus (Luke 13-20-21, NIV)

Today’s LOTRW post celebrates Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the humble), who was born in Scythia about 470, but subsequently relocated to Rome; there he made a life’s work translating hundreds of Greek canons into Latin. Along the way, he invented the Anno Domini era, used to number the years of the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Nowadays the idea of “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” (the year of our Lord) is so deeply imbedded in our current culture and language that few give it any conscious thought,regardless of religious heritage.

In the sciences, the time t plays an unquestioned central role, but scientists feel free to establish what might be considered the starting or reference point

t=0.

Cosmologists might take this to be the moment of the Big Bang (or perhaps the most recent/present Big Bang). Physicists studying simpler systems might make other choices (for example, the motion of a simple pendulum might be described adopting t=0 as the instant of release). Archaeology, geology, and some other disciplines sometimes make use of BP (that is, Before Present). Is that a less familiar one? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Before Present (BP) years is a time scale used mainly in archaeology, geology, and other scientific disciplines to specify when events occurred prior to the origin of practical radiocarbon dating in the 1950s. Because the “present” time changes, standard practice is to use 1 January 1950 as the commencement date (epoch) of the age scale. The abbreviation “BP” has been interpreted retrospectively as “Before Physics”; that refers to the time before nuclear weapons testing artificially altered the proportion of the carbon isotopes in the atmosphere, making dating after that time likely to be unreliable.

Which brings us to the year 2020 (that is, 2020 AD). 

Current events make it tempting to repurpose Dionysius’ initials as follows: Before Covid, that is, BC; and Anno Disruptio (the year of rift) or Anno Discidio (the year of disruption), that is (AD). In the space of a few months, the world’s peoples have progressed from comfortable complacency, to awareness of a new infectious disease threat confined to China, to cowed living-at-home under the pall of a global pandemic.

At the start, the world saw this as a momentary interruption of normalcy, to be followed by a quick return to status quo.  Now many, perhaps most people would say instead that covid-19 signals a transition to a new normal. Experts point to the emergence of what some are calling a 90% global economy. But the missing 10% belies a more visible impact. In the United States, 40% of the country’s poorest prior to the pandemic are now unemployed. What’s more, the pandemic has brought the restaurant-, hospitality-, tourism-, sports-, and entertainment sectors to a standstill. That was the icing on the economy’s cake. At the other end of the spectrum, the reboot of the country’s schools (both K-12 and institutions of higher learning) in the fall also seems problematic. That’s an attack on the world’s seed corn. The word endemic (natural to or characteristic of a specific people or place; native; indigenous) is entering into the media coverage of the contagion. Covid-19 looks to be something we have to live with, rather than an aberration we’ll be able to correct: a player in global affairs for a longish time. Perhaps all that makes it appropriate to reset history’s clock to a new t=0.

Covid’s biggest impact may be as much mental and spiritual as economic. A colleague whom I admire and respect greatly speaks often in private and to public audiences about the need to balance confidence and humility. Covid-19, at this moment in history, has driven all humanity to a great rebalancing of these two mental states. With some oversimplification, 2019’s confidence (with its close cousins – complacency and overweening pride) of peoples across the developed world has given way to 2020’s preponderance of humility, or self-doubt, or actual fear. Even the best off – the fittest both physiologically and financially, are running a bit scared. Only the least imaginative, or most short-sighted, think seriously that things are better and the future looks brighter now than they last year.

Hope might seem in short supply.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. This is where Dionysius (intriguingly, Dionysius the humble) and the event he gave a name re-enter. That BC-AD transition, marking the life and ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth, really signaled, according to that Jesus, something bigger – the arrival of the kingdom of God, or, somewhat interchangeably, the kingdom of heaven, which he would invariably say was “among you,” or “at hand,” or “within you.”

Kingdom of God? Among them? At handWithin them? Jesus’ hearers were oppressed on all sides – by the hypocrisy of their own religious leaders of the time and by Roman ironfisted rule. Hope was in short supply then as well. They of course wanted more background on this good news, which Jesus supplied. For three years he spoke of nothing less than a restoration or reset of the relationship between God and humankind.

He also said, as in today’s quote, that this kingdom would spread, like an infection. But the metaphor he used was not a plague – though well-known to his audience, plagues had a negative connotation. Instead he spoke of an equally familiar – and far more positive – bacterial spread: the leavening effect of Saccharomyces cerevisiae in dough, in the making of bread. Of course he didn’t use any pointy-headed, scientific jargon, but instead the label they all knew – yeast.

Jesus’ audiences were the poor, the disenfranchised, the ill; his core group – his posse, in today’s vernacular – were no better, a ragtag, motley lot, equally poor, of no particular qualifications, and demonstrating minimal leadership potential. So his prediction (as my colleague would say) was on the bold end of the confidence-humility spectrum.

But it verified. People might disagree on whether the kingdom of God is merely an idea or an actual thing (full disclosure, I’m on the actual-thing side) – but there can be little disagreement on the way a little leaven has leavened the entire lump. In 2020, perhaps a quarter of the world’s population self-identify as Christian. 

And we should not confuse that perfect ideal (or (actual, perfect) thing called the kingdom with the demonstrable, all-too-evident faults of millions of message-bearers over two millennia. Whether “Christian” or “non-Christian,” we are all confronted daily with the hypocrisy and other personal failings of those with that label. But just as covid-19 has an identity separate from those of us responsible for knowingly or unwittingly transmitting the disease, the kingdom of heaven, with its promise of love and all the traits of equity and inclusion and relationship that stem from that love, has a reality and existence independent of the nature of those who “test-positive” as carriers of Jesus’ message. Covid-19 has arrived on the scene late, and encountered an entire population with a pre-existing condition – one that has arguably strengthened rather than compromised our immune systems. It’s stumbled on a world of hope — not a delusional, unmerited optimism, but a realistic, positive view of the present and the future that might be as important to overcoming the pandemic as any awaited vaccine.

Today as we join thousands of others home-baking bread, a rediscovered pastime that has become part of the world’s coping strategy for dealing with the pandemic, perhaps we could take a moment to reflect on that pandemic-in-the-dough itself. You might also recall the pandemic that began 2000 years ago that is now itself endemic – so ingrained it might as well be in our DNA. 

And we should therefore choose to leave the meaning of BC-AD as is.

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