On The Threshold of Now

Janus, the personification of thresholds, beginnings, and endings, has had many depictions over the centuries. Common to them all and distinguishing him from every other occupant in the pantheon of Roman deities were his two faces opposite each other on either side of his head. He looked both ways with his two faces, and this, the Romans thought, made him the perfect god to preside over the boundary between any two given situations: war and peace, earth and heaven, past and future. He was the doorkeeper, the boundary master.

One conspicuous difference you’ll notice among Janus’ many depictions is that in some, his two faces are identical, and his head a perfectly symmetrical mirror image; while in others, his two faces are markedly different, one side bearded while the other side is not, or one side visibly aged while the other side is youthful.

As symbolic of the difference between the past (the domain of the old and aged) and the future (belonging to the young), these differing faces of Janus seem apt. I wonder, though, if these two faces of the god—old and young—are really that apt for representing past and future, as, in the imagination of men, the past may be remembered as “the golden years” and the future dreaded as a dark and fearful unknown. Maybe, then, the youthful forward-looking face of Janus is an expression of optimism, even the optimism of the young, and the mirror-image-Janus—merely perpetuating what has already come before (there is nothing new under the sun)—comes from more wayworn, jaded imaginations of older artists.

These are just guesses. Regardless of whether Janus’ two faces are identical or different, he has a peculiar problem: standing at the threshold and looking behind and before, he can’t actually look at the threshold. Gazing simultaneously at the past and the future, he can’t attend to the present. His experience, then, is entirely inverse to ours, whose experience is only ever of the present. We’re bound to the here and now (at least for here and now) as part of our nature. So Janus represents our desire to transcend this limitation, to be confirmed in either our optimism or pessimism. But the limitations of our imaginations, which imperfectly remember the past and imperfectly picture the future, have also produced a limited and imperfect god to symbolize and represent this sort of vision we wish we had. This wish-fulfillment character can’t ever interface with us as he stands to preside over those great moments of change that accentuate our lives: births, deaths, new years.

He is, then, the perfect embodiment of the folly of not attending to the present day and moment—of “worrying about tomorrow,” or brooding on the past. His unnatural deformation of having two faces on one head, of possessing some kind of bizarre double perception that we could never identify with, and of never being able to identify with our perception, means Janus really represents the unnaturalness of the passions or obsessions that drive us to place inordinate hope in the future, or to foster some inordinate longing for the past, or to despair of there ever being any possibility for a change for the good, or to waste our time prognosticating about what will happen tomorrow or next year.

Jesus Christ, however, is the God who stands outside of time and beholds it in its entirety, who created it along with space and matter. He is incarnate as a human being, able to identify with us. And because he has one face, we can interface with him and he with us, in our present moment, as he comforts us for what we’ve lost and left behind in the past, and for what we fear or hope for in the future. He hears our prayers at every moment; he heard them from the foundation of the world. In the world to come, that great coming age, and then in the ages of ages, our prayers yesterday and today are even still in his ears. Janus will dissolve and fade away when we finally cross that threshold which heals us of our unnatural desire to perceive and act beyond our nature—and, possibly, when the creature called time is transformed along with us.

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