corn harvest painting

What’s So Ordinary About Ordinary Time?

As summer winds down and school years begin, we still find ourselves in Ordinary Time. Officially, Ordinary Time received its name because these days are ordinal, that is, they are numbered. At Mass on Sundays, you will often hear the priest say that it is the Sunday of such-and-such a week in Ordinary Time. All told there can be as many as 33 weeks in Ordinary Time, meaning we spend more of our liturgical year in this nonspecific time than we do in either times of intense fasting or intense feasting. And while I will always make the claim that Christianity is primarily a feasting religion, I think there is something quite right about our calendar reflecting the fact that we spend much of our year not in whole seasons of feasting or fasting, but in the in between.

corn harvest painting
“Corn Harvestin Provence” by Vincent Van Gogh (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While I don’t believe the council fathers purposed to theologize or spiritualize Ordinary Time, there is something fitting about its name and length. After all, we spend most of our lives in the in between, in the ordinary. We wake and wash and eat and work and sleep. All very common, everyday, ordinary activities. We join families, raise children and grow old. All ordinary. And then something breaks through — a wedding, a taking of vows, an ordination, a birth, a special birthday or anniversary — and we set aside the ordinary for something extraordinary, something special. And not all these special events are good either. We have deaths, major illnesses or injuries, job loss and natural disasters. These too are extraordinary, beyond the common. We cannot live full lives in the valleys nor on the mountaintops. We must live in the between, in the ordinary. But, and this is crucial, the ordinary is itself extraordinary. We only have to have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand.

“… if we cannot live on the mountaintops of feasting nor in the valleys of fasting, we must live in the plains of ordinary time.”

It is easy to look at Christmas or Easter and see the extraordinary. God enters into his creation and becomes part of it. This is so extraordinary that no one could have guessed it. Reason could not lead us here. God had to reveal it, to reveal himself, to us. The resurrection is like this too. Even with all the pagan myths of dying and rising gods, we could not have truly guessed that God would die for us, defeat death, and rise again to give us life. Osiris and Balder could not have told us this would happen. But we cannot live on these mountaintop experiences. The bliss would be too much for us in our current state. It would be like drinking champagne all the time. Yes, at first there would be joy and laughing and celebration, but it would turn. First there would be intoxication, the loss of our higher faculties, the inability to be. Then there would be sickness and eventually stagnation, where the champagne would no longer have an effect on us. This is why it cannot always be Christmas or always Easter.

But so too, it cannot always be Advent or always Lent. We cannot live in the valleys. To do so would go beyond even the harshest monastic asceticism and into denial of life, of any good found in this world. But this rejects God’s declaration that reality is good. Of course, we must remember that we will die. We must go throw the pangs of labor as we wait to be made new when Christ returns. But we cannot live in those moments.

And so, if we cannot live on the mountaintops of feasting nor in the valleys of fasting, we must live in the plains of the Ordinary. But if we do so correctly, we will see just how extraordinary the ordinary is. God becoming man is in some ways no greater a miracle than that you are here breathing right now. The existence of anything at all is a much greater miracle than water becoming wine. The existence of wheat and fish is a greater miracle than their multiplication at the feedings of the five and four thousand. God is present in every particle of the cosmos at all times, upholding it, suspending it from himself, sharing with it his own existence so that it too may exist.

Of course it very rarely feels like that. It often feels like an endless monotony. You wake, you shower, you eat, your work, you sleep, and tomorrow you do it all over again. And again. And again. And again until at last you die. How do we escape? We have to attend to God’s presence. We have to open ourselves up to the reality that surrounds us. And we can do this through prayer and gratitude and humility. Prayer reminds us that God and his angels and saints are always there listening to us, watching over us. Gratitude reminds us that we have received all that there is as a gift. Humility reminds us that we are not the most important things in reality, and yet God still loves us. It is not an easy process and only the saints have come close to perfecting it. But we can work towards it as well. We can pray and be grateful and humble, we can listen to the lives of the saints, to other imaginative stories that highlight the deeper truths, and above all to Scripture. It will likely take us a lifetime, but it will be a lifetime spent looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary. A life spent giving the proper time to feasting and to fasting. A life spent serving and following Christ in all times. And this is a life worth living, however ordinary it may seem. 

man in hat, glasses, scarf, pipe

Dr. David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living and teaching in the Inland Northwest. His debut book of poetry, “The Green Man,” is forthcoming from Resource Publications. In his spare time, Dr. Mosley likes wandering around in the woods, spending time in community and smoking a pipe.

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