I’m sure that, at some point, many parishes had one of those “liturgical year” posters hanging in the parish hall or Sunday School area. Sometimes they’re set out in a long line, beginning with Advent and ending with the Reign of Christ, but most often they are pie-charts that show how the old year rolls right into the new. There are decent slices of blue and purple for Advent and Lent, a smaller white one for Christmastide and a good sized slice of white for Eastertide, a few splashes of red for Holy Week and Pentecost, and a then a whole lot of green. The first green slice for the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is modest, but that second one? It is good for about half the pie.
The Revised Common Lectionary counts off this long, green season as Sundays after Pentecost, which – when you think about it – is a rather unremarkable way to mark a season. We’ve had the grand bang of Pentecost to cap off the glorious Easter season, and now we’re just counting off the weeks as they pass by. At least the Book of Common Prayer calendar numbered them as Sundays in Trinity!
The other name for this season is Ordinary Time, which I believe has the potential to alert us to something deeper and richer. But that sounds so ordinary, you might respond. Where is the richness in that?
It comes in remembering that, while we might love the celebrations of Christmas and Easter, and though we might be spiritually nourished by the reflective themes of Advent and Lent, much of our time is spent in the ordinary day-to-day things of life. “Let us remember,” wrote Gregory of Nyssa in his treatise On the Lord’s Prayer, “that the life in which we ought to be interested is ‘daily’ life [for] we can, each of us, only call the present time our own.”
Daily life, of course, brings with it those things that need to be done. There are meals to be prepared, floors to be mopped, errands to be run, and appointments to be kept. How often do we ask someone the question, “What’s new?” only to be told “nothing much,” “same old, same old,” or even – to borrow a line from an old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford – “just another day older and deeper in debt.” Part of the gift of Ordinary Time is that it invites us beyond the sense of drudgery and opens us to seeing the Holy in the most ordinary of things.
In her little book The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris writes of her first time experiencing a Roman Catholic liturgy. It was a wedding mass, and she, a very nominal Presbyterian, found herself a bit lost trying to follow the liturgy. There was, though, a moment when things finally had meaning for her, when the priest stood at the altar doing the ablutions. “Look at that!” she’d said to her husband. “The priest is cleaning up! He’s doing the dishes!”
I found it remarkable – and still find it remarkable – that in that big, fancy church, after all of the dress-up and the formalities of the wedding mass, homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception. I found it enormously comforting to see the priest as a kind of daft housewife, overdressed for the kitchen, in bulky robes, puttering about the altar, washing up after having served so great a meal to so many people. It brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning.
For Norris, it was seeing this very domestic act happen in the midst of a most holy liturgy that connected things for her; for others, it will be recognizing that holy things can be encountered in the midst of our domestic and ordinary lives.
I have a friend who loves to do laundry, because it takes time to do the sorting and the loading, the drying and the ironing and the folding. What begins with a pile of clothes on the floor ends with an empty laundry hamper and clean, fresh clothes and sheets. As she describes it, it is all but contemplative in the way it settles and calms her. And why should we imagine that the Spirit of God would be absent from such things? After all, just look at how much attention is paid to pots and pans and washing up in the Hebrew Scriptures.
How often are the best conversations shared over a meal you’ve prepared for friends? How often are stories told and laughter shared as the dishes are washed, dried, and stacked back in the cupboard? What a simple gesture of love it is to make a pot of tea for a partner at the end of a Saturday afternoon of chores and errands, or to bring them a cold drink while they’re out working in the garden. These aren’t complicated things, but they can very much be holy things: holy and ordinary, both.
This is the season when we work our way slowly through all of those gospel stories that come between the birth narratives and the Passion. We hear Jesus’ teaching, we watch him offer healing and restoration, we listen to his parables… and again and again we watch as he sits down for meals, whether with 5,000 on a hillside or alone in the home of Zacchaeus. Pay attention to how often the stories involve meals, food, drink, and then ask if there is any moment, any time or place, any season too ordinary for God. No? Then our stock answers to that question “What’s new?” probably need to be reconsidered, don’t they? That’s the call of Ordinary time.
Jamie Howison is the founding pastoral leader of saint benedict’s table. He recently contributed a chapter on Winnipeg to The Soul of the City: Mapping the Spiritual Geography of Eleven Canadian Cities, published by Urban Loft Publishers.