What Is Ordinary about Ordinary Time?

Historically, after Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, the church enters a long period known as Ordinary Time — stretching from Trinity Sunday to the start of Advent — about half of the liturgical year. The word “ordinary” most likely means “numbered” here (think ordinal numbers), because the Sundays of Ordinary Time are numbered. Even those church communities that don’t formally follow a liturgical calendar take at least time out of the year to reflect about Christ’s incarnation at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter, his victorious Ascension into Heaven, and the manifold gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Each of these events in the life of Christ and his church has forever changed both our individual lives and the course of human history. Ordinary Time is a then logical continuation which allows us to contemplate these realities and see them at work in our daily lives.

If you’ve never thought about “Ordinary Time,” 2020 might seem like the wrong year to begin. Almost from the start, our lives have been overturned and stretched in many directions, moving from alarm to boredom to financial pressures to socio-political concerns. And yet, it might really be the perfect time to think about Ordinary Time, because these seemingly extraordinary events are, in reality, part of the ordinary human life on earth and because the overarching realities this time invites us to ponder are eternal and unmovable.

Ordinary Upheaval? Pain, grief, illness, pandemics, economic crises, political uncertainty, violence, and riots have continued on earth since time immemorial, and will continue until the establishment of the New Heaven and New Earth. The Medieval church that kept Ordinary Time did so among all these disruptions and more, as did our forebears through the eighteenth century with the application of the ‘penal laws’ to the Scottish Episcopalians.

Normality doesn’t exclude inner growth, with all the upheaval and pain this growth may entail. The pandemic, the lockdown, the protests in our streets have prodded us to think more deeply about certain issues and have provided invaluable occasions to reflect and grow in some areas of our lives, but this growth should characterize all of our existence in Christ. We should have been learning before and we should expect to continue — by God’s grace — when these specific forms of external prodding abate.

Ordinary Time is not a time to rest on Christian laurels, nor to indulge in the deception that the Christian life should be a constant effort to maintain inner peace. Our natural desire for a quiet earthly existence must not be turned into an idol or a reason for living. Living our lives secluded in our blessings and protective of whatever small achievements we feel we have accomplished will only leave us groping after illusions.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian imprisoned by the Nazis and who lived and died in anything but normality, said in reference to the Church,

 “By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief moment in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of emotions, but the God of truth.”

 At times such as those we are living through today we do well to reflect that “God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (from the Westminster Confession of Faith). A deeply comforting thought if we remember that this God, who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in all these attributes, is our loving Father in Christ and all this remains constant, whether the times seem ordinary or extraordinary.

So, while we are bombarded by alarmist news, pressured to take a position on matters we don’t really understand, and worried about an uncertain future that no one — in spite of the deluge of diagnoses and proposed solutions — seems to fully grasp, we can remember we are, after all, in Ordinary Time. Not just the yearly period between Trinity Sunday and Advent but the ordained time between Christ’s first and second coming — a time when God is powerfully at work to accomplish his purposes, even if we don’t notice it. For the original meaning of “ordinary” comes from the Latin ‘ordus’, a word used to describe the way threads were aligned in weaving and, later, the way soldiers were aligned in formation. Ordinarius implied conformity to an order.

Ordinary Time is then an opportunity to continue to reflect on the realities of Christ’s Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension, and on the comfort and power he has given us through His Spirit. In the long, warm (!) days of summer we can bask in what the Scriptures tell us about Christ, and let the magnitude of these certainties confront the disarray of our daily experiences, the sinfulness of our hearts, and the pressing cries of a needy world.

To reflect on these things takes time — a lifetime, in fact — lots of ordinary time spent in ordinary attendance to the ordinary means of grace and in ordinary, humble interaction with those around us.

But this is what God has provided for most of our lives.