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Having celebrated Pentecost and Trinity Sunday on May 23 and 30 respectively, this past Sunday was the first Lord’s Day in what we call Ordinary Time. This year we will be in this liturgical season clear through the end of November or about 25 weeks. As a season, Ordinary Time accordians a bit depending on when Easter falls. Although Advent and Lent and Eastertide are always celebrated for a fixed number of weeks, the Sundays after Epiphany (which some people also call Ordinary Time) and Ordinary Time proper can vary in length depending on whether Easter comes as early as late March or as late as late April (Easter floats with the lunar cycle but that is a whole nother tale!).
It turns out this season has not been around for terribly long in church history. Near as I can tell, some sense for a season called Tempus per Annum in Latin emerged from the post Vatican II liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church. “Ordinary Time” became an established liturgical period only as recently as 1969 and designated the time after Eastertide and before Advent. Soon thereafter Protestants picked up on the term for use in their Lectionary cycles as well.
There seems to be a little debate whether “ordinary” refers to a sense of ordinals in that all the Sundays are numbered in sequence or more the Latin ordo that refers to a regular order. Probably in common parlance most people assume that the “ordinary” of Ordinary Time means what we usually mean by the word: nothing special, typical, the opposite of anything extraordinary. In that sense, ordinary is not always a complimentary term. If a food critic writes that a given restaurant serves pretty “ordinary food,” the chef will not be pleased. If a man or a woman is described to you as “ordinary looking,” you may assume he or she is pleasant looking enough but you won’t assume you’ll be bowled away by this person’s appearance if ever you meet him or her.
If you look at most Lectionaries and the texts they assign across this very long liturgical season, you will probably notice that the focus is on the ministry of Jesus. Scholars have long debated how long Jesus’s public ministry lasted. If you read just the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke you could conclude that the time from Jesus’s baptism to his resurrection was a year or perhaps a little more. But then you come to John’s Gospel and discover the celebration of Passover no fewer than three times in the course of the book, indicating that Jesus’s public ministry was at least three years. According to a colleague, many scholars fix the time of Jesus’s public ministry between three to five years.
That alone leads to a curious observation: roughly half of any given calendar year is devoted to the longest stretch of Jesus’s work on earth. Jesus’s birth, baptism, final week, and resurrection take up the other half of the year even though in terms of actual days or weeks those events occupied very little time. But that reflects the gospels to an extent. As someone once noted, all four gospels are basically Passion narratives with long introductions.
Yet I suspect we would all agree that the ministry of Jesus was anything but ordinary in any sense of the term. Each gospel conveys this. Mark was written to a church that had become discouraged or apathetic. So Mark wakes them up with an explosive gospel that moves at breakneck speed, highlighting at every turn the dynamism of Jesus and the kingdom he was bringing. Matthew confronts his largely Jewish reading audience with the extraordinary reinterpretation of Israel’s history that Jesus taught. Jesus redefined true righteousness, turned traditions on their head, and so revealed the true will of his Father in heaven. Luke shows Jesus again and again stretching forth his hand to touch people and when he did, he healed people, he raised the dead, he restored the ostracized. And John majestically presents a Messiah who is himself the living Temple of God and whose very presence transforms something as ordinary as a wedding feast or a breakfast on a beach into an amazing encounter with the living God.
Ordinary Time as a season may focus on the ministry of Jesus but we all know that means we are considering something anything but ordinary. Christ’s presence in word and deed across those years changed everything and in Ordinary Time as at all times, we should give God the glory for how extraordinary that all is. As my colleague Jennifer Holberg has mentioned at times, her pastor sends the congregation out each week not only with a blessing but with a reminder: “Remember, you live in a world where a resurrection happened.” But as scholars have long noted, even that resurrection was God’s final and giant stamp of approval for everything Jesus said and did during his ministry.
And that’s not ordinary at all.