With the end of the Christmas season a few weeks ago, we returned, liturgically speaking, to Ordinary Time. I know that some Catholics are puzzled by the term, so I asked a faithful and faith-filled member of my family what Ordinary Time is. (I promised to withhold her identity, but I can say that she is smart, observant, well-informed, a regular Mass-goer, and yes, I have only one sister).
The reply was along these lines: “Isn’t Ordinary Time when the priest wears green vestments and nothing much is happening? It’s not Lent, it’s not Easter, there aren’t any leaves on the ground and no snow is falling?”
That’s close, but not quite right.. I think my interviewee meant that there is no “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” kind of snow falling during Ordinary Time. There are, however, the snows of January and February that mostly delight only skiers and kids with sleds. And while Ordinary Time fills the summer, it also continues into autumn amid the crunch of fallen leaves. Otherwise the description is accurate: Ordinary Time is outside the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas. Its liturgical color is green; the priest wears green vestments at Mass. But the name Ordinary Time does not mean that nothing much is happening. On the contrary, there is plenty going on, and much for us to think and pray about.
The word “ordinary” in Ordinary Time does not mean what it usually does when we use it: routine, unremarkable or humdrum. When used in reference to the liturgy, ordinary—from the Latin ordinalis—means “numbered,” as, for example, the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
I asked the pastor of my parish, Father John Bonnici, for his thoughts.
“There’s nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time,” Father Bonnici said. “What is celebrated throughout the year is God’s word and sacrament. The Mass, the Word of God, the consecration, receiving the Blessed Sacrament—that never changes. Ordinary Time is really extraordinary.”
Ordinary Time offers us the chance to ponder and go deeper into the events of Christ’s life and the truths of our Catholic faith. That’s a great gift, because we sometimes become so caught up in the secular observances of the season—especially at Christmastime—that it’s easy to lose sight of what we really are celebrating. The pressure of preparing for the holiday can crowd out the more important work of preparing for the holy day.
It’s not that buying gifts, sending cards and cooking special foods aren’t important. They are, but more important are prayer and reflection and participating in the Mass and the sacraments. That’s what feeds our faith, and our faith is the reason for the celebration.
I love Christmas, and I decorate my apartment so enthusiastically that it takes weeks to complete at both ends: taking out the creche and tree ornaments and decorations, setting everything up, and after Christmas, putting it all away. That’s why I also love the quiet time that follows in January and February, when we settle into Ordinary Time. It’s the perfect respite for reflection and renewal, for contemplating the meaning of the Incarnation that we have recently celebrated, and the beginning of Jesus’ public life, which we celebrated on the feast that closed the Christmas season: the Baptism of the Lord. These are good days for going more deeply into what Jesus said and taught, what our Catholic faith means and how we can deepen it in our own lives.
In a little more than a month we will observe Ash Wednesday. Ordinary Time will be suspended and we will enter the season of Lent. Green vestments will be replaced with purple. We will meditate and pray and seek ways to do penance, to help others and to walk more closely with the Lord as he heads for Jerusalem and Calvary. Ultimately we will fix our minds and hearts on Easter, the most sublime feast of the Church year.
Ordinary Time lays the groundwork for the fasts and feasts, and prepares us to observe them more fully in mind and heart and soul. Extraordinary, indeed.