Each year in early to mid-January, the Church’s celebration of Christmas comes to a close, meaning that we now find ourselves in what the English-speaking world calls “Ordinary Time.” The priests return to wearing green vestments; we hear a continuous flow of the Gospel readings from Sunday to Sunday; and hymn choices switch out of holiday mode. Yet, if we were to look at a missal or breviary in Latin or from before the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, we would be hard pressed to find the phrase “Tempus Ordinarium.” The Latin instead reads “Tempus per annum” or “the time during the year.”
Why do we call it “ordinary,” then? Instead of getting into the often fiery debates of translation, let’s look at a less well-known text that teaches us about the liturgy: The Ceremonial of Bishops.
Apart from those seasons having their own distinctive character, thirty-three or thirty-four weeks remain in the yearly cycle that do not celebrate a particular element of the mystery of Christ. Rather, especially on the Sundays, these weeks are devoted to the mystery of Christ in its entirety. This period is known as Ordinary Time. (ch. 13, n. 377)
Our everyday use of “ordinary” means commonplace or standard, not special. The Church tells us that the “ordinary” of Ordinary Time is the celebration of the “mystery of Christ in its entirety.” In other words, the normal life of the Church is the entire mystery of Jesus Christ, which Christ himself pours forth into our lives by the liturgy. In Lent, we consider the temptations of Jesus, the suffering and passion he endured. During Easter, we contemplate the glorious life of the Resurrection and the world to come. In Advent, we prepare for the glorious and terrible second coming and for the celebration of the first. At Christmas, we revel in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Son. Ordinary Time does not have such a focus, but widens our view to the whole Christ, present in each of those mysteries and working in our lives today.
So what do we make of the “ordinary” of Ordinary Time? By celebrating the entire mystery of Christ, we are reminded that Christ does not reserve his grace like a miser, limiting his gifts to Lent or Easter or other particular weeks of the year. Ordinary Time is not a meaningless period between the Advent/Christmas cycle and the Lent/Easter cycle, filled haphazardly with celebrations that simply do not fit elsewhere. It is a time for us to learn to live in grace as our new normal, for the whole mystery of Christ to take hold of us in every aspect of our lives. Holiness is not reduced to an uninteresting ordinary. The ordinary, rather, is caught up into the mystery of the Holy.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence O.P. (used with permission)