For the last few months, we have been slowly making our way through the longest season of the Church year: Ordinary Time. It stretches from Trinity Sunday, which was way back on June 4, all the way to the beginning of Advent, which won’t happen until December 3 this year. That’s nearly half of the year; five months of ordinary church. That’s a lot of green.
The word ordinary has meant a lot of things over time. Today, the word carries an indifferent, if not negative, connotation. Calling someone an ordinary student isn’t much of a compliment, especially if that person is being compared to extraordinary students. Restaurants don’t go out of their way to promote their ordinary hamburgers; they’d rather sell you one that’s over-the-top and unexpected. In our overly-competitive culture which is obsessed with success, being ordinary is not good enough. To quote the great Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights, “If your not first, your last.” (I’m pretty sure that’s how he would’ve spelled it.)
But in reference to the liturgical season in which we find ourselves, ordinary shouldn’t come with any negative connotation whatsoever. The root of the word ordinary is order, whose original meaning reflects a medieval notion: “a system of parts subject to certain uniform, established ranks or proportions,” and was used of everything from architecture to angels.1 So by describing our time as ordinary, we are describing its regularity and predictability. Ordinary Time is constant in a way that allows us to take our focus off of the mechanics of a calendar and direct our attention to our spiritual growth. The name of the season is also reflected in its use of ordinal numbers to mark the Sundays: the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the Third Sunday after Pentecost . . . the Twenty-Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
The word order comes up in other places in the life of the church. Religious men and women, monks, nuns, and oblates, belong to religious orders. It is called an order not because they live in cloistered convents or wear the same habits, but because they have committed themselves to a common rule of life. Where they live and how they dress are part of their particular rule. The rule dictates the regularity and orderliness of their lives which allows them to focus more on God and less on other, more mundane concerns.
I think this way of understanding the word order is particularly helpful when considering how we should make the most of Ordinary Time. During Advent and Lent, seasons of preparation, we can fall into the trap of busyness, worrying if we have done enough to prepare our hearts for Christ’s incarnation and passion. Similarly, during Christmastide and the Great Fifty Days of Easter, which are festival seasons, it is easy to look back and wonder if we did enough to celebrate Christ’s birth and resurrection. We always give it our best during those seasons, but we need to remember that grace will always cover our deficiencies.
But in Ordinary Time, we can set those anxieties to the side and focus on our own spiritual growth. For this reason, it is also described as the long, growing season. Like the church calendar, our lives are a mix of exceptional events with long periods of regular time in between. Once we come down from the climactic feast of Pentecost, we can start to worry less about the extraordinary and more about the mundane: daily prayer, Sunday School, and small acts of mercy and justice. You can try taking on a new spiritual discipline during Lent, but that season is only 40 days. If you really want to develop a new practice, try taking one on during Ordinary Time. If you can keep something going for five months, you can keep it going for life.
Last week, we kick-started our program year, and from now until Memorial Day, there will be a lot going on in the life of the church. Before we start the liturgical year over again in Advent, I encourage you to make the most out of the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time. Come to one of the several adult Sunday School offerings, sign-up for a new ministry (here’s a good place to start: www.transfiguration.net/smallbites), or make an effort to attend church more regularly. There are lots of ways to make extraordinary growth in these ordinary times.