Saturday, January 15, 2011

No Ordinary Time

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10.23-24)


Having been reared in a tradition that doesn't subscribe to the liturgical calendar,“Ordinary Time” always puzzled me. Even after learning what it meant, calling periods between Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent-Easter-Pentecost “ordinary” seemed a bit odd. It smacked of “off-season,” as if the Church were like a resort community—sleepy and deserted between peak holidays, alive and kicking when tourists piled into it. The visual of huge sanctuaries jammed wall-to-wall one week and practically empty the next didn’t compute with someone steeped in an evangelical environment where steady growth was the norm. For us, no time was ordinary, despite our congregations also experiencing capacity crowds at Christmas and Easter. Still, I couldn’t imagine considering the interim months “ordinary;” if we were doing our job as disciples and witnesses, they should be anything but.

The missing link fell into place after my tradition’s intolerance for gay and similarly unorthodox believers proved intolerable, steering me to a welcoming community that tracked the liturgical year. Learning of the calendar’s tie to the lectionary—a daily map charting a three-year trek through the Bible—redefined “Ordinary Time” for me. It was more like “Digging Time,” a vital stretch when believers explore the depths of Scripture and uncover fresh truths in principles set in motion by events celebrated during high seasons. Ordinary Time, then, is a misnomer. Christians who avail themselves to the lectionary’s guidance find it a most extraordinary time of growth. It becomes a sort of virtual pilgrimage, as believers worldwide contemplate the same passages at the same time in a synchronized journey of faith.

One hears believers who don’t keep the calendar and lectionary dismiss them as needlessly regimented. They regard the uniformity as impersonal—anathema to forging a personal relationship with God, which suggests a more impromptu approach of being “led by the Spirit” to Scripture that holds immediate relevance to the individual. What this overlooks, though, is the Spirit’s ability to speak to each of us personally through all Scripture at all times. When you and I—and millions of others—read and pray the same texts simultaneously, living in the same world at the same time vests the readings with unparalleled personal immediacy and global relevance. While the Spirit speaks to you and me, the Spirit likewise speaks to us, the Church, as a whole. And that aspect is what makes Ordinary Time—Digging Time—far from ordinary.

A Grave and Serious Situation

In a 1940 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Eleanor Roosevelt evoked the liturgical calendar by refuting the ordinariness of time. She stood before her party to inspire them to nominate her husband for an unprecedented third term. Europe was plunged into the most brutal war in its history. Across the Pacific, Japan invaded China in a quest for empire. Meanwhile, America savored the first tastes of prosperity in more than a decade. Global instability constituted a new threat and isolationists vowed to keep the US out of war at all costs. FDR couldn’t reconcile protecting American interests with permitting Fascist regimes to run roughshod over our allies. Defending freedom under attack was a moral imperative, whether or not popular sentiment agreed. Mrs. Roosevelt challenged her party to look beyond politics and do the right thing. “We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation,” she told them. “You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.” She concluded:

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals. No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutely devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can do to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.

Historians cite her speech as the convention’s turning point, when the “wisdom” of isolationism was exposed as callous indifference. Mrs. Roosevelt’s address stressed becoming the richest, safest nation on Earth is secondary to accepting moral leadership. Her appeal to a higher calling resonated with her party. Its re-nomination of FDR and his reelection ushered in America’s finest hour to date.

Hope and Responsibility

We enter Ordinary Time keenly cognizant this is no ordinary time. Civic unrest and natural disasters trouble nations on every continent. Partisan politics, greed, and socio-religious differences fuel fires of hatred and divisiveness. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief have been hijacked to foment intolerance and violence. The Internet and media have become unduly influential Speakers’ Corners where the maddest among us provoke the worst in us. We’re transfixed by the sound of our voice. Our chatter chokes the atmosphere as each of us has his/her say about what’s said. In our clamor to hear and be heard, we have little time or interest in what the Spirit is speaking to us, individually and collectively.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” Hebrews 10.23-24 urges. Hope and responsibility—it’s a message for our time. We can’t allow pessimism and cynical resignation to overtake us. Our God is faithful. Our hope is secure. Nor can we forsake our duty to encourage one another to persist in love and good works. Millions of us are marching together, in synch, across time and through Scripture. We are greater than any government, more powerful than any tyrant, and more influential than any media empire. Faith is our shield. Love is our weapon. Obedience is our strategy. The Spirit speaks. We listen and obey, for our benefit and the good of humankind. We hear and accept the higher calling. We step out of the chaos to clear a higher road that leads to harmony, compassion, and justice. There is no off-season, no intermission, no rest period. This is no ordinary time.

The transition to Ordinary Time reminds us there are millions of hopeful, responsible believers marching in synch through time and Scripture. Together, we're greater than any government, tyrant, or media empire.


Sherry Peyton said...

Yes time, I agree, there is comfort in knowing that people worldwide are reading and praying the same texts together each day. The same is true for the liturgy of the hours. I do morning and evening pray and that is divided into 4 weeks. But during Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany, we stick to Week one of the Psalter in terms of the psalms, changing only the antiphon. I have memorized a goodly number, and was happy to move on again in Ordinary time!

I find a comfort in the rhythm and would be lost without a liturgical year frankly.

Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. :)

Tim said...

The rhythm is indeed comforting, Sherry. As I'm typically up until the wee hours, I tend to the morning readings before turning in and review them a second time in the AM. Then I save the evening readings for just after dinner, when everything's still--no phones or emails, etc. They're just part of the fabric of my day. And I find myself often thinking, "I wonder what everyone else is thinking and praying about with this?"

It's good to be able to be alone with God, but not alone in the world!

Blessings, dear friend,