What’s the purpose of Ordinary Time?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 29, November 2017 | Category:   Liturgy
Ordinary Time
Its purpose is grander than its name: maturity in Christian living.

From the earliest biblical records, God’s people have recognized ritual time as a divine gift that makes present the blessings of the past. Our Christian liturgical year embraces that understanding. Ordinary is a word we normally use to distinguish something from the unusual. “Ordinary Time” sounds like it marks routine weeks not contained within the more eventful seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter. Yet the mundane truth is, the term comes from the Latin tempus ordinarium, or “measured time.” These are, simply, the numbered weeks of the year, ordered from 1 to 34.

Unlike other seasons that occur in uninterrupted blocks of days, Ordinary Time inhabits two sections of the calendar. The first is a five-to-eight week period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Ordinary Time is then “interrupted” by the major seasons of Lent and Easter for about 14 weeks. The second, longer block of the season occurs after Pentecost, continuing to the end of the church year on the feast of Christ the King, which would otherwise be the “34th Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

(An aside about the variant weeks: the date of Easter determines the liturgical year. Easter Sunday is determined by the Jewish custom of setting Passover on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Once the date of Easter is determined, we count six and a half weeks back to Ash Wednesday. Whatever time is left between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is the length of the first segment of Ordinary Time, which in turn affects the count of the second.)

This merely establishes the territory of this season. Its purpose is grander than its name: maturity in Christian living. Every Sunday is a “little Easter,” the church fathers remind us. Each Sunday we gather to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, just as each Friday we commemorate his death with abstinence from meat or another sacrificial act. Saturdays within Ordinary Time are observances of Mary, mother of the church, who exemplifies the “yes” of discipleship. Saints’ feasts sprinkled through the weeks recall what martyrs and holy ones have made of their response in faith. The color green marks the vestments and altar cloths to remind us of the growth in the Spirit expected of us. In fact, at an earlier time these ordinal weeks were considered part of Pentecost altogether: a full season of celebrating the life of the Spirit at work in the church.

Scripture: Exodus 12:1-20; 23:14-17; 31:12-17; Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:1-44; John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 13:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:1 

Books: Introduction to the Study of Liturgy, by Albert Gerhards and Benedikt Kranemann (Liturgical Press, 2017)

When I in Awesome Wonder: Liturgy Distilled from Daily Life, by Jill Crainshaw (Liturgical Press, 2017)

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