The first time I heard the term “Ordinary Time” I was in major seminary and I have to admit that the term left me cold. I was about 22 then, had been raised in the era of Latin worship and feasts, and the new Roman Missal, introduced in 1970, seemed quite a step down from the color, variety, and inspiration of the older Tridentine Missal, which dated back to the late 1500s and was a byproduct of the reform Council of Trent.
Prior to 1970 there was no ordinary time in our calendar. From Epiphany Sunday till the Lenten Season the Sundays were numerically ordered as the “Xth Sunday after Epiphany.” The Mass of the Second Sunday after Epiphany always contained the Gospel reading of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Similarly the Sundays after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday were called the “Xth Sunday after Pentecost.” In both seasons the color of the vestments was green, as is true of Ordinary Time today.
When the new Missal (and liturgical calendar) was published in its original Latin, the new term for the old green Sundays was simply Tempus per annum or “time of the year.” The thinking behind adopting the term “Ordinary Time” is not known to me; most encyclopedias point out-correctly-that the word “ordinary” actually refers to “ordinal numbers” (1, 2, 3, etc,) so that we name Sundays by their numerical sequence rather than calendar placement.
I note with some humor that every source I checked today on the topic of Ordinary Time bent over backwards to assure the reader that “Ordinary Time” is not “ordinary.” Church publications of all sorts talk of Ordinary time as a season of growth in the Christian life, with the green vestments symbolic of verdant growth of God’s Kingdom. (Of course, the early Sundays of Ordinary Time sometimes include blizzards and “Polar Vortexes” so the symbol of green is not always as evident as it will be in the Sundays following Pentecost in the spring.)
With this brief summary in mind, let me add a few thoughts. First of all, consider our real life experiences of feasts amid routine. The human spirit thrives upon opportunities to celebrate. Sociologists have described “play” as “loss of consciousness of space and time.” (Any parent trying to corral playing children from outside for dinner will vouch for this truth.) This contrast between extraordinary feasting and daily routine has long been a staple of the Christian calendar and from a catechetical vantage point teaches the importance of the great feasts of our redemption, the Christmas and Lent/Easter liturgies alongside the daily commitment of living the fruits of these feasts.
Second, I again hearken to a point I made last week that the Church’s liturgical year is centered in some respect upon a unique vision of Christ’s life and meaning by an inspired Evangelist. To be honest, I have rarely if ever seen a parish pastor or liturgical committee bring much thought to this aspect of the Sunday Eucharist. Identifying the Ordinary Sundays as chronological and theological journeys through the life of Christ through the Gospel of Matthew, Mark/John, or Luke leading to climactic reflections upon the “last days” and judgment in November carries a lot of heft. The element of a unified Gospel dynamic through Ordinary Time makes the passage of the numbered Sundays much more captivating.
And finally, I recall years ago reading a medieval historian who raised the question of whether the people of the Middle Ages know they were living in the Middle Ages. The historian answered in the affirmative: the people had a strong sense of living in the middle time between the saving revelation and victory of Christ, on the one hand, and the approaching day of wrath and judgment climaxed by the Second Coming of Christ. This strikes me as an excellent metaphor for Ordinary Time, in which we keep before us what we have received and remain mindful of the reckoning ahead.