One of the beauties of Catholicism is the centrality of seasons in the religious and spiritual imagination in the Catholic consciousness. We begin the Liturgical Year with the First Sunday of Advent, then celebrate Christmas, move over to Lent and get to the apex at Easter. Sandwiched in between these four seasons is what the Liturgical Calendar refers to as “Ordinary Time.” The four liturgical seasons could very well be a spiritual interpretation of the four seasons that mark what is often designated in socio-economic and political terms as the Global North.
The Second Vatican Council called for a “noble simplicity” which should mark the transition from one liturgical season to another, in terms of colours, Scripture texts, songs, symbols and prayers. These express the Church’s deepest identity and self-understanding. The liturgical seasons certainly are reflective of the richness of the Catholic faith, both East and West, and provide the opportunity to encounter Catholicism in its organic form. Underlining this change of seasons is the God of creation, the source of all that is. The seasons of the liturgical year are therefore about God and history, a perspective that frees Catholics from a blind alley of historical relativism. Since God opens the door to all creation, this sense of history that the seasons convey, for the Christian, is grounded on Christ’s entrance into history, at the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). Christmas is therefore the hermeneutical key of apprehending Catholicism and time.
The implication of these interplay of liturgical seasons for the Catholic is, as Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig MULLER observed in his May 17 2014 Address on the Ecclesiality of the Catechism at St. Patrick’s College Seminary, Maynooth, Ireland, that “Catholicism is not a philosophy. It is a revealed religion. This means the context of our faith is not the product of human ingenuity. (This) by no means is meant to disparage the achievements, or necessity even, of rigorous philosophical thinking.” The healthy Catholic attitude is therefore to see in the change of liturgical seasons the masterful creative hand of God, the beauty of creation. In other words, the liturgical seasons are about God’s revelation of God’s self in history to historical beings.
Inserted between the four seasons is what Catholic liturgical language refers to as “Ordinary Time,” perhaps for want of a better language. The site liturgies.net explains: “Ordinary Time contains thirty-three or thirty-four weeks. It begins on the Monday following the Sunday after January 6 and continues until the beginning of Lent; it begins again on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday and ends on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent.” While Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter have clear spiritual and theological definitions: Christ’s Coming; Christ’s Birth; Christ’s Passion; and Christ’s Resurrection, “Ordinary Time” appears problematic to define or characterize. Just what do we do with these thirty-three or thirty-four weeks?
We can find a hint in the Collect (Opening Prayer) of the Mass of the First Sunday of Ordinary Time. The Church Prays: “Attend to the pleas of your people with heavenly care, O Lord, we pray, that they may see what must be done and gain strength to do what they have seen. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” I find it significant that the dominant sense invoked in this prayer is that of sight, which for the Christian is obviously not about the sense of physical sight. This begs the question: What has the Christian seen? My answer: With the Magi, the Christian has seen the newborn King. The star has led the Christian to the manger, and there, we have worshipped the newborn King. The end of Christmas is therefore the return of the Christian through another road, very different from the one that previously led the Christian to the palace of Herod. Ordinary Time is therefore the time of living out what we have seen at Christmas: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1).
So Ordinary Time is not a time of nothingness, of a low liturgical moment. It is a time for proving the self, of living in such a way that we reflect that the experience of encountering the Son of God at Christmas was a life-changing experience. In political language, we could say that Ordinary Time is the post-election period, in which we are challenged to deliver on our election promises, we who have been elected in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).
If anything, Ordinary Time is certainly not an “idle” time that is waiting for the next high-peak season, be it Advent or Lent. It is a time of much spiritual profit, in which we mature from the crib of Christmas to the glory of the risen Lord. It is a time in which the believer grows into adulthood: “Their task was to train God’s people for the work of service and for the building up of Christ’s body, until in the end we all become one in that unity which comes through believing in and knowing the Son of God. Then we shall have achieved our perfect manhood, that full maturity which comes from Christ. We shall no longer be like little children, tossed by the waves and blown by every wind of false teaching, at the mercy of cunning people wickedly plotting to lead us astray. No, we shall base our lives on truth and love, and grow up into perfect union with Christ” (Eph. 4: 12 – 15).
Thus, Ordinary Time is an opportune time for maturing in our relationship with Christ. The question we must answer on Ash Wednesday should therefore be: How have I matured in Christ during this Ordinary Time? This is no superfluous question, especially in the context of a secular culture that seeks to silence the faith once delivered to the saints, considering as bigots those who prefer to stick it out with the Jesus of the Bible, even at the cost of friendship, jobs, economic and political privileges, et cetera. Only an adult faith, only a maturing in Christ faith will be capable of withstanding the tsunami of militant secularism, and Ordinary Time gives just such a privileged opportunity to mature in that faith, semper, ubique et ab omnibus, to cite the timeless maxim of Vincent of Lerins.