Extraordinary Ordinary Time

June 30th, 2011

When I first learned that the Sundays after Epiphany as well as what we called the seasons of Pentecost and Kingdomtide were to be rolled into “ordinary time,” I was quite off put. The word ordinary suggested something mediocre or unspectacular. Why would anyone want to name a season of the Christian year ordinary—especially when the scripture lessons appointed for ordinary time are anything but ordinary.

We all know that the Christian year rotates around the two major festivals of Easter and Christmas. These two feasts are directly linked to the two sacraments ordained by God as means of grace: Eucharist and Baptism.

In the Eucharist we give thanks for the new life made possible through faith in Christ by his resurrection. In Epiphany we celebrate our Lord’s baptism and God’s act in the church through which we are initiated into the fellowship of God’s people and adopted as children of grace. Baptism and Eucharist express all God has done for our salvation.

Yet there is more. Christian faith not only accepts and gives thanks for all God does for us; it is also about what God does in us and through us. Theologians note this distinction by speaking of justifying grace and sanctifying grace.

Justifying grace is given for us. It is as if we were convicted terrorists who have received complete amnesty and restoration to full citizenship. Sanctifying grace is God’s act in us whereby we are actually rehabilitated from within. The Wesleys spoke of sanctifying grace as being “perfected in love.” This means that not only are we forgiven our actual transgressions, but also there is born in us a desire to sin no longer and to live only to please God.

Proclaiming the Message of Salvation

The Christian year is designed to proclaim this whole message of salvation. Whereas God’s saving acts that save us from sin are recalled in Easter and Christmas, ordinary time tells us that because we are now God’s people we are enabled, by grace, to live a life of righteousness.

Ordinary time is about living the resurrected life in sanctification or holiness of life. The seasonal emphases within the Christian year speak to the completeness of faith and practice: feast and fasting, celebration and penitence, mission and service, personal devotion and corporate worship.

We all love parties, but we understand, almost intuitively, that not all of life can be a party. Ordinary meals of lentil pie or tofu with bok choy or tuna casserole can meet the body’s nutritional needs. The many simple meals that precede feasting make the festal meal all the more celebrative.

For this reason, most cultures observe festivals associated with springtime and harvest. Tending the fields was not festival time; it was done in ordinary time.

There is good reason why the liturgical color for ordinary time is green. During the weeks following the Epiphany, we are reminded that upon being named God’s Son, Jesus began his public ministry. The growth from the seed of baptism is the mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Ordinary time reminds all the baptized that they are commissioned in their baptism to make Christ known to the nations.

In contrast, during the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we feast on the reality that the life of faith is not one of oppressive duty. The risen Christ does not call us to miserable martyrdom, but, rather, to joyful sacrifice because our minds have been renewed and transformed by the mind that was in Christ (Romans 12:1).

Teaching Sanctifying Grace

So how is sanctifying grace at work in ordinary time? What are the challenges in the scripture lessons that are read and the sermons that are preached during ordinary time?

In ordinary time we hear that although our culture promotes individualism, sanctifying grace may call us to subordinate our own preferences in order to serve the needs of the whole. Other themes we hear may result in our spending endless hours working on a committee to plan for meeting the needs of the homeless. In response to the Word we might visit inmates in jails and prisons and form relationships that might bring an end to the revolving door of recidivism.

Growing in sanctifying grace may mean serving as a sponsor to a confirmand or teaching a Sunday school class. Holy living means becoming acquainted with our new neighbors and making sure they know they are invited to and welcome in our church. The messages that come to us in ordinary time might even result in sacrificing a resort vacation in order to join a mission work team to Honduras.

As we seek to be in mission to others, we become aware of our limitations. It is easy to become weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9). So we turn toward a time of introspection and particular devotion during Lent. A meaningful Lent is not the grim determination to refrain from committing sin. Saying no to sin is the decision already made in our baptism. Now the struggle is between competing goods or seeking excellence rather than the merely acceptable.

After fifty days of holy partying in Eastertide, we return to ordinary time just when the summer holidays arrive. Summer is another season for growth in sanctifying grace. Many Christians are blessed by opportunities to serve in church camps, vacation Bible school, and summer migrant ministry programs. Others hold block parties to become acquainted with neighbors and to share with them the fellowship of their congregation. Others find time to go on a church family camping experience to build faith and deepen family relationships.

Ordinary time continues into fall and the exhausting, time-consuming task of implementing the fall church program, building church budgets, and making contact with persons who have become detached from their faith community. There is the simple task of doing fundraisers of various sorts for the support of the church’s outreach ministries.

Serving Our Communities

One more thing. For us in the United States, ordinary time is the florid season of politics. In our nation, Christians are privileged not to be excluded from politics. During ordinary time we hear that we are the church not because we do “church work,” but because we are called to serve our communities as servants of Christ.

The life of the congregation is not lived within the walls of the church building but in the world. Our worship, study, and fellowship exist to equip us to be in mission. Politics is the complex process by which public policy is determined. Christians do not opt out of public policy concerns but seek to develop policies that are moral and, above all, compassionate.

Ordinary time teaches us that holiness of life is not the proverbial being “so heavenly minded one is of no earthly good.” It is the realization that being heavenly minded is the only way we can be of earthly good.

A clean heart means we can get our hands dirty. The means by which our lives are made holy is through caring for the poor and through doing deeds of mercy. The Samaritan who gave succor to the robbery victim fulfilled the commandment to love God and neighbor.

Ordinary time tells us we do not find righteousness by directly searching after righteousness. Righteousness comes to us indirectly through our willingness to live a life of service for others.
Central to our faith is the awareness that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16). God gave his Son that we might be born again and become the children of God.

Ordinary time moves us from celebrating God’s saving acts for us to performing God’s saving acts in the world for the sake of the world God loves so dearly. Expressing our love for God’s world makes ordinary time extraordinary.

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