After the end of Christmas, what next?
After all the excitement of Advent and Christmas and the special feasts afterwards, it can come as a slight surprise to find ourselves at the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. Especially as it’s the Second Sunday. This is because the First Sunday is what is known in the trade as ‘perpetually impeded’ by the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. You might ask why, if it’s perpetually impeded, the Church doesn’t renumber; you might well ask, but there isn’t an answer, so I just file it mentally with the fact the first verse of every psalm is v2 (because the title is v1, but we don’t actually have the titles….) and try not to get sidetracked.
Ordinary Time…for what?
So here we are in Ordinary Time. Some people in the Church do not like the expression, saying that no time is ordinary. They are right of course, but we do need a way to map our position in the year. Their preferred solution is to count forwards and backwards to the major feasts, which leads to those lovely poetic names we remember from childhood (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima etc). However, this is opaque and simply confusing for most people, as it’s counting days not weeks (so Septuagesima is a reference to the number ‘seventy’, but is the name for the ninth Sunday before Easter, the third before Lent (and so on). The point about Ordinary Time is that it counts up from the Baptism of the Lord to Ash Wednesday, nice and simple (except it starts with ‘Second’). I hope this is now clear.
When it happens (twice)
I like Ordinary Time. Birthdays and celebrations may be the peaks in our lives, but ordinary time is where we jog along in the normal way, finding unexpected pleasures, surprises or simple recurrences of things we’d forgotten. The Church gives us two chunks of it, the chunk between Christmas and Lent, and the chunk between Trinity and Advent. So the Church’s year runs like this :
- Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism
- Ordinary Time 1
- Easter, Pentecost, Trinity
- Ordinary Time 2
and back to the beginning again, with everything else tucked into place in the great wheel that keeps turning, so you can get on and off at any point, like one of the old (terrifying) paternoster lifts. (If you don’t know about these, here’s a link to a video of a brave American trying out the one in Prague’s Lucerna. The University of Sheffield also has one, but much bigger, and the video of that would really upset Volmar, who is claustrophobic and hates lifts, so I haven’t put that one in. )
Grow or shrink to fit
The advantage of Ordinary Time is that it is sufficiently flexible to cope with the variable date of Easter. There is a complicated formula (explanation here) for the date of Easter, which changes every year, so sometimes we need more Sundays because the gaps are bigger, or fewer because they are smaller. This year we have seven Sundays in Ordinary Time (only six really, because we start with Second) before Lent begins. Some years there are ‘as few as four’, says my missal helpfully. It can go up to as many as nine, though in ten years or so I haven’t needed to set 9 OTA or 9 OTB yet. (9 OTC is the psalm for SS Peter and Paul, and St Patrick, so we have that one already.)
Time and calendars
Church time is different from our usual calendar. It’s interesting to watch children beginning to grasp that you can actually have more than one calendar, because most adults don’t think about it much. The Church’s year is a helpful corrective, starting in Advent as it does, so a month or so ahead of the standard Julian calendar. Calendars turn out to be like languages, where once you learn a second one, the world opens up as you realise that a third, fourth or fifth is entirely possible, and wouldn’t even cover a decent chunk of the options. When we were living in Eastern Europe, the children were delighted to discover that this meant two options for Christmas, and Russia has all the fun of New New Year and Old New Year.
God makes time and people make calendars
It all helps to sharpen your perception of the arbitrariness of human calendars. Because apart from all the varying man-made calendars, there is what you might call ‘God’s time’ : the natural sequence of events which we don’t know, can’t affect, and tend to appreciate only after the event (plants growing, fruit ripening, babies choosing to arrive etc.). This is what is celebrated in that beautiful poem in Ecclesiastes 3, which unrolls like the chiming of a great clock : ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to wail and a time to dance’ and so on. This is what it means when Psalm 1 talks about ‘due season’.
Have yourself a sultry little Christmas….
Talking of seasons, at least half the Church is in the southern hemisphere, so whenever there are nature references in the Gospels or in the Bible more generally, they are the wrong way up. I talked about this briefly the Christmas before last, and I promised Sherry to go into it a bit further, but haven’t got around to it until now. Of course it’s not as bad as it might be, because the Holy Land is much nearer to the Equator and the seasons there are flattened out, so that you are thinking in terms of the rains or the dry season rather than winter or summer. Weather events are mentioned in the Psalms (storms, hurricanes, raging winds, drought) much more than seasons or climate, because people were thinking in a more limited local context. That means that there are fewer clashes than you might expect. All the same, it is odd to have all the readings about Christmas when you are yourself feeling very warm; and the Advent readings begging for more rain are not comforting in early December, when you are walking home from church in the sleet.
Snow on snow on snow on snow
It’s the carols and Christmas poems that tend to make the difference in the weather more apparent, with all the references to snow and midwinter, T.S. Eliot, Robert Southey and so on, not the Bible. The emphasis in the Gospel narrative is more on the inconvenience of having to travel at that stage in a pregnancy than on how cold it was on the way. I’ve talked before about how all that snow is a cultural assumption, and how rare snow is in the Psalms. It must have been terrible this year to feel the mismatch between traditional (northern) Christmas carols, and the bushfires in Australia. Even in normal years, you feel the clash, and I know when we were in a country where Christmas fell in the summer, it took us a while to adjust; but I’m also sure that in time there will be lots of Christmas music and poems written by people for whom a warm Christmas is normal, and I look forward to reading and hearing more. Indeed, some of it is already coming through, like Christmas calypsos.
…can Spring be far behind?
But this is all looking backwards, and I wanted to talk about the upcoming weeks of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time will take us from winter into the beginnings of spring. It’s a good crop of psalms, going from the lovely Samuel psalm (39/40, ‘Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will’, left open without a cadence, because it’s up to God what happens next), through gazing on loveliness (Ps 26/27) to the Presentation on February 2nd, which bumps 4 OTA. I need to blog about that psalm separately, because it is a major feast, which just happens to coincide with a Sunday this year. 5 OTA is about light, again (Ps 111/112), so in some ways throwing back to the Christmas imagery. 6 and 7 OTA are about the beauty and importance of the Law (Ps 118/119, the longest psalm of all, but we only sing a little bit of it; and Ps 102/103), well timed just before we arrive at Ash Wednesday on February 26th. So this session of Ordinary Time is quite brief, but has some jewels embedded in it. I have tried to set them so that they can sparkle.
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