Worst of times, best of times…Ordinary Time?

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.

Time for everything, but hard to read
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.

much easier, but still lots of information (Meier clock, Detroit)
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 :

  • Advent
  • Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism
  • Ordinary Time 1
  • Lent
  • 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. )

Round and round we go
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.)

Dragon with extra head on tail
counting forwards and backwards
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’.

How many different kinds of time?
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.

if only we had the soundtrack
…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.

me and Volmar, vorking avay

The finger of God : the power of touch

Roller-coaster ride

We have moved in two weeks from the Christmas baby to the Epiphany and now to (the adult) Jesus’ baptism.  It’s perfectly normal to feel out of breath at the speed of the Church’s narrative at this stage!

Wheeeee!
God (almost) on-stage

One of the things I especially like about the accounts of Jesus’ baptism is the almost-appearance of God himself.  I’ve talked before about how the words God speaks, here and at the Transfiguration (coming up second Sunday of Lent), sound to me like every proud parent : ‘Look, this is my very own son; isn’t he lovely,  pay attention to him’.  God does not appear or intervene much in Jesus’ life on earth.  We know Jesus often talks to him, goes off to be alone with him, talks about him a lot and clearly trusts him utterly;  but God is not visible or tangible in the Gospel accounts, except as an occasional voice.  And the same is (mostly) true for us in our human lives.

Father and Son (and John the Baptist, and towel-carrying angel)
God’s touch in the sacraments

This is one reason why the sacraments are so important and so different from everything else:  they are the moments when God the Father can put out a hand and intervene in this world which he created.  They are moments when we are literally ‘in touch’ with God.  At any child’s baptism, you can hear the voice only with the ear of faith, but God says again,’Look at this lovely child; from today it is one of my own.’

God’s touch in (our) creation

In Genesis 2, in the second account of the Creation, God ‘fashions’ human beings out of the mud. He moulds them like a potter, or like a child playing with sand or mud. His familiar touch is described in the psalms, and he knows his creatures so well because he knitted them together in the womb, the one who can search their hearts (Ps 138/139). Knitting is not the work of a moment; this is a slow job, a labour of love.  Above all, it’s a very physical relationship.

Couldn’t find a good knitted version, but here’s a tapestry one, another labour of love
God hidden from our sight

In the narrative of the other books in the Old Testament, especially the early ones, after his earliest appearances, walking in the garden and chatting to Adam etc., God operates without visible presence, although other things stand in for him (clouds, burning bushes, a fearsome voice like thunder, and so on).  Prophets are there just to pass on the messages which God wants to give to his people;  the idea of foretelling comes much later.  No one but Moses can look upon him and live, so the Chosen People are happy not to try and see him in the flesh.  God comes to talk to Job, but this is a book of poetry rather than history, and the encounter is not sited in the world in which we live.

Just like me, /they want to be /close to you

But we remain physical beings, bodies as well as souls, and we crave the touch of those whom we love.  Babies need to be touched, if they are to grow up healthy.  Luckily, there is also the phenomenon of what you might call ‘transferred touch’: if you can’t be with someone, you can give them something which represents you, a blanket, a toy, a necklace, a pebble – almost anything can be one of these magical objects if we choose to make it so.  It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s a lot better than nothing, and there is enough comfort in it to keep us going till we are together again.  Many love poems focus on the touch of the beloved; many of the psalms are love poems; how do the psalmists talk about touch, when they talk about God?

God’s touch in the Psalms

We can manage without physical touch to some extent, if we have the perception of presence.  God shows his presence in the psalms through his creation.  He’s always doing something which shows his effect upon the physical world he has created, either with his voice (‘The Lord’s voice shatters the mountains, and stripping the forests bare’ Ps 28/29) or by the movement we feel as he passes (‘He rode upon the wings of the wind’ Ps 17/18).  But the psalmist goes further than this.  God is so real a presence to him that he imagines him actually touching him physically (Lord, you search me and you know me ‘ Ps 138/139….’My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast’ Ps 62/63).   This intense nearness is striking.  There’s an early poem in one of G. K. Chesterton’s notebooks, called ‘The Prayer of a Man Walking’, where he thanks God for several things ‘but most of all for the great wind in my nostrils/ as if thine own nostrils were close’, which again uses an acutely carnal metaphor to indicate the nearness of the relationship with God, who obviously doesn’t have nostrils.

God and the human touch

The impression is strengthened by the way that the psalmist portrays God in his own image (‘the heavens the work of your fingers’ Ps 8, ‘Sit at my right hand’ Ps 109/110).  He calls on God not just to save him but to beat up his enemies and smash their teeth in (cf Ps 4).  This is an almost shockingly physical God, because his presence is overwhelmingly close to us.  And he’s a lot bigger than anyone else’s god (Pss 76/77, 88/89).

What god is great as our God?

God is much more present in the Psalms than in many other Old Testament books (it’s partly because of all those second-person verbs, not ‘he’ but ‘you’), and this is one reason why Christians count the book of Psalms as almost part of the New Testament, which must annoy the Jews slightly.   But people only adopt poems, prayers or plays for love, and that tends to be forgiven.

Jesus’ hands were kind hands

In the New Testament, of course, the question of touch is completely different, because Jesus touches people all the time to heal them, and seems to do it completely freely and unselfconsciously (even, remarkably, with women).  He takes a girl’s hand (Mark 5.41), he washes his friends’ feet (Matthew 26). He picks up a random child to demonstrate a point (Mark 9.36).  Indeed, as the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9) perceives, he doesn’t even need to touch you, you just need to touch him, even his garment.  This is an indication of the enormous power of Jesus’ physical presence, and he can do it with no more than a word if he chooses (the ten lepers, Luke 17 ) though sometimes he uses spittle and mud in what seems almost a self-parody (healing the blind man, John 9).  He tells stories where people touch each other : the man in the Good Samaritan takes good physical care of the victim before confiding him to someone else (Luke 10); the prodigal son is greeted with embraces before he even reaches home (Luke 15).  Jesus is not squeamish about touch, even about touching his wounds, which he encourages Thomas to do (John 20).

God’s finger, the Holy Spirit

There are two more conclusions I would like to draw from talking about God’s touch.  The first is, as Saint Teresa says, that we now have to be Jesus’ hands, since he is no longer here with us on earth and God has no other body.  Just as we can be angels, bringing his messages, so we can do his work in our physical bodies, bringing the feel of his touch.  The second is that we should always be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit.   Look again at the picture of Jesus’ baptism.  The Holy Spirit is there, in the form of a dove, and you can see God’s finger just above.  This is an old idea in the Church.  The beautiful ninth-century song about the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator, calls the Holy Spirit  ‘Finger of God’s right hand’ in the standard English translation, which is exact.  The Holy Spirit brings God’s touch to us.   God wants to touch us just as much as we want to touch our children or the people we love; the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments or elsewhere, is how he does it.  And it doesn’t even strike us as strange; and that is because of the way the psalmists sing about it.

God’s touch at the Annunciation (Lippi)

 

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