Understanding Ordinary Time

This piece on Ordinary Time was first published in Venn’s print publication The Common, Winter 2019. We are republishing it here to help us understand and enter into this liturgical season.


In his short book The Church’s Year: Unfolding the Mysteries of Christ, Catholic theologian David Fagerberg uses a helpful metaphor to help us make sense of the cyclical nature of the Church calendar. He describes a stick thrown into the ocean pulled along by the ebb and flow of the tide. With each rise and fall of the swell, the stick is brought closer to shore and then sent back out again. Looking on, it seems that the stick will never fully reach land, but, as Fagerberg points out, the energy of the waves is actually drawing the stick closer, whether we see it or not.

The Church calendar is like these waves, Fagerberg says, pushing us incrementally towards the shoreline where God, our Father, waits for us. With each year, and with each season’s rise and fall, we are drawn closer to God. As we enter into the liturgical calendar, we opt into a rhythm of remembrance and mystery around the person of Christ and his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

Within this rhythm of remembrance, Ordinary Time often receives little air time. The season has none of the high points of Advent, with its expectant waiting for Christ’s incarnation and coming at Christ’s Mass (Christmas). Neither does it have the wonder of Epiphany, the solemnity of Lent, the celebration of Easter, nor the joy of Pentecost.

Yet Ordinary Time takes up more than half of the calendar year, comprising either 33 or 34 weeks. It is a season of ordinary routines and regular working weeks, where God’s faithful Church lives out the mystery of Christ in the everyday life. The Latin term for the season is tempus per annum which translates literally to mean ‘time through the year’. There are two sections of Ordinary Time observed; one immediately after the Christmas season, sometimes called Epiphany, and the other following Pentecost. You can recognise the season by its liturgical green.

While the earlier seasons bear witness to particular facets of the mystery of Christ, Ordinary Time bids us enter into and live out the mystery as a whole. As Fagerberg explains, “all the aspects of Christ’s mystery are in the Sundays of Ordinary Time”. Each Sunday of Ordinary Time, we have the opportunity to gather together to take the bread and wine of Eucharist, remembering our own death and resurrection into the life of Christ at baptism. We celebrate and are grateful for the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, acknowledging God’s presence with us daily. We hear the Word of God preached, looking to Christ’s second coming and the life to come.

This is a season of weekly remembrance and daily outworking, helping us to live out God’s redemptive story in the regular routine of family life, work, and play.

Theologian Robert Taft puts it like this: “in the early Church, Sunday was indeed everything… It is the day symbolic of all days, for the purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual movement that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives.”

Ordinary Time is a season of ordinary Sundays, where God’s ordinary people gather to worship and remember the extraordinary mystery of God’s good work in our lives for the sake of the world.

(Image: Kareen Durbin)