Ordinary Time

Catholic_Bible_Study_Roman_CatholicI don’t know for sure that it’s true, but I have heard that we call it “Ordinary Time” because what defines this season of the Church is reading through the Bible “in order.” Whether or not that’s the source of the name, it is the most fitting description of the season we resume today.

Starting today, daily Mass returns to the two-year cycle in which we read straight through Matthew, Mark, and Luke (with the removal of only small sections that would otherwise be duplicated) every year, and large sections of the Old and New Testaments every other year. (John gets scattered throughout every year, but not in order.) Sunday Mass now continues reading in order through this year’s one of those three Gospels (Matthew), and a somewhat orderly succession of other readings to match.

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We might think of this as “ordinary” in contrast to the “interesting” seasons of the Church. But this “orderly” reading of Scripture should actually be considered the “normal” way of the Christian life, with the other seasons only added to highlight it.

Imagine how this might have developed. (The sources on this are somewhat murky, but this exercise in imagination does seem to match roughly the actual historical development of the Lectionary.)

Imagine you are in a community in which the Gospel of Matthew is read, in order, throughout the Sundays of the year. You would read, perhaps, about half a chapter each week. Obviously the Sunday when you read the Passion (in this scheme, it would be pretty near the end of the year) would be given some special prominence. So too would the Sunday when you read the great Gospel of the birth of Christ.

Easter – the Sundays of the Passion and of the Resurrection – would obviously be the high point. If someone wanted to join the Church (as was an especially important part of the early life of the Church), you might tell them Easter is the Sunday to do it. And then you might give them a season of preparation before that – Lent. And in time, you might say, this makes good sense. Why don’t we all take a season to prepare for the Sundays when we read the Gospels of the Passion and the Resurrection. And so you insert a mini-season into Ordinary Time. And then, perhaps, you add another season afterward, to welcome the neophytes into the Church, to help them celebrate – the Easter season.

Eventually, you might match those seasons with similar, short seasons of preparation and celebration for reading the Gospel of Christ’s Birth. And you might move those Sundays to match the seasons: the darkness of Christmas, the new birth of Spring.

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The point is, all of this is grafted on to Ordinary Time. It is not that we have “real” liturgical seasons, and then these other non-seasons. To the contrary, the heart of the Lectionary, and of the passage of the Church’s year, is the orderly reading through the Gospels. The other seasons are only added to spruce up that orderly reading. Ordinary Time really is the normal way of the Christian life.

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Now, you may know that Ordinary Time is “new” after Vatican II. For many many centuries before the Council, the Lectionary was the same every year; it read a very small part of the Bible (less than 4% of the Old Testament – plus lots and lots of Psalms – and 11% of the New Testament, and 22% of the Gospels), with most weekdays just repeating the previous Sunday’s readings, and nothing exactly in order. The new Lectionary, by contrast, gets through about 14% of the Old Testament (we read nothing like all of it, but a lot more than before, and a good sample) and 55% of the New Testament (plus 90% of the Gospels).

But to understand Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, we must understand two things. First of all, the evidence does point to earlier lectionaries that were much more like the modern one: this is a restoration, not an innovation. Second, traditional Catholic spirituality – the spirituality of the middle ages, especially – could afford to have less Scripture at Mass because it was assumed that anyone who had a spiritual life spent vast amounts o f time reading Scripture outside of Mass!

Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, then, is not a novelty, but a reboot, a return to traditional Catholic spirituality. “Orderly” reading of the Bible is the normal path of Catholic spirituality. Only because we have forgotten that does the new Lectionary try to draw us back, through this wonderful emphasis in the Lectionary on reading and savoring every verse.

Where is the Bible in your spirituality?