Ordinary Time in the Christian calendar is not about ordinary and ho-hum events, but about the ordering of Christian existence according to Jesus’ life and teaching above and beyond the Advent and Christmas, Lenten and Easter seasons. This blog post will reflect on what such ordering involves and how important it is for Jesus to order our lives throughout the year, including Ordinary Time.
Before we go further, let’s consider more carefully the meaning of Ordinary Time. Here is what one helpful article explains about Ordinary Time:
Because the term ordinary in English most often means something that’s not special or distinctive, many people think that Ordinary Time refers to parts of the calendar of the Catholic Church that are unimportant. Even though the season of Ordinary Time makes up most of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church, the fact that Ordinary Time refers to those periods that fall outside of the major liturgical seasons reinforces this impression. Yet Ordinary Time is far from unimportant or uninteresting.
Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” not because it is common but simply because the weeks of Ordinary Time are numbered. The Latin word ordinalis, which refers to numbers in a series, stems from the Latin word ordo, from which we get the English word order. Thus, the numbered weeks of Ordinary Time, in fact, represent the ordered life of the Church—the period in which we live our lives neither in feasting (as in the Christmas and Easter seasons) or in more severe penance (as in Advent and Lent), but in watchfulness and expectation of the Second Coming of Christ.
There is no better way to live in watchfulness and expectation for Jesus’ second coming than to submit to Jesus in ordering our steps according to his life and teaching presented during his first coming. So, as we proceed, let’s ask: what’s involved in Jesus ordering our steps during Ordinary Time? The answer: total trust and obedience.
Jesus calls us. The question we must ask ourselves during any season of the year, including Ordinary Time is: will we follow? Are there strings attached—like fishing nets—to our decision as to whether and how far and in what manner we will follow?
Consider Jesus’ first recorded encounter with his first disciples in Matthew chapter 4. Notice that for Peter and Andrew, James and John, there were no strings attached to their determination when Jesus beckoned. They left everything to follow him, illustrated by leaving their nets, their boat(s), and father(s) (Matthew 4:18-22). At the outset of Jesus’ ministry in which he calls people to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17), we find him calling his first disciples. Notice their response:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22; ESV)
The disciples leave behind their allegiances to their families and their fishing businesses, the only way of life they had likely ever known, to become Jesus’ apprentices in his work of fishing for people. These four knew nothing of the path laid out before them, only Jesus’ call to follow. They followed unreservedly, no strings or nets attached. The only thing that they were attached to was Jesus’ word in a spirit of total trust and obedience. I find such a response refreshing, though shocking and staggering given the all-too-human impulse in our day to hedge our bets, keep our relational options open, and play the perpetual cynic.
From the get go, Jesus’ call is a call to die—to die to the old order of life, all they had ever known, to live anew according to his way of being. Thus, we find resonance with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts in his volume on discipleship: “The cross is not the end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death” (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Bonhoeffer Works, page 87). While Jesus’ disciples certainly did not understand all that stood before them on the path ahead, they certainly understood that their past was dead to them in living in accordance with Jesus’ future for them. Thus, there should have been no real surprise when Jesus exclaims later in the same gospel: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; ESV). A few pages later in Discipleship, we find Bonhoeffer quoting Martin Luther who urges us to “submerge” ourselves in a “lack of understanding” to gain Jesus’ understanding (page 91). Again, total trust and obedience in the face of death to new life is required. This requires unlearning to learn anew from Jesus.
No doubt, such total dependence and allegiance, and with it, new learning, can prove unnerving and disturbing to many. But from Jesus’ vantage point, as well as his disciple Bonhoeffer, such dependence and allegiance is liberating and life-giving. Take for example Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30 and Bonhoeffer’s accompanying reflections:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30; ESV).
Jesus beckons those who are weary and weighed down with many burdens to come to him to find rest. How do they find such rest? By taking his yoke—which involves his cross—upon them! And how will that relieve them of their heavy burden? Jesus takes their burdens upon himself and replaces their burdens with his abiding presence involving his gentle and lowly spirit. Only then can they find rest for their souls, as they wear his easy yoke and light burden, of which he himself ultimately bears the brunt. Such a path of discipleship involves unlearning the old system of bearing their own burdens and learning as for the first time what it means to follow Jesus. So, he urges them to learn from him and to get to know him and his character and his good life-giving aims for their lives. The same holds true for us today.
Bonhoeffer explains why Jesus’ burden is light and how his way for us is life-giving in the following manner:
Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burdens they must bear to be light. In the gentle pressure of this yoke they will receive the strength to walk the right path without becoming weary. Jesus’ commandment is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not difficult for someone who willingly accepts it. “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus’ commandment has nothing to do with forced spiritual cures. Jesus demands nothing from us without giving us the strength to comply. Jesus’ commandment never wishes to destroy life, but rather to preserve, strength, and heal life (Discipleship, page 39).
Jesus’ call to us every day of the year, including during Ordinary Time, appears so unordinary, so counterintuitive. As has been argued in this blog post, Jesus’ call intends and invites a response of total trust and obedience, one that from its inception leads to death for the old order of our existence, but that from beginning to end involves new and abundant life. May we submit ourselves to Jesus during Ordinary Time, and not just on Sundays or during Christmastide and Eastertide. May Jesus order our lives. Only his order brings true order out of the chaos of our daily existence. May we not be like those who experience the harsh reality of resisting Jesus’ word, but like those first followers who experienced the gentle reality of obeying Jesus’ life-giving command as they dropped their nets and left their family fishing boats to follow him.