I can remember the exact moment when I learned that the designator “ordinary” in the liturgical season “Ordinary Time” is not used to convey the absence of specialness, or the sentiment of commonplace. It was roughly a decade ago (which is to say, welllllll into my life as a Catholic, considering that I was born and raised in a faithfully practicing family) as I prepared to teach a Confirmation prep class on the liturgical year when I discovered that the title of the season is derived from the medieval Latin word ordinale, meaning “to count.” We call Ordinary Time ordinary because we count the weeks — which are named in number order — between the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Lent, and then Easter and Advent.
At the time of discovery, I was blown away. All these years I had thought that we called Ordinary Time “ordinary” because it is less noteworthy than the other five seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Triduum and Easter). These other seasons, after all, are marked by major feast days, joyful celebrations, and special practices that live large within the Catholic imagination (lighting an Advent wreath, or fasting and almsgiving, for instance). But since learning the true meaning of the season’s name, I have grown in awareness of all the ways that Ordinary Time is not at all “ordinary” in the common sense of the word.
Here are three aspects of what makes Ordinary Time a unique and meaningful time in the church calendar.
Ordinary Time takes us through the life of Christ
During most of Ordinary Time, Sunday Mass is marked by a semi-continuous reading of the Synoptic Gospels over the course of three years (designated as Year A, Year B and Year C). In Year A, we read mostly from the Gospel of Matthew, in Year B, we read the Gospel of Mark, and in Year C, we read the Gospel of Luke. While the Gospels are certainly attended to in the other liturgical seasons, it is in a more thematic manner (i.e. readings related to the expectation and birth of Christ in Advent and Christmas; readings related to the suffering and eventual death of Jesus in Lent and Triduum).
Ordinary Time, however, takes us through the bulk of Jesus’s teaching ministry. For instance, it’s during ordinary time that we hear the parables, the miracle stories, and gems like the Beatitudes and the Greatest Commandment. It may be heavy handed to say this, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it feels so true: the Gospels in Ordinary Time are the meat and potatoes of what it means to be a Christian. They show us how Jesus lived, they share with us Jesus’s teachings, and they call us to follow him. This is important stuff.
Ordinary Time is full of significant memorials and feast daysEaster and Christmas might be the most memorable Feast Days of the liturgical year… but they are far from being the only feast days, and given the length of Ordinary Time, there are quite a few liturgically important feasts packed into the weeks between the end of the Christmas Season and Ash Wednesday, and then the end of Eastertide and the first Sunday of Advent.
For instance, many Saint Days of note fill these weeks. In the first several weeks of Ordinary Time alone we remember Saint Anthony the Abbot, St. Agnes, Saint Frances de Sales, Saints Timothy and Titus, St. Thomas Aquinas and Saint John Bosco, as well as the Conversion of St. Paul. Each of these saints' days (and the many others whose feast days fill the liturgical year) are instances to call to mind the faithful members of the Body of Christ who have walked the earth in the decades, centuries and millennia following Jesus’s life and death. As we remember the saints, we are invited to learn from their lives and follow in their footsteps.
Additionally, two important solemnities that occur during Ordinary Time are the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Solemnity of All Saints. During the former, we are reminded of the unique role that Mary served in our salvation history, and during the latter, we honor and celebrate the vast majority of Christian saints who don’t have a specific feast day to celebrate their lives. On All Saints Day, we remember all of the men and women who have gone before us whose lives were marked by Christian faith and action in the world.
Ordinary Time presents us with opportunities for conversion, growth and maturation
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops describes Ordinary Time as “the time of conversion,” “a time for growth and maturation,” and “a time in which the mystery of Christ is called to penetrate ever more deeply into history.” In other words, it’s not a season to be taken lightly. During Ordinary Time, we are invited to dig more deeply into our own inner, spiritual lives as we walk through the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s a time for reflection on our relationships, our vocations, our everyday action in the world. It’s a time to seek change where it is needed, to dive deeper into Scripture and Tradition, and to pursue ever more sincerely a life of discipleship.
Suffice it to say, Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. May we all use this season to immerse ourselves in the life of Christ; to learn from the saints whom we celebrate throughout the weeks; and to seek continual conversion of heart.