Ordinary Time is upon us. It does seem like a sorry exchange to go from Christmas and Epiphany to the ordinary. Some may long for a liturgical year in which there is no Ordinary Time at all—as in the past, when Christmastide was followed by Epiphanytide and the whole year was oriented around feast and fasts. Must we resign ourselves to this drab liturgical season? Or are we left with painful retorts like “Ordinary Time isn’t ordinary—it’s extra-ordinary”? This response, decked with smiley-face emojis, makes me wince. It misses the value of calling Ordinary Time, well, ordinary.
W. H. Auden perceived the ordinariness of time in his poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Even before the institution of an “ordinary” liturgical season, Auden understood that “for the time being” we mostly live in the ordinary. His Christmas Oratorio is a melancholy verse whose closing is written for the time after Christmas: “Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” The clean-up from Christmas must come. Who hasn’t grumbled about pine needles left all over the floor after they’ve dragged a tree out to the curb? We have leftovers and gifts to return and a general exhaustion from “having drunk such a lot, / Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully— / To love all our relatives, and in general / Grossly overestimated our powers.”
Auden’s vision of unsuccessful attempts applies not only to our difficult uncles, but to our turning the Holy Family away:
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain his disobedient servant
The promising child who cannot keep his world for long.
To live like the Holy Family seems too hard. And so, we put the crèches away for another year, and forget that God descended in the form of an ordinary kid who, as Isaiah prophesied, “had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,” and whose parents would have passed our notice too. To do more than entertain Jesus as an agreeable possibility is to do the not-so-majestic work of loving each person we meet, even our difficult uncles.
We are left “remembering the stable where for once in our lives / Everything became a You and nothing was an It.” But we cannot stay in that stable; we cannot have an endless Christmas this side of the eschaton. We have instead what Auden calls the “time being”: “For the time being, here we all are, / Back in the moderate Aristotelian city / Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen,” where the “kitchen table exists because I scrub it” and we realize “we had forgotten / The office was as depressing as this.” Life may have its glorious feasts, its well decorated trees, but at a certain time “the holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt / And the children got ready for school.”
This all seems too ordinary. To “those who have seen / The Child, . . . / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” Harder even then Lent, for Lenten fasts are ordered toward Easter joy, whereas traffic jams seem ordered toward our depressing offices and our undecorated homes. But the time being is also ordered to simple acts of care, like getting our children ready for school.
Martyrdom, no doubt, is not much fun, but at least you know what you are doing it for. We are, for the time being, “without even a hostile audience,” and so the soul must endure “a silence that is neither for nor against our faith,” in a time that is too busy to persecute us. In this agnostic silence, our ordinary tasks—loving our not-so-loved ones, doing a decent job, sitting in traffic—aren’t the stuff of hagiographies.
The Christian task is to imbue Ordinary Time with the love we saw in the stable, when every “It”—that guy who cut me off, my nagging boss, my petulant child—is a “You.” To be ordinary is to realize that much of the Christian life is knowing that “there are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, / Irregular verbs to learn.” We cannot make the ordinary extra-ordinary by fiat. But we need not abandon it to empty secularity, because there is “the time Being to redeem / From insignificance.” In this we are not alone. Jesus spent almost his whole life in ordinary time: listening to his parents, learning a trade, and schlepping off to work each day. Jesus did not eliminate the ordinary; He opened it to the possibility of sanctifying love.
Our vocation in this pilgrimage is not to live a perpetual holiday. It is to be as ordinary as Jesus was, for our God loves the ordinary. This means the long labor of loving in the ways Jesus loved: seeing everyone as a You and no one as an it. We are meant to live in Ordinary Time, and to help redeem the time being from insignificance, by making it not extra-ordinary, but holy in the most ordinary ways of all.
Terence Sweeney is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Villanova University.