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Ordinary Time?

By Reverend Phil Wales, Cathedral Deacon

It used to puzzle me (and sometimes trouble me) that the church uses the phrase ‘ordinary time’ to describe the days which aren’t given over to especially notable occasions. To illustrate; next Sunday will be Trinity Sunday. This is the day when we celebrate God’s nature: one being and three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). And last Sunday was the feast of Pentecost which marked the establishment of the church. The period in between is known as ‘ordinary time’. In fact, ordinary time continues until we arrive at Advent much later in the year.

To a considerate bystander this terminology may seem whimsical or a bit of an oddity. For anyone who is less sympathetic towards, or campaigns against, religion this minor peculiarity could be added to their store of well-honed arguments against the practice of public worship. But, think for a moment what a world without the church as we know it might look like. No places of worship, no liturgy, no hymns, no music, no teachers of the faith, no priests… it would be a very long list!

If this invitation transports you into a kind of dystopian world imagined by novelists such as Margaret Atwood, Yevgeny Zamyatin or George Orwell it may be that church is being confused with God. For me, reflecting on such a world gives, I think, a more vivid insight into the time that our spiritual ancestors laid the very first foundation stones of the church. It’s in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2.1-21) that we read how these disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit one morning. It was only then that could they grasp something of the enormity of what it meant to be given a fresh start in their relationship with God.

That first generation of Christians are occasionally referred to as “experiential Trinitarians”. This is because, from that Pentecostal moment onwards, they lived as people who had encountered (who knew from the inside as it were) something of the reality of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was an era defining, transformative, morning, not only for those early followers but for the whole of humanity then and now. 

Which brings me back to the topic of ‘ordinary time’. It comes from the Latin ordinalis which means counted or numbered. It is therefore used to mark out the days between the church seasons. Quite a different meaning to that which I used to think some years ago: that the church looked on the time between notable holy days as less than extraordinary! This is exactly what Paula Gooder writes about in her book Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary. Each day is an opportunity to experience God in the world around us. We are invited by God to participate in the eternal present whatever we are doing and regardless of the label the church has given the day.