is no such thing as Ordinary Time
Fr Francis Randolph
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Pentecost. Today, I believe, is Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time, Year B, Weekday Cycle 2, Week Two of the Breviary, though I cannot be sure as the "Table of Moveable Feasts" ran out at the end of the last century. It seems something of an anti-climax. Why, I wonder, as I set up the ribbons in Volume Two of the breviary for the twenty-sixth time, why has no one ever dared to question the calendar and lectionary changes that accompanied the 1969 missal? Would it be terribly disloyal? Or does the glorious freedom of the Children of God allow us to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the new lectionary was produced in such a tearing hurry that mistakes were made? For it was indeed done in a hurry: Bugnini’s confessions admit as much. There had, after all, been no mandate from Council or Synod for a new calendar, and it appears that the draft Lectionary, which contained the revolutionary changes, was approved by Pope Paul without him having time to do more than glance through it.
The only criticism I can ever remember seeing came from that veteran warhorse, my neighbour Herbert McCabe. One of the greatest preachers of the Dominican Order, he made a witty attempt to help lay readers perplexed by the two and three-year cycles of readings in "Of Bicycles, Tricycles and the Common Reader". He gave the impression that, as a preacher, he found the way the readings are arranged unhelpful. So, in a much lesser way, do I. I find it unhelpful that the lectio continua dooms me to preach the same Sunday sermon for weeks on end as we work through St Matthew’s themed collections of parables in Year A, or the great Johannine interruption in Year B. I find it more unhelpful on weekdays when a congregation of elderly ladies are confronted with St Paul endlessly talking about circumcision, or the more bloodthirsty parts of the Book of Joshua. Some of our readings are indecent (Fourteenth Sunday, Year C, first reading), some are embarrassing for a Christian audience (Thirty-Third Sunday, Year B, second reading), many are just incomprehensible except for those who really know their Scriptures very well indeed. Of course our people ought to know their Scriptures well, but do they, I wonder, do they really? Moreover I hope that a significant proportion of my congregation consists of those who are not yet Catholics or even Christians, but who have come to find out what we are. It seems such a waste of that precious ten-minute attention span to have to explain the background to the inexplicable snippets of Semitic text which are supposed to make it easier to understand the Gospel. The Gospels were indeed written in short paragraphs, pericopes, most of which can be read and expounded in isolation, but the rest of the Bible is not like that. A paragraph of Hebrews or Deuteronomy out of context can create more problems than it solves. While if we concentrate on the lectio continua of the Epistles on Sundays, we have to ignore the Gospel and Old Testament readings completely.
Perhaps one of the roots of the problem is the naive idea that there is a virtue simply in reading huge quantities of Scripture. That was, as Newman tells us, the traditional religion of English Protestants: they simply read the Bible to each other for hours on end. Of course every word of Scripture is precious: but that very preciousness means that we cannot cope with too much at a time. One short reading, one verse of Scripture, can give us material for hours of meditation. How can we absorb the message of three readings and a responsorial psalm every Sunday?
The compilation of the lectionary goes hand-in-hand with the new sanctoral and liturgical cycle. Why, I wonder in passing, were so many saints’ days moved from date to date? I can see no logic to it at all: why did Doubting St Thomas vacate his ancient position on the shortest day to make space for St Peter Canisius, S.J.? The only pattern I can discern looks like petty spite against the Dominicans, with both St Dominic and St Thomas Aquinas displaced, and St Antoninus eliminated altogether. But it is the main liturgical cycle that most puzzles me. Why, I wonder, do we talk about "Sundays in Ordinary Time" or "Sundays Through the Year", which have no pastoral or spiritual significance whatever? And why do we have this clumsy business of picking up the weekday cycle where we left off last March, while we will not see an actual Sunday of Ordinary Time for two or three weeks, as Trinity, Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart float disconsolately in the wake of Pentecost without being tied in to the cycle? Whatever happened to Pentecost, anyway? Was it not one of the three great feasts of the year, with a novena of preparation, a lengthened vigil to match Easter itself, and an octave of celebration, to say nothing of twenty-four follow-up Sundays? It is now reduced to no more than the last day of Eastertide. The last week of readings consists merely of a desperate rush to finish the Acts of the Apostles and St John’s Gospel, without any build up to the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then as soon as the Sunday is over we are dumped back into Kings. All very strange, when you remember that a revived Pentecostalism was such a feature of the post-Conciliar Church. Why, just when we were learning to sing in tongues, when we were discovering the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, did the Holy Spirit disappear from our liturgies? The wild exuberance of Catholic Pentecostalism may have died down, but it has left us with a genuinely renewed consciousness of the work of the Spirit in our world, which we are not allowed to celebrate liturgically. Are we not conscious, as perhaps we were not before, that now we live in the Time after Pentecost? Do we not also rejoice that Christ has been made manifest to the world, and that our life is also after Epiphany? Is it not basic to our Christian faith to proclaim that God has intervened decisively in our world, and that for the last two thousand years there has been no such thing as Ordinary Time ?