Time, that human construct, seems neither precise nor reassuring at the moment. The moment. How might we even describe it? Have we any idea where one moment begins and another ends? We say our time is limited, but what we mean is that we are limited. Our days are numbered—by us. Days, nights, seasons and eons progress as the universe demands—we just hitch a ride and try to make sense of it all.
So—how do we make sense of it all? Of pandemics, of being in the midst of racism, of climates changing while we inhabit the earth, of the past, of the present? We humans, since the days of Eden, give meaning to our world by assigning names to all we encounter. Naming allows us to have power over that which we experience. Names are always subjective, always revealing more about the namer than the named.
- Pandemic: an illness covering the whole world at one time, a human experience shared by all alive and requiring a global response to remedy it.
- Chinese virus: A virus discovered in China? A virus only infecting people labeled as Chinese? A virus not in Taiwan but in Hong Kong?
- Diversity: a wide range of differences within a particular type of thing. A central feature in biology, as complexity increases the strength of the whole biome.
- Race: a non-biological assignment of human classification that has social implications. Scientifically, race does not exist, though categories of race do have genetic and environmental differences that are made visible in ultimate health outcomes, made more marked by constraining races to certain subsets of class within society, reducing diversity amongst all humans.
- Systemic Racism: Promotion of some categories of people, largely based on physical features, over the well-being of those who are classified as inferior; this gives disproportionate power to one category, usually that of the Namer. This promotion is evident in civic and social structures, such as education, city planning, housing, professional opportunities, law enforcement, transportation, food availability, and health care access. Due to the structural effects, individual actions or beliefs are largely ineffective at ameliorating the problem; new policies, institutional structures, and reparations are required.
- Black Lives Matter: A popular phrase that was coined by Black leaders in 2013 in response to violence against African-Americans. It is an international human rights movement, campaigning against systemic racism against black people.
- All Lives Matter: A response in opposition to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It directs attention away from the central reality of systemic racism against black people, and asks that the present effort be diluted to encompass all people. Some even include anti-abortion efforts in this response to undo the unified call to end racism. Every other injury to people is considered a valid equivalent to black racism, whether looting or unemployment or other non-fatal, nonviolent circumstances.
Ok, it is easier to name some of this than take power over it. But naming matters. And so does time, that other human construct. Time is something we also try to control in order to have a sense of power and of meaning. We communicate across society by our references to time, and often feel close to our own tribe, those who help shape our meaning, by agreeing how to mark our times together. We give special names to particular times we wish to honor in memory—feasts, festivals, fasts, homecomings.
Most people around the world will recognize times such as Christmas, New Year’s (January or Lunar), Passover, Easter, and Ramadan. Even if they don’t join in the worship, traditions or disciplines associated with those times, they understand the weight, the import, of the season. Regular life is interrupted, whether just a bit, or a whole lot, and most of us have to accommodate to it at some point.
The Christian liturgical calendar has marked the rhythms of worship and daily life for centuries. Colors, food, liturgies and practices are shaped by distinct seasons. There is Advent, Christmastide and Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost (Trinity Sunday, and perhaps more). These are dramatic in nature, collective in experience. We share songs, food, service, and charitable expressions of faith. We have a chance to be amazed again, smitten with stories full of miracles, angels, rescue and hope. God comes crashing into our lives over and over, and we can almost feel the heat of the flames overhead by the time we make it to Pentecost.
And then there is Ordinary Time. What? That’s a big chunk of the year. That’s the season we are in now. Ordinary Time. How poorly named, you think. In fact, the name just came from ordinal, number. It was a way to number our days. And most of them are designated to be in this ordinary time, where it seems the angels are preoccupied with their own concerns and miracles are things we scoff at.
But I wonder about this plain time that doesn’t employ brass bands. We’re becoming accustomed to a pandemic, returning to our business. Some want a full return to their old ways, before the last ordinary time took us to a Great Lent. The protests are continuing but are somehow also routine. Others long for summer travel, and many are looking for jobs and hoping to get health insurance. A few churches are back to their previous practices, but most are planning new configurations. We are not identified as a collective during ordinary time; we are more of a diaspora.
We’re trying to consider what to do next. We may struggle against the idea of the ordinary, the banal. How do we keep the momentum against racism? How do we promote health and safety for all? How do we learn from the good as well as the bad of this era? There is fear we will forget, become numb, if we go back to ordinary time. The power seems to be in those other seasons.
But when I look at the liturgical calendar, I see that most of Jesus’ life was spent in ordinary time. The birth was a big deal, but what about when he was a toddler in Egypt, an immigrant, a refugee? What about as a boy in a typical home? An adolescent? A laborer? All those weekly synagogue trips and occasional pilgrimages that no one writes about…how did those shape him? Three years of actual public work—how was it possible he did so much in such a short life? Ordinary time is where Jesus made daily choices, learned about the world and built relationships that allowed him to be the one we know in the gospels.
Ordinary time is a time that needs our focus. It is where the real action is. We have to name this time as one that won’t be a numbing return to the past. Ordinary time prepares us for the next big event. It is the time of our daily work, our vocation, a time of choosing to orient one’s life toward justice, of taking opportunities to learn, of being corrected when we are wrong. Like an athlete, we train in ordinary time, so that we can bring something lasting to the briefer public moments of collective gatherings. Change, renewal, transformation—in the healing of our social as well as our physical wounds—is dependent on steady collaborative work behind the scenes. If we are wise in our ordinary time, there will be plenty to celebrate together in times ahead. What are you called to do, persistently and energetically, in this season we name as ordinary time?