At the beginning of this month, we celebrated the Solemnity of Epiphany. During the Mass, after the Gospel, there has long been the custom of the solemn presentation of the Epiphany Proclamation. This dates back many centuries to the days when very few people had calendars and therefore they could not look up the dates of the moveable feasts of the Church. In the Proclamation, the dates of the major moveable feasts are announced, reminding us that Christmas is the beginning of the year-long celebration of the Incarnation. In this way, the Proclamation teaches us that Ordinary Time is, in fact, far from ordinary!
Of course, we have been told that the term “Ordinary Time” simply refers to the fact that the weeks between Christmastide and Lent and again between Paschaltide and Advent are designated by ordinal numbers, that is, as the 1st week, 2nd week, 3rd week, etc. Still, knowing this, it is hard not to feel let down by the term “ordinary”. We can know that it refers to ordinal numbers, but we still feel that it means that the time between the special seasons of Christmastide, Lent, Paschaltide, and Advent is commonplace, uninteresting, boring, and basically just filling in the space between “important” liturgical seasons. After all, “ordinary” is the opposite of “extraordinary” and to call something extraordinary means that it is remarkable, astonishing, special, exceptional! And what is ordinary is never like that!
Or is it? Is that really true — that ordinary things are just ordinary, just commonplace, dull, banal, and uninteresting? Is that true also of Ordinary Time? Certainly, the liturgy is simpler in Ordinary Time. The decorations in the churches are less imposing and the antiphons for weekday masses are the same throughout each week. There is definitely a sense that, after having spent time in ecstasy on Mount Tabor, we are now going back down the mountain to the humdrum experience of everyday life.
And that brings me to the subject of this article. In recent years, there have been a large number of books and articles about the liturgy, expressed from almost every point of view and in every style of communication. Yet in all that flood of statements, comments, and opinions, there is one area of the liturgy that I think has been very unfortunately overlooked. That is the area of what I want to call the Ordinary Liturgy of Everyday Life.
I have been writing about the priesthood of the faithful. This is the priesthood that is conferred on each of us at Baptism. This priesthood is part of us from the moment that the priest pours the water on our heads and says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This priesthood is strengthened by every reception of the sacraments, especially every reception of the Eucharist, and it is weakened by every unrepented sin. The expression of this common priesthood of the faithful is not confined to any specific rites or rituals. It is part of our graced human nature and is therefore it is to be lived out in every action of that human nature, in every action that we perform. Just as everything Jesus did was an expression of His priesthood, so everything we do is meant to be an expression of our priesthood as members of His Mystical Body.
In an earlier article, I described how grace flows into us through our contact with Christ. Most of us have probably heard the saying that picking up a pin with love can save a soul. What we may not realize is that this deed is an action of the priesthood of the faithful. Everything that we do with the love of God is an action of the priesthood of the faithful. Every action of our priesthood sanctifies what it touches. The pin is sanctified by being picked up by a member of Christ. Even more importantly — in fact, far more importantly — every action of our priesthood gives grace to the people whom we touch.
This may sound extravagant but think of the saints. How many people have described how it affected them simply to meet St. Teresa of Kolkata or to come in contact with St. John Paul II? Such encounters were life-changing. We find it easy to understand that meeting such holy people had a transforming effect on many people. But meeting me? Meeting you? How can that transform anyone?
We rate ourselves too low. We mistrust the action of God’s grace in us. We look too much for extraordinary events. But God works mostly at the grassroots level. He uses little things, little actions: a smile, a helping hand, an encouraging word. These can transform someone’s day, and these are the rituals of our everyday priesthood. They sanctify the people who receive them.
St. John Henry Newman understood this well. Even before he became a Catholic, he wrote: “Consider how great a profession and yet a profession how unconscious and modest arises from the mere ordinary manner in which any strict Christian lives. Let this thought be a satisfaction to uneasy minds which fear lest they are not confessing Christ yet dread to display. Your life displays Christ without your intending it. You cannot help it. Your words and deeds will show on the long run where your treasure is, and your heart.”[i]
We cannot hide who we are: members of Christ’s Body. We can reject it, but that is not easily done. He is in each of His members at work to sanctify us and through us, to sanctify the world. The more we trust Him, the more He will shine forth through us.
I remember an incident that I read years ago in The Joyful Noiseletter. A woman, a Christian though she didn’t say to which denomination she belonged, was shopping in a supermarket. As she pushed her shopping cart along, another woman came up to her and demanded, “I want what you have!” The Christian lady, knowing that we are advised not to resist a thief lest we get hurt in the process, said, “Certainly! Take whatever you want!” The other lady said, “No, not that! I want what YOU have!” There was a rather confused discussion until it became clear that what the lady was asking for was the Christian woman’s faith! She wanted what made the believer different, different to the point that it was obvious even when all she was doing was putting items in a shopping cart in a supermarket!
This is how our priesthood of the faithful can transform the world.
To end, I will share some advice that has been attributed to Paul Claudel:
“Speak about Christ only when asked. But live so that people ask about Christ.”
[i] John Henry Newman, “Parochial and Plain Sermons” I, 155, quoted in “The Cloud”, Austin Cooper, OMI, Alba House, New York, 1989, p. 181
Image: Adobe Stock. By sebra.
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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.