In the encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII captured the essence of liturgical theology and greatly stressed those liturgical elements which would eventually bear fruit in the Second Vatican Council, particularly when the Holy Father highlighted the union of sacrifice and altar with communion. “In the sacred liturgy, the whole Christ is proposed to us in all the circumstances of His life, as the Word of the eternal Father, as born of the Virgin Mother of God, as He who teaches us truth, heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, who endures suffering and who dies; finally, as He who rose triumphantly from the dead and who, reigning in the glory of heaven, sends us the Holy Paraclete and who abides in His Church forever; ‘Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same forever.’ Besides, the liturgy shows us Christ not only as a model to be imitated but as a master to whom we should listen readily, a Shepherd whom we should follow, Author of our salvation, the Source of our holiness and the Head of the Mystical Body whose members we are, living by His very life” (MD, n. 163).
The two lynch -pins upon which the Church’s Year of Grace hinges are Easter with Lent as its period of preparation which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Pentecost, thirteen-and-a-half weeks later, including its festal ending or Eastertide. And the second hinge is the commemoration of the Lord’s Nativity with Advent as its time of preparation and its festal ending or Christmastide which concludes with the Baptism of the Lord. Yet, the thirty-three or thirty-four weeks between those two observances are known as Tempus per annum (lit. time during the year) which, in English, is translated as Ordinary Time. According to the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar, “Ordinary Time begins on Monday after the Sunday following 6 January and continues until Tuesday before Ash Wednesday inclusive. It begins again on Monday after Pentecost and ends before Evening Prayer I of the First Sunday of Advent” (GNLYC, n. 44).
Generally speaking, Ordinary Time does “no particular aspect of the mystery of Christ…rather the mystery of Christ in its fullness (Lat. mysterium Christi in sua plenitudine)” GNLYC, n. 43. Christmas and Easter highlight the central elements of the Paschal Mystery – the Incarnation, the Lord’s death on the cross, His resurrection and Ascension, culminating with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Ordinary Time is when the other aspects of the life of Christ are recounted in light of history’s ultimate goal – the glorious return of Christ when, as Lord and Universal King, He comes again to judge both the living and the dead.
Ordinary Time Composed of Two Periods:
A Shorter and a Longer Period
In volume four of The Church at Prayer, Fr. Pierre Jounel described Ordinary Time this way: “The thirty-four Sundays per annum or of Ordinary Time represent the ideal Christian Sunday, without any further specification. That is, each of them is the Lord’s Day in its pure state as presented to us in the Church’s tradition. Each is an Easter, each a feast” (p. 23). Now, the second longer part of Ordinary Time, which will begin on the Monday after Pentecost (May 29) and will conclude in the morning hours of the Saturday (December 2) after Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the part that includes the majority of the Sundays of the year, the focus is on the mystery of Christ—not a specific aspect of the Lord’s life but on what Jesus said and did in all its fullness. You could say that Ordinary Time celebrates the Lord’s Day in its pure state; hence, that longest period of the Liturgical Year must be the same theologically as the Lord’s Day itself.
Sunday is the prism through which the mystery of Christ is refracted—as the original feast, the Day of the Lord, the Eighth Day which is the day of new creation which transcends the seven-day week, the First Day of creation and recreation in Christ, the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Encounter with the Risen Lord. As the day when the faithful encounter Christ, the weekend liturgy can be conceptualized in terms of a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. In the apostolic letter Dies Domini, Saint John Paul II wrote that “Christians saw the definitive time inaugurated by Christ as a new beginning, they made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day…The Paschal Mystery of Christ is the full revelation of the mystery of the world’s origins, the climax of the history of salvation and the anticipation of the eschatological fulfillment of the world. What God accomplished in creation and wrought for his people in the Exodus found its fullest expression in Christ’s death and resurrection through which its definitive fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns in glory. In him, the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath is fully realized, as Saint Gregory the Great declares, ‘For us, the true Sabbath is the person of our Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ’” (DD, n. 18). Thus, the end of the liturgical year—the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King—is the key to understanding Ordinary Time because Sunday worship echoes the perfect praise found only in heaven, though proleptically realized, which is to say the Sunday Eucharist is a heavenly event that God has assigned to bring about heaven on earth and to do so in a time that precedes its fullness with Christ’s return in glory.
What the word “ordinary” means in its liturgical usage is not tedious or boring, which oftentimes is associated with the word. Remember, the Latin is tempus per annum: literally, “time through the year.’ Thus, it is described as ordinary in terms of which these Sundays belongs to the usual order or course: customary, regular, usual. It is seen as related to ordinal, which means “counted time”. These are the Sundays with numbers for names: Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Twenty-seventh Sunday, etc. Fr. Aidan Kavanagh once said that “Sunday is not a small Easter, rather Easter is a big Sunday.”