Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Lingering Problems of Ordinary Time: Guest Article by Michael P. Foley

The Lingering Problems of Ordinary Time
By Michael P. Foley
In a previous article, we noted that the 1969 Missal’s Tempus per annum marks a break from the Roman liturgical tradition in three ways, and that the term “Ordinary Time” does not signify “Mundane Time” or “Ordinal Time” but an “Ordinary of Times,” a standard and nondescript season that stands in contrast to the “proper” seasons of Christmas and Easter. It is our hope that this explanation will put to rest fears that a season (which in the new calendar occupies half of the entire year) was deliberately profaned or desacralized and made, well, ordinary.

But we must be honest: there are still problems both with the term “Ordinary Time” and with the new Tempus per annum that may lead to an unintentional desacralization.

Regarding Ordinary Time as an Ordinary of Seasons:

1. The analogy is flawed. The intriguing concept of an “Ordinary of Seasons” essentially presupposes an analogy between it and the Ordinary of the Mass or of the Divine Office, but such an analogy taken to this level is misleading. The Ordinary of the Mass, for example, is not self-sufficient; for the Mass to be celebrated, it must be completed by propers, and these propers necessarily make the Mass a specific celebration in contradistinction to others. A Mass in Ordinary Time, by contrast, includes its own propers, nor does it need to be completed by the Proper of Seasons in order to be celebrated.

2. An Ordinary of Seasons is pastorally ineffective. As an organizational principle for liturgists, it is a useful construct; but as a liturgical season for the entire people of God, it is befuddling and, as we have seen all too clearly, prone to misinterpretation.

3. An Ordinary of Seasons is an abstraction. Abstract concepts have their place in sacred liturgy and the study thereof, but the seasons themselves should be anchored in the concrete aspects of a particular part of the year. A season that attempts to be generic without being specific runs the risk of being more Cartesian than Incarnational, more Gnostic than Christian.

And regarding the 1969 Missal’s Tempus per annum:

1. It is incoherent. It is bizarre to hold something as distinct insofar it lacks distinction, and it is especially bizarre where the notion of a season is concerned, for an indistinct season is almost a contradiction in terms. In liturgy as in nature, seasons emerge as seasons because they have qualities that distinguish them from other seasons; they have differentiae which make them specifically different from others in their genus. And since when does a single natural season of the year have two phases? Not even an Indian or Martinmas summer qualifies, for it is a fluke appearance of atypical weather in the midst of autumn, not an orderly “second phase” of summer. The very notion of a season is undermined by this artificial tempus interruptum construction.

2. It is based on a false claim. In his writings Jounel links indistinction with purity and purity with the early Church. Each of the new Sundays in Ordinary Time, he writes, “is a Lord’s Day in its pure state as presented to us in the Church’s tradition,” that is, the state in which the primitive Church celebrated it. In claiming to have reconstructed or returned to the worship of the early Church, Jounel shows a confidence that most liturgical scholars today are careful to avoid.

But Jounel also admits that Ordinary Time as a single block is an innovation. As we mentioned in the previous post, the earliest sacramentary shows the Church celebrating the Time after Theophany (Epiphany) and the Time after Pentecost. But even if you insist that the Church had a different liturgical year prior to this eighth-century text, you must nevertheless concede that in whatever manner the early Christians may have worshipped, it is high unlikely that they conceived of these periods in the same manner as Jounel, for the simple reason that Jounel himself admits that he has invented something new. Jounel’s confidence therefore belies the experience of the early Church. Even if he and his colleagues succeeded in the herculean task of resurrecting Sunday in all its pristine integrity, today’s faithful are not experiencing the Lord’s Day in its pure state when their experience of it is filtered through the titular hermeneutic of Ordinary Time or Tempus per annum.

3. It is contradictory. Ordinary Time is supposed to be indistinct, but by the Church’s own admission, it isn’t. According to the Congregation for Divine Worship, Ordinary Time has a highly-structured, three-year lectionary in which “each year is distinctive… because it unfolds the doctrine proper to each of the synoptic Gospels” (emphasis added). Indeed, Ordinary Time may be even more distinctive than the Time after Pentecost that it replaced, insofar as its Gospel readings are logically planned from beginning to end: “There is a common pattern followed in all three cycles: the early weeks deal with the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, the final weeks have an eschatological theme, and the intervening weeks take in sequence various events and teachings from our Lord’s life.” Ordinary Time is also distinctive for including the Solemnity of Christ the King, which celebrates a particular aspect of Christ’s mystery (His kingship over the universe) and which was moved from the Sanctoral Cycle to the Temporal in 1969, even though Ordinary Time is supposed to be distinctive for refraining from celebrating a “particular aspect of the mystery of Christ.”

4. It is mystagogically problematic. For the great liturgist Blessed Columba Marmion, “there is no surer way, no more infallible means, of causing us to resemble Christ” than entering into the mysteries of Jesus through the liturgy and its annual rhythm. [1] When “we contemplate in their successive order the different mysteries of Christ, we do so…with the object that our souls may participate in a special set of circumstances of the sacred humanity and may draw forth, from each of those circumstances, the specific grace it has pleased the Divine Master to attach to it” (emphasis added). [2] For Marmion, the Time after Epiphany is the season for contemplating the “special circumstances” concerning the “wondrous exchange” of the Incarnation and the hidden life of the Holy Family in Nazareth [3] while the Time after Pentecost “symbolizes in particular the pilgrimage of the Church in this life” [4] as an extension of our Lord’s reign through the Holy Spirit.

The GIRM, on the other hand, states that rather than celebrate a particular aspect of the mystery of Christ like the other seasons, Ordinary Time “commemorates the very mystery of Christ in its fullness” (ipsum mysterium Christi in sua plenitudine recolitur). The official English translation for this passage, “the mystery of Christ in all its aspects,” omits the ipsum in ipsum mysterium, a pronoun that places an emphasis on the mystery taken as a whole—the very mystery in and of itself, in its fullness, all at once, and not sequentially (as the “proper” seasons do). Yet as we just noted, this is precisely what the new Lectionary does: its Gospel pericopes begin with the beginning of Christ’s ministry, continue with various teachings and events in His life (which, as Marmion rightly observes, necessarily reveal “particular aspects” of the mystery of Christ), and conclude with eschatological themes. There is, therefore, a tension between the explanatory account of the season and its actual content.

More to the point, having a season recollect the ipsum mysterium Christi in sua plenitudine implicitly discourages a “successive” appropriation of the mysteries of Christ that confers “specific graces” attached to them by the Divine Master. The GIRM appears to be stating that such an appropriation is the function of the “proper” seasons of Christmas and Easter only. Yet if this is true, then the approximately six months of the year that comprise the Temporal Cycle of the 1969 calendar no longer have a clear mystagogical point of entry.

All of which is to say that the difficulties with the 1969 Missal’s Tempus per annum run deeper than the name it popularly bears.

A chart of the traditional Roman liturgical cycle
[1] Dom Columba Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, trans. Alan Bancroft (Bethesda, MD: Zaccheus Press, 2008), 32.
[2] Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, 29, 30.
[3] Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, 29, 175 ff.
[4] Marmion, Le Christe dans Ses Mystères, 494, trans. mine.

This article is a summary of a more extensive and scholarly treatment: “The Origins and Meaning of Ordinary Time,” Antiphon: A Journal of Liturgical Renewal 23.1 (2019): 43-77.

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