The Joyce Hill Column
Here we are, already in Sept, and deep into what the church calls Ordinary Time – on the face of it, a pretty uninspiring name for a period in the liturgical year! But it’s nothing to do with ordinariness in our normal use of the word. The run of Sundays from Trinity Sunday to Advent Sunday are called ‘Ordinary Time’ because the Sundays are designated by numbers; the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, and so on, or the such-and-such Sunday of Ordinary Time, as some churches name them. Before Trinity Sunday was formally instituted in the fourteenth century, assigned to the Sunday after Pentecost, the practice was to name the Sundays in the second half of the year by counting from Pentecost, or sometimes from the Octave of Pentecost (which subsequently became Trinity Sunday). But whichever way you do it, numbers come into it. And that is where the term ‘Ordinary Time’ comes from: ‘ordinary’ in this context being related to ‘ordinal’, as in the ordinal numbers first, second, third, and so on (as opposed to cardinal numbers one, two, three, etc). Ordinary Time is the period when we designate the Sundays by sequential numbering because it is the period of the church’s year when there are no major feasts or seasons marking the great events of the gospel narrative.
The length of Ordinary Time in the second half of the year varies. How long it is depends on when Easter falls because that then determines the date of Ascension (forty days later) and Pentecost (fifty days later), which in turn determines the date of Trinity Sunday, one week after Pentecost. The Book of Common Prayer and the current Common Worship set out in their calendars the maximum possible number of Sundays of Ordinary Time after Trinity, and if Easter is as early as it can possibly be, then they will all be needed before we get to Advent. But the later Easter is, the later Trinity Sunday is, and then the last Sundays in the numbered sequence are dropped, varying according to what may be needed in that year (apart from the last one before Advent, which we always use). The other period of Ordinary Time comes early in the year, between Epiphany and Lent. It’s always shorter than the run of Sundays after Trinity, but it too varies in length. Epiphany is a fixed point in the calendar (6 January). But the beginning of Lent varies according to whether Easter (to which Lent is tied) is early, late, or somewhere in between. Again, the BCP and Common Worship make provision for the maximum number of numbered Sundays in this stretch of Ordinary Time, but we only need to use them all if Easter is as late as it could possibly be. In a year where that happened, the run of Sundays after Trinity would, of course, be correspondingly shorter. Conversely, when Easter is earlier, the Ordinary Time after Epiphany is shorter and the Ordinary Time after Trinity is correspondingly lengthened to compensate. This flexibility that Ordinary Time provides allows us to accommodate what would otherwise be awkward shifts between those feasts which are on fixed dates within the standard (solar) calendar, such as Christmas and Epiphany, and those which are moveable, such as Easter, Pentecost, and all feasts and seasons tied to them, which are determined by the lunar calendar.
The liturgical colour for Ordinary Time is green, symbolising life and growth. Readings reflect this, focusing on the growth of the church through Christ’s teaching.
St Francis of Assisi
October 4th is the feast-day of St Francis of Assisi, famed for his deep humility, his generosity, his love of nature, and his simple and unaffected faith, from which he drew the inspiration for the founding of the first-ever Order of Friars. He was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi to a well-to-do merchant family, and his early life was very much that of a lad about town. But then came a series of events which gradually changed his outlook. In 1202 he was taken prisoner in a regional dispute between Perugia and Assisi and remained in captivity for some months; then, when he returned to Assisi he fell seriously ill and, after much inner turmoil, determined to devote himself to prayer and the service of the poor. Subsequently, when on a pilgrimage to Rome, he decided that he should actually embrace poverty himself, and so, as a way of starting out on this path, he exchanged clothes with one of the beggars outside St Peter’s and spent the rest of the day as a mendicant. Finally, around 1208, while worshipping in a church near Assisi, he was inspired by the day’s gospel reading, which told of how the disciples of Christ were sent out to preach the Kingdom of God without the benefit of any possessions (Matthew 10 vv. 7-19). Francis accordingly began to live a very simple life as an itinerant preacher. But this inspired many others to follow him, and so in 1209-10 he drew up a simple Rule of Life, which was duly authorised by the Pope. This new Order was strikingly different from anything that had gone before since the friars (from Latin fratres, ‘brothers’) operated outside the normal ecclesiastical structures, had no possessions, and preached — especially at first — even in the fields and the streets.
The Order quickly spread, with new Rules of Life being developed and authorised by the Pope in 1221 and 1223, though by this time others were taking the lead since Francis recognised that he did not have the qualities for supervising and administering what had very quickly become a huge international organisation. He had, however, in the early years, already established the Poor Clares, an Order for women, and a Third Order, for lay people who wished to commit themselves to living their daily lives according to Franciscan principles. Francis’s other famous ‘firsts’ were that he devised the first Christmas crib (though in his case it was a live tableau of the Nativity), and that he was the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s passion (the Stigmata), which he received in a religious ecstasy in 1224, two years before his death. He was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on 16 July 1228. The saint’s life is magnificently represented in the frescoes of the thirteenth century Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, built immediately after his death to serve as his shrine.
‘Francis’ is actually a nickname, given to him by his father, who was on business in France when he was born. In his father’s absence he was baptised Giovanni (John). But his father took to calling him ‘Francesco’ (meaning ‘the Frenchman’), and the name stuck. The present Pope’s choice of Francis as his papal name reflects his desire for a papacy not of pomp, but of humility and concern for the poor. This is another ‘first’ associated with Francis: no other Pope has borne this name.
Preparing for Christmas
How early this year did you see signs of the commercial world preparing for Christmas? I saw Christmas cards on sale in July, and in August banners inviting people to make restaurant bookings for the Christmas period. The church takes a rather more measured position! The liturgical preparation for Christmas begins, this year, on Sunday 27 November. The actual date varies because there are always four Sundays in Advent — the four Sundays immediately preceding Christmas Day — and since Christmas Day is a fixed date and so falls on a different day in successive years, the dates of the four Sundays preceding it are variable. Technically, Advent Sunday (the first of the four) occurs on the nearest Sunday to the Feast of St Andrew (30 November). But this always has the intended effect of giving us four Sundays before we get to Christmas Day, so in modern times, when we have the benefit of diaries, the easy option is to use them to count four Sundays backwards from 25 December.
Of course, Advent wasn’t able to come into existence as a season for the church’s year until the practice grew up of celebrating the Nativity itself, and that didn’t happen in the Western church until the early fourth century. There are signs that not long after this people began to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity by various penitential practices, including fasting — a kind of spiritual sprucing up in order to be ready for celebrating, on Christmas Day, the beginning of Christ’s life on earth as the commencement of the redemptive cycle. These practices put the preparation for the joy of Christmas on a similar footing to the penitential and self-denying preparation for the joy of Easter, which had already been celebrated on an annual basis from the beginning of the third century. The period preceding Easter gradually stabilised into the season we call Lent; that preceding Christmas in due course came to be called Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning ‘coming’. This translates the Greek parousia, which is used in the New Testament to refer to the Second Coming. And so, from the start, the Western church has had a dual focus for Advent: anticipating the commemoration of the coming of God into the world in human form, in which the church rejoices in the liturgies of the Christmas season; and the anticipation of the Second Coming, foretold in the New Testament.
So the penitential preparation had a two-fold purpose also: for the forthcoming celebration of the Feast of the Nativity, and for the divine judgement at the Second Coming. Even so, the penitential nature of Advent was never quite as demanding as that of Lent. Nor is Advent as long as Lent. To begin with, this period of pre-Christmas preparation seems to have been undefined, and it remained variable for centuries, with the present practice of having four Sundays only gradually coming to be the norm. It also took a long time for Advent to be universally considered as the beginning of the church’s year, in preference to Christmas itself, which was the church’s ‘new year’ for many throughout much of the first thousand years.
But while this is how things developed in Western Christendom, there were different developments in the Orthodox church. In this tradition there is a Nativity Fast preceding the celebration of Christ’s birth, different in length from our Advent, and the period of preparation is without the dimension of reflection on the Second Coming: the Orthodox focus is much more on the prophesies of the Incarnation.
The Date of Christmas
Only Matthew and Luke tell us about the Nativity, and neither specifies the season of the year, never mind the date. So why is our celebration on 25 December? I’ve often heard it said that it was a Christian take-over of the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia. However, Saturnalia happened earlier in the month than Christmas does. It’s true that the sacrifice to Saturn was followed by a public banquet and then about a week of partying and private gift-giving. But if the partying and gift-giving that we associate with Christmas owe something to what went on at Saturnalia, cheering up the darker days of winter, it could only be seen as a transposition of pagan practice, not a take-over of Saturnalia itself. And in any case, the non-religious revelry that we go in for was not a significant feature of the celebration of Christmas at first. So where did the date of Christmas come from, and when was it adopted?
Christians initially focused on the Redemption, celebrating every Sunday as the day of the Resurrection, and then, from the second century, observing an annual celebration. The Nativity did not figure in the liturgy until the fourth century, when various theological controversies, in emphasising the human as well as the divine nature of Christ, drew attention to the narrative of his life, key events of which then came to be commemorated in a yearly cycle.
On a practical front, once the annual liturgical cycle started developing in ways which work through Christ’s life, then his birth needed to be celebrated ahead of his death — ‘ahead’, that is, in terms of the emerging church-year, which had a different time-frame from that of the secular calendar. With Easter already necessarily being a springtime feast, following the information in the Gospels that Christ was crucified at the Passover season, the Nativity had to go somewhere else, nearer the beginning of the church’s year. But there was more to it than that — and here we get into theological interpretation and symbolic calculations. Christ was seen as a Second Adam (as already signalled in the Epistles), and so there was something to be said, symbolically, for choosing 25 March, the first day of spring, as the date for commemorating beginning of Christ’s life and thus the New Life that was thereby opened up through the Crucifixion and Resurrection. But then, as a refinement of this, a north African scholar, Julius Sextus Africanus, proposed that this date could best be used for the conception itself (now celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation), with the result that the celebration of the birth follows nine months later, on 25 December. Another symbolic dimension was to say that, if Jesus died on 25 March (as some early scholars thought, fixing on a set date, for various reasons, as an approximate equivalent to the moveable feast of the Passover), and this was then also seen as the date of his conception, his life would have had a neat cyclical completion. This pattern, known as ‘integral age’, was symbolically associated in Jewish tradition with the life of the prophets, and was thought by many Christian interpreters to be equally applicable to Jesus, the greatest prophet of all. If that’s where you start, the Nativity still ends up being 25 December, nine months later. Since this was in the darkest part of winter for the then known world, it allowed for the development of evocative symbolism about the anticipation of new life, the coming of light into the world, and so forth.