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.