Now that we are out of the whirlwind of Advent, Christmas, (Mardi-Gras) Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, we find ourselves in Ordinary Time, which on the surface seems so, well, ordinary. But maybe there is more to the ordinary than simply a chance to catch our breath, but rather a chance to ponder in our heart all the wonders that are hidden in the ordinary.
The liturgical seasons in our Catholic culture are taken directly from our Israelite roots. The book of Leviticus prescribes feasts: Passover, Weeks, Booths, the Years of Jubilee and Penances, the Day of Atonement, Confession and Restitution, that mark the movement of the year(s). It is not strange then that the Messianic age in the Eucharistic covenant would have liturgical seasons as well. The promise made to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:2, 22:18) is realized in Jesus, who grafts all the nations onto the trunk of Israel which forms the New Israel, constituted as the Catholic Church.
Now that the head spinning liturgical overload of Advent, Christmas, (Mardi Gras, sorry New Orleans reared) Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, has ended, along with any semblance of a controlled diet intact, we approach Ordinary Time. It doesn’t even have a unique or Latin name to add a little panache. It’s just so ordinary. But what is ordinary? How are we supposed to understand and encounter Jesus in the longest liturgical season? Maybe, if we look at the entirety of the life of Jesus, we can find the answer. After all he is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
Jesus comes to us in an ordinary way, a baby conceived in the womb and born of ‘the woman.” The rest of his life is simply growing up as a human boy in the culture and circumstances of first century Israel under Roman occupation.
Consider that for the first thirty years of Jesus’ thirty-three years of life on earth, we have no record, except for the brief infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke and the story about Jesus in the Temple as a twelve or thirteen year old boy. Only Luke has a brief reference in that he returned to Nazareth and there grew in wisdom and strength (Luke 2:40).
It was during this time that Jesus was growing as a boy to a man, guided by our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. After early childhood, the son would be expected to and did, take up the father’s occupation. The apprenticeship of Jesus under Joseph would have begun when Jesus was about seven years of age. The duties of Jesus would have become increasingly more significant as he grew older and learned the trade of Joseph. More important than the learning of a trade, Jesus learned from Joseph how to be a man of virtue.
So what are we to make of this, and why does it matter? In John’s Gospel, we read that many people followed Jesus because of the great signs he was performing (John 6:2). After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus performs more signs by walking on water, calming the sea and having the boat immediately arrive at land without having gotten into the boat. A fact that does not go unnoticed by the crowds.
At this Jesus responds to the crowd by saying, “You seek me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Here, John shows us that the crowds saw the signs, but they did not perceive them in the context of salvation. Rather, the crowd enjoyed the food and entertainment. They received a show and a free meal, and so clamored for more and followed him.
When Jesus challenged them to believe in him, they asked, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe in you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30-31). They ate their fill of the loaves and fish and filled twelve baskets with the fragments, and yet they still ask, “what sign do you do?” It’s a direct challenge to essentially perform this miracle every day, as they later quote Exodus and the manna that fell for forty years. The actual sign they asked for is the very one that is done. The true bread from heaven has been falling for 2000 years, and yet are we not murmuring still?
Have we not reached a point in our society that we will follow any one who offers a free meal and a show? Do we look to Jesus as a genie or “gum-ball God? The prosperity gospel truly is nothing new. We said our prayers, we went to Church and even gave alms; so give me my way and stuff! Dr. Brandt Pitre said if he wrote the Our Father prayer it would be “hallowed be thy name, give me what I want.”
Jesus tells those that ask for a sign that it is an evil and adulterous age that asks for a sign (Matthew.12:39). Is this our age too? Unless we are constantly emotionally consoled like an infant, do we question the presence of God in our lives? Perhaps we do not see, precisely because we are looking for a sign. Yet it is in the ordinary that the extraordinary truly exists, and when we open our eyes to see, we see him, not as he is, for that is reserved for heaven, but we see him as he passes by. We see the miraculous works of his hands, the hands of a master builder.
Consider that the universe is 46 billion light years across containing two septillion (2×1024) stars in two trillion galaxies that are more rapidly accelerating away from each other now than when they were formed. Yet we look at the stars at night and ask for a sign!
We appreciate the sunrise, and the sun’s track across the sky, but do we consider the precise exactitude of the distance between the earth and sun and the gravitational constant of 8.011×10-11 that keeps the earth in its orbit? Yet we ask for a sign.
When we look at a tree and appreciate the shade and coolness it brings, do we consider the chemical reactions that are taking place that transform our exhaled CO2 waste gas and the sunlight it shades us from into glucose? We can’t do that, not even in a lab. When we eat, we are literally eating the energy of the sun through the chemistry that was first worked out in the mind of God. Yet we still ask for a sign.
St. John Chrysostom suggests to us a reason that God would veil himself in the ordinary by making this point in a homily, “For neither there doth the king always appear bearing his proper dignity, but laying aside the purple and the diadem, he often disguises himself in the garb of a common soldier. But there it is, lest by being known he should draw the enemy upon himself; but here on the contrary, lest, if he were known, he should cause the enemy to fly from the conflict with him, and lest he should confound all his own people: for his purpose was to save, not to dismay.”
When we look around in the everyday, cured of our blindness we see there is nothing ordinary about the ordinary, but rather the very signs we are clamoring for all along.
So why are we surprised that God the Son, the One who took on a human nature should come to us in the ordinary? While we meditate on the utter improbability of the universe itself, (1 chance out of 1×1010^125) much less so our very existence, we should take his word that he truly comes to us now in the humble bread and rather common wine. But we shouldn’t wonder, but marvel because it’s his way of doing things as we only see him after he has passed by.