The Liturgy of the World: Extraordinary Time

David A. Stosur, Ph.D. – see original posting at ocp.orgMass1_sm

What’s so “ordinary” about Ordinary Time? One would hope that by now, some forty-five years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, this translation of the Latin phrase per annum (through the year) to designate those stretches of time in the Church year between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent, and between Pentecost and the First Sunday of Advent, is seen as something of a misnomer. “Ordinary” in this instance is actually intended in the sense of ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) or the weeks of the year “in order,” rather than as a characteristic of liturgical time that is drab or mundane. While it is true that there is a special quality and a certain solemnity to the liturgical seasons surrounding Easter and Christmas that make them, in their own way, different from the weeks and days of Ordinary Time, the word “ordinary” unfortunately is still too often taken at face value, so that many of us may hold fairly low expectations of what the liturgy can offer us during this per annum time.

All too often the idea of Ordinary Time conjures up impressions of a lackluster liturgical event. Sometimes liturgical ministers themselves seem to expect the same, with the result that both adult and child participants come away feeling somewhat “underwhelmed.” How unfortunate if the assembly, upon hearing that “The Mass is ended,” should respond “Thanks be to God” with relief rather than gratitude!

It is clear in such experiences of Ordinary Time that the high bar for liturgical experience and participation set by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) is a long way from being attained: “The renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between them and the Lord draws the faithful and sets them aflame with Christ’s compelling love” (10). In fact, our liturgical tradition appreciates all of the seasons of the calendar, including Ordinary Time, as something most definitely extraordinary. The liturgies of Ordinary Time are also expected to “set us aflame with Christ’s compelling love.” One of the best ways to get a handle on what this might mean for us is provided by the great twentieth-century theologian, Jesuit Father Karl Rahner (1904–1984). His theology of worship was centered on what he called “the Liturgy of the World,” an understanding of the relationship between liturgy “in the usual sense” of the Church’s ritual and the life of the world that offers a key to unlocking the extraordinary quality of Ordinary Time.

For Rahner, the entire world — the whole of creation — is filled and sustained in the mystery of God’s love. The idea that God is only found in religious practices, and comes to us solely “in church” profoundly misses the mark when it comes to understanding the truth of the Gospel message. Humanity, Rahner wrote, “does not enter a temple … which encloses the holy and cuts it off from a godless and secular world which remains outside. Rather, in the free breadth of a divine world [humanity] erects a landmark, a sign of the fact that this entire world belongs to God…. The sacrament constitutes a small sign, necessary, reasonable and indispensable, within the infinitude of the world as permeated by God” (see Rahner’s essay, “Considerations on the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” Theological Investigations, Vol. 14 [New York: The Seabury Press, 1976] 160–170).

According to Rahner, God’s gracious presence and loving mercy toward us are not consequences of our celebration of the liturgy in a church building at a specific time; rather, the liturgy is a celebration by God’s people — at a specific time and place — of God’s gift of self to humanity at all times and places, throughout history and in all of creation: “The world and its history are the sublime liturgy, breathing of death and sacrifice, which God celebrates and causes to be celebrated in and through human history in its freedom.” God’s celebration of divine life is the real liturgy, which reached its fullest expression within human history in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection — a life and a mystery in which we participate all the time, even when we are not aware of it, and which continues to unfold in our lives of faithful witness to God’s love in the Spirit of the Risen Christ.

What we do in the rituals of the Church is the “landmark” we have erected in Christ’s name — the reminder, the anamnesis — of what God does not only in the “temple” but always and everywhere, “in spirit and truth.” We need the reminder because we so frequently have forgotten this truth that we do not adequately perceive it. We need this reminder — this is why the Eucharist is repeatable — so that we can once again interpret this divine celebration of the extraordinary life of the world with genuine, extraordinary vision, which our sinfulness and pride so often blur: “This liturgy of the world is as it were veiled to the darkened eyes and the dulled heart of [humanity] which fails to understand its own true nature. This liturgy, therefore must, if the individual is really to share in the celebration of it …, be interpreted, ‘reflected upon’ in its ultimate depths in the celebration of that which we are accustomed to call liturgy in the more usual sense.” The whole point of the liturgy of the Church, then, is to wake us up to the true liturgy, God’s celebration of the Liturgy of the World.

The Good News that God’s extraordinary life comes to us in seemingly ordinary ways is the ongoing lesson of Ordinary Time. While it is a message for all of us, we rarely acknowledge how much the children in our midst are particularly good “evangelists” in this regard. Parents, teachers, ministers, and other adults, so affected by a culture of time-consciousness and pragmatism, and often obsessed with “good decorum” in church, overlook children’s innate awareness of God’s presence to them and among all of us. Who better to teach us trustfulness in Christ’s compelling love and humble receptiveness to God’s continuous, miraculous mercy than those whom Jesus said we must emulate in order to enter into his reign (Matthew 18:1–5)? Children have the potential to offer us a genuine mystagogy of the ordinary world extraordinarily overflowing with divine life — if, that is, we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.