Ordinary Time: The Plain Auntie at the Liturgical Party

Prof. Benson’s Praxis Reflection


As soon as I left the precincts of the city, my soul began to exhale with the open vistas of the Texas Panhandle. Compared to the topographical relief of my native Colorado, with the drama of the Rocky Mountains, the flat prairie of North Texas seems ordinary. But even there, I found an occasion to celebrate a quiet beauty, whether the lonely windmill casting a long shadow in the afternoon, the dark silhouette of cattle grazing, or the lazy drifting of cumulous clouds, haloed in a soft pink light.

Photo: Texas Panhandle Windmill in the Sunset by Gary Langley

One of the practices I have chosen for Sabbath living belongs to the spiritual pathway of traditionalists: using a devotional book, formally observe Ordinary Time. Sarah Arthur’s At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time will guide me in this long stretch of the church year. In her introduction, she memorably describes Ordinary Time:

“The liturgical season of Ordinary Time runs for roughly twenty-nine weeks from Pentecost Sunday in the spring until the first Sunday of Advent in late fall. It’s the longest season of the church year, with few significant events along the way, which gives it a kind of ordinariness that the other seasons lack. There are no narrative highpoints, no showy colors or costumes, not even a signature hymn or two. Even the lectionary readings (or the cycle of Scriptures read by many denominations for each week of the church calendar), toil through lesser-known stories with a kind of plodding predictability. If Advent, Lent, and Easter are the glitzy celebrities at the liturgical party, Ordinary Time is the plain auntie collecting dirty wine glasses afterward. We almost forget she’s there.

So to dress her up with some of the world’s most extraordinary works of fiction and poetry is ironic, to say the least! But if, as the church prescribes, the season of Ordinary Time is when we are to focus on the mystery of Christ in all its aspects (not merely on the mystery of Christ’s birth or resurrection, as in Advent and Easter), then this plain auntie might surprise us. Seen in a slightly different light – say, emerging from the shadows into a moonlit garden – she might reveal something of the holy mystery that we hadn’t seen before.”

For each week, this anthology includes an opening prayer, closing prayer, Scripture, poetry, and excerpts of fiction – all organized around a theme. Since Ordinary Time begins at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out to the Church, it is fitting that the theme for the first week is “Encountering the Spirit.” On my road trip from Dallas to Denver, I meditated on the following poem by Mary F. C. Pratt.

Not Like a Dove

Come Holy Spirit, come
like a red eft creeping out
from under wet leaves
crossing the traveled highway
at night after rain.
Come like the brown anole comes north
unexpected in bananas or limes;
like a gecko hunting roaches on a wall.
Come like Chameleon;
like Iguana still as deep green death
flittering a cloven tongue.
Come like Komodo parting the ways
with your stinking breath. Come
clear the carrion from this isle.
Come Holy Spirit
come like the Dragon remembered of old
rattling and clanking on golden wings.
Seize our treasures for your glittering hoard.
Burn away all that will burn.

Arthur’s choice to include this poem in her anthology suggests that ordinary things will become extra-ordinary during Ordinary Time. Ordinarily, we picture the Holy Spirit descending, like a dove, as when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. “Not Like a Dove” immediately arrests the reader with its comparisons of the Spirit to various reptiles. These are not profane comparisons, for even reptiles, in all their strangeness, belong to the goodness of creation. The speaker invites the Spirit to come furtively like a red eft, unexpectedly like the brown anole, predatorily like a gecko, adaptably like the chameleon, quietly like an iguana, offensively like the Komodo, and thievingly like a dragon. The verb “come” takes on each of these italicized adverbs as a reminder that the Spirit moves in unpredictable, even unruly ways, as Jesus told Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). If we overlook the dove that perches on our windowsill, behold the dragon that approaches from the sky!