Fasting Through Ordinary Time
Feasting is making a come-back in many evangelical circles. We're becoming aware of the ancient liturgical calendar and how it shapes the life of the Church. Not only does this bring us a better understanding of the importance of the Body, it also affords us an opportunity to wish people "Merry Christmas" on January 3rd. Everybody wins.
We start with Advent and rush through the bustle of Christmas, then we have Epiphany, followed by Shrovetide (capped off by Mardis Gras for those of us in Louisiana), a bit of a break for Lent, then Holy Week and Easter activities, then we hit Pentecost, the last big hurrah of the year. And then...nothing.
This time doesn't even have a real name. Most denominations agree on Christmas, Easter, and even Pentecost - the Big Three. But there's Ordinary Time, Normal Time, maybe even Trinity Season (which is what my church calls it). The old Catholic term is Tempus per annum, which is just "time during the year." That's about as generic as you can get without actually being a boy band.
But, like the rest of the liturgical calendar, Ordinary Time aids in teaching and shaping us into the likeness of Christ. It is often stated that Ordinary Time is an opportunity for meditation on the broad Christian experience, or Perichoresis (the interplay of the Three Persons of the Godhead). While this is certainly true, there are things we can specifically learn from Ordinary Time itself.
First of all, the very name Normal Time brings attention to the fact that the rest of the year is not in any way normal. This is the beauty of the liturgical calendar (well, one beauty): it adds a layer of meaning to what otherwise is a life governed by taxes and football season. While fasting has its own place in the calendar, Ordinary Time is a fast of sorts from special feasting and brings with it some of the same benefits. We gain a greater appreciation of the Advent/Christmas/Easter/etc cycle by abstaining from it for a while. It prepares us for the Holy War we are drafted into by baptism, just as Christ's baptism immediately preceded his fasting in the Wilderness and ultimately temptation at the hand of Satan.
Summer is a good time for secular feasting, especially in America. Most of our American Holy Days fall more or less in Ordinary Time. Memorial Day occurs at the beginning (this year exactly one day after Pentecost Sunday), July the 4th, the most holiest of American Days, Labor Day, and capped off by Veteran's Day (just a few weeks before the First Sunday in Advent). Kids are usually off school for these days, it's warm outside (if you're in God's country, the South), and everything lines up for the great sacrament of grilling burgers and drinking cheap beer.
No, I'm not comparing American Holy Days to the temptations of Satan. I'm not that libertarian. But it is interesting to me that the lull in the Church Calendar coincides with the height of secular feasting. While it's perfectly alright to enjoy these things (I like fireworks and beer like everyone else), we should be conscious of the fact that these are conspicuously not church feasts, and should be approached accordingly. We can have Memorial Day parties and recognize what the day stands for (within biblical reason), but we should also be tired from celebrating the Church's birthday the day before.
I realize that might sound like a curmudgeonly rant (it is), but properly thinking about Ordinary Time can help us repair a Christian subculture that somehow thought it would be a good idea to put a United States flag in the sanctuary.
The prevalence of these American holidays, not necessarily malum in se, is a good reminder that the Church's concerns are separate. During Christmas and Easter, it's often difficult to separate the holy from the secular. Ordinary Time becomes conspicuous by its lack of feasts. So if we're thinking about it correctly, our attention is drawn back to the liturgical calendar, and we can focus on the wait for Christ's Coming in advent.
In this way, Ordinary Time is similar to the Intertestamental Period, where the Incarnation was still looked for and not yet on the horizon (heralded by John the Baptizer). Our attitude should be similar to the Jews during this time who remained faithful despite the lack of special revelation.
Do not be silent, Lord
I had almost finished writing this article when my train of thought was interrupted by a conversation with a friend about the Book of Esther. Not only does the name of Yahweh never explicitly appear in the book, Esther is one of the few books never quoted in the New Testament (the others being Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). One of the purposes of Esther is to show the working of God even when he appears to be absent. He certainly must have seemed far off to the Jews in the captivity, yet Esther remains faithful and preserves His people through the trials they faced.
Perhaps Ordinary Time is like this. God seems far off (according to the feasts), and we may not be faced with that particular tangible reminder of His presence among us. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to meditate on the Book of Esther and the example we have of a Godly woman who kept His Word in her heart despite His relative silence. Of course, we can rejoice as well, because Pentecost means that we always have God the Spirit among us and He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Esther also has connections with fasting, as she asks Mordecai to organize a fast before her audience with the king. “‘Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way’” (Esther 4:16). This fasting is not explicitly connected with any expected outcome (such as the favor of God or even specifically King Ahasuerus), which further adds to the mystery and behind-the-scene-ness of the book.
Fasts in the Bible are usually connected with either repentance or preparation (and sometimes both). The fast in Esther appears to be primarily in preparation for her presentation to Ahasuerus. Although not a perfect analogy, we are faced with a picture of fasting when God seems silent or absent, to prepare us for the coming of the King (the Advent, we might say).
Even though Ordinary Time might seem mundane and empty (especially for someone just now getting excited about the liturgical calendar), God teaches us many lessons in waiting on Him and praying for strength. And at the end of this season, we move from the silence of fasting to the songs of Advent and the Feasts of Christ's coming.