Text: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Advent. Christmas. Epiphany. Lent. Easter. Eastertide. Pentecost.
These are the seasons of the liturgical year.
It begins in early December, or late November, depending on the year. It begins in expectation, we are waiting, we are hopeful. A woman is pregnant, the whole world is pregnant, we are pregnant, expecting birth. And then, What child is this? Who is this stupendous stranger? who enters the world in such a humble setting. According to his mother, who knows best, he will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. Magnificat! This Epiphany, this light is not just a local event, but is for all people, even those pagan astrologers who sense the cosmic signs, and come for a closer look, bearing gifts. Jesus is baptized, preaches good news to the poor, heals the sick, hangs with outcasts, confounds the educated with earthy parables. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it, but the darkness did not comprehend it. The light enters the wilderness of Lent, calls for a whole new way of thinking, new neurological pathways so that we can see and hear what’s really going on. The journey leads to the religious and political stronghold of Jerusalem, the holy city, the city that kills the prophets and those sent to it. Jesus rides the donkey in to cheers of expectation and hope. Is something new about to be born? Jesus keeps riding through the confrontations in the temple during Holy Week. The Son of Man, the Human One, the Son of David, the Son of God? is given the death penalty. Everyone flees to save their own skin, except for a few women who stay by his side, these same women who later go to the tomb and find it empty and are confronted with angels, messengers who say that Christ has been raised up and is going ahead of them. They are filled with terror and amazement. At the feast of Pentecost, after weeks of rumors and experiences of Jesus’ reappearance to various disciples, those gathered in the same room were overcome with something they would later call Holy Spirit, which caused them to speak in other languages, which affirmed the Epiphany, that the light shines for all people, no matter their tribe, and that each person and language now carries in themselves, the same Spirit which enlivened Jesus.
That’s the cliff’s notes summary of the liturgical year. But here we are, the Sunday after Pentecost, and it’s only May. The year isn’t even half way over. If it’s not the time of Advent, the time of Lent or Easter, then what time is it? According to the designers of the lectionary and church calendar, we are now in Ordinary time. This is the longest season of the church year, as long as all the other seasons combined. Welcome, friends, to Ordinary Time.
Depending on the angle you take, the idea of time being ordinary can be a major downer. Several years ago we had a mini-crisis in our home when Lily came to the realization that these things she was hearing about in books don’t really happen in real life. None of us remember the exact quote, but Lily has given me permission to paraphrase how I remember her protest, which went something like this: “Nothing works. I can’t fly, I can’t make spells, I can’t travel through time. Everything is just normal.” This dawning realization that we indeed live in an ordinary world is something we all come to terms with at some point in our lives, although if any of us laypersons could actually understand something like quantum physics or relativity theory we might be dared to reconsider. Maybe one of the key attributes of a good teacher is to help children and adults be enchanted with the wonders of the world that become more and more extraordinary the deeper we look.
This is more along the lines of what our liturgical calendar presents us with. Ordinary time happens after the wonder of all those other events, such that now all things are charged with Holy Spirit and any moment, any person, can be a bearer of the Divine. If we still can’t see it, no worries, we’ll start over next year, go through the whole narrative again and perhaps shed one more beam of light on the normal. Another name for this cycle, and this journey through the ordinary, is simply “discipleship.” Discipleship is learning to love the ordinary.
An image that the Apostle Paul gives us for this comes from his second letter to the Corinthians – at least the second letter that was preserved in the New Testament. He writes to this community in the cosmopolitan urban hub of Corinth, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” That’s the NIV translation, which we read together. The NRSV uses “extraordinary” in place of “all-surpassing.” “So that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Clay jars are rare and even exotic these days, but in Paul’s day they were common and cheap. The image is of something extraordinary within the perfectly ordinary.
We may be tempted to think that Paul is talking here about the relationship between the body and the soul. The body is the fragile and mortal container, the jar of clay, and the soul is the strong and eternal treasure. The body belongs to the earth, the soul belongs to God.
If this is the worldview we project onto this text, we would be half right. Paul does indeed seem to be speaking of the body as being like a jar of clay, or an “earthen vessel” as the King James Version put it. But what’s the treasure? Paul does not speak of a soul, at least not here. Instead, he goes into a litany of all the hardships he and his companions have endured in their ministry. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. We are perplexed, but not in despair. We are persecuted, but not abandoned. We are struck down, but not destroyed.”
And right after this he mentions the treasure: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” The treasure is not the soul, the treasure isn’t even the Holy Spirit. The treasure is the death and the life of Jesus, which we carry around in our body. This sounds a bit strange to us, but for Paul, this is the treasure, the central theme of all of his writings, the central revelation that so overturned his own life, and turned him into the hardcore evangelist/community organizer/revolutionary that he became.
For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus were not merely something to be recounted, a story to be remembered, but they were something in which we actively participate in the present. Paul shows a remarkable lack of interest in the teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the details of his life You will not hear Paul say: “remember that story about Jesus crossing the sea of Galilee…” or “this is kind of like when Jesus told his followers about loving your enemies….” This part in the letter to the Corinthians could have been a perfect opportunity for Paul to cite one of the parables of Jesus, who had talked about the kingdom of God being like a treasure in a field, which someone finds, and sells all they have so they can buy that field. Strengthen the treasure metaphor by citing the master himself.
But no, for Paul, the revelation of Jesus, the mystery of the cosmos, is summed up in the dying and the rising of Christ – something anyone can participate in, completely accessible to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. The treasure that we carry inside these jars of clay, the treasure in the field of our lives, is that we are always experiencing death and loss, and we are always experiencing the gift of new life. That’s the extraordinary Divine power that is held within these bodies of ours. This is not something that happens out there, an object or historical fact to be looked at or remembered. This is something that is internal to our very lives. Paul writes just before this “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Genesis is happening now. Creation is internal to our very lives.
Life = participation in the ordinary ongoing work of creation. Well, that’s how Paul sees it, but we’re not supposed to like Paul!
So that’s what we’re carrying around with us. Every Sunday it feels like we go through a miniature version of this when we share our joys and concerns. We speak of the dying that we carry with us, and we speak of the rising that we carry with us. And many of our losses and our gains go unspoken. It’s all a part of the treasure, Paul would have us believe. What kinds of deaths and what kinds of resurrections await us during Ordinary time?
The first half of the liturgical year is focused very much on the life of the person of Jesus, but Ordinary Time invites us into the path of discipleship in which the death and life of Jesus are now embodied in us.
Anthony de Mello was an Asian Indian Jesuit priest and a psychotherapist. He tells a lovely tale which was posted on the Inward/Outward daily meditation from this past Tuesday. It goes like this:
As the master grew old and infirm, the disciples begged him not to die. Said the master, “If I did not go, how would you ever see?”
“What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked. But the master would not say. When the moment of his death was near, they said, “What is it we will see when you are gone?”
With a twinkle in his eye, the master said, “All I did was sit on the riverbank handing out river water. After I’m gone, I trust you will notice the river.”
I don’t know the context in which this tale was originally told, or maybe it was intended to stand alone. On the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, it feels like an invitation to not wait for someone to hand us water, but to notice that the river is completely accessible – and that the river, the treasure, is not just something out there, but something internal to our lives.
I wish us a wet and satisfying and safe journey as we splash our way through ordinary time.