Ordinary time. Words not crafted to stir the soul. “Ordinary” here, of course, refers to the numbering of Sundays outside of festal and penitential seasons, but that’s far too abstract to make up for its dull connotations. Even in times of sadness, we may feel new life in Easter season. It’s far more difficult when spring is past.
The liturgical color for Ordinary Time is green. Green for life, growth, renewal. Focusing on the ordinary, the Humean predicament of “one damn thing after another,” it’s easy – perhaps inevitable – to miss how life’s greenness marks our lives as cottonwoods in the desert line a river or tap an aquifer.
I suspect it’s always been the case, but steady bad news makes it difficult to ignore the mess we’ve made of the ordinary. No longer content merely to sacrifice the lives of our children or the tops of mountains for the material comforts of a fossil-fueled economy, we lay waste oceans – over an already designated “dead zone” – in ways our words have yet to capture. Less a “spill” than a “spew,” less an “accident” than a predictable event, the baleful consequences of extractive science are made, not for the first or last time, visible.
Our earthly governments grow more frayed, polarized, impotent. Great changes are underway, changes which elected leaders seem oblivious to or willfully ignorant of. Perhaps there have been times of more uncivil and counterproductive political discourse, but that’s cold comfort amid the ongoing shouting matches over empty coffers, failing institutions, and alleged fixes that largely draw on proven failures.
The church, too, is in ruins. Need I number its many failings?
It’s hard to see, then, how Sunday’s readings respond to the mess we’ve made of the ordinary. The Revised Common Lectionary tells of individual healing: Elijah raising the widow’s son, Jesus doing likewise in Nain. The Catholic Lectionary, marking the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, features meals: Melchizedek’s enigmatic offering and Jesus feeding five thousand. All the stories join human basics (life, food) and glorifying God; healing presence as doxology.
None of the protagonists, Jesus included, offer comprehensive plans, manifestos, or political platforms. Attending to the ordinary world in its brokenness, they glorify the Father through and with their response. There’s neither division nor opposition here; responding to the broken ordinary and praising God are inseparable as the mingled waters of great tributaries downstream from their confluence.
In Terrence Malick’s luminous 1998 movie, The Thin Red Line, a frightened recruit, Private Train, wonders if the human suffering and natural brokenness he sees everywhere in Guadalcanal signify,”…an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”
At movie’s end, he knows he’s lived through more suffering and brokenness than most ever will and resolves to live better. Among his fellow soldiers he again wonders, ‘Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”
The films final words are his, spoken – to whom remains unclear – as the green island where suffering and death reigned disappears in the boat’s wake: “Oh, my soul! Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
Has Private Train found waters where the broken ordinary and God’s glory flow together? Malick’s too fine an artist to make it clear. At the heart of his artistry, Malick juxtaposes profoundly evocative showing with a paucity of explicit telling.
After 2000 years of Christianity, we often read the gospels more as explicit telling rather than evocative showing. I’m not arguing for relativism or an “anything goes” interpretative strategy. I’m merely reminding Christians of the artistry at Scripture’s heart. Which is more powerful: telling us to meet others in their need and to give God praise, or showing us Melchizedek, Elijah, and the Word Incarnate simultaneously meeting ordinary human need and praising the Father?
Perhaps this is the challenge of Ordinary Time: through grace, to meet and heal the broken world in precisely the same gesture as we glorify God, to be fully alive in the world God has made and we have marred, to find, even in our brokenness, all things shining.