Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and the Church remembers in a solemn way the day on which Christ humbled himself as an example to us to be baptized in the River Jordan by his forerunner, follower, and cousin John the Baptist. Unlike ourselves, who all had need of baptism as the ordinary means by which God’s saving work enters our lives (1 Pet. 3:21), Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, he was without sin. John himself recognized that reality, but Jesus said that he was undergoing baptism to “fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt. 3:15) In other words, Jesus was telling John that he was being baptized as an example to us.
Christ is our pattern for living as Christians, and three things were happening on the day that Jesus was baptized. The first was that in being baptized himself, he was mandating it for us to do and giving it the status of a sacrament. Jesus reiterated this truth several times in the Gospels, telling Nicodemus that a man must be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to see the Kingdom of God (Jn. 3:5), and specifically mandating that the apostles “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (cf. Mt. 28:19-20) The second important happening was that Jesus was being revealed by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:17) to be the Son of God and the second person of the Godhead, or Trinity, though the fullness of that understanding was still being developed when that passage of Scripture was written. The third milestone marked by Jesus’ baptism was that it was the beginning of his public ministry, one that would culminate in his dying to save us and rising again that we might also have victory over death. The Church marks this beginning with a change in liturgical seasons today.
Today both formally ends the Christmas season on the ordinary Roman liturgical calendar, as well as begins the first of two liturgical periods of what is called Ordinary Time. The first period begins today and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras, Carnival, or Shrove Tuesday, though the day is not an ecclesiastical feast), and the second period begins the week after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), and concludes with the feast of Christ the King. Depending on how certain feasts and seasons fall on the Church calendar, Ordinary Time takes up between 33 and 34 weeks of the year, or about two-thirds of the liturgical calendar.
Most Catholics know that the high points of the year celebrate the Incarnation of Christ (Advent and Christmas), and that Lent is the penitential season leading to Holy Week and Easter, which commemorate Jesus’ Passion, Dying, and Rising Again. All of those seasons together, however, only take up about a third of the calendar. There is something to be learned about the reality that a season called Ordinary Time takes up most of the Church’s way of reckoning sacred time.
There are some who have said that Ordinary Time has perhaps been misnamed. There is nothing ordinary at all about the Eucharist, or about what Christ has passed down to us, and we go right on celebrating that “little Easter” each and every Sunday, and for those fortunate to have the ability, they can commemorate the Holy Eucharist every day by attending Mass daily. However, Ordinary Time recognizes two important things that are easy for us to forget. Firstly, while the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are the most important elements of our faith, without which we would have no faith as we know it, Jesus’ ministry involved more than just these essential events, but involved teaching and preaching an entire way of life and showing others how to live it by his example. Jesus had an ordinary life with the same difficulties we live with as human beings. Most of his life was so ordinary, in fact, that the majority of it was never written down. Jesus had to deal with the daily difficulties of “just getting by,” much like many of the rest of us do.
The second thing that Ordinary Time recognizes is the reality of our own human existence and that most of our days are pretty ordinary. We get up, most of us pretty early, we make that pot of coffee or have that morning cup of tea, maybe pack the kids off to school, we go to work or work from home if we are blessed with a job, we come home, fix supper, hopefully find some time for prayer in the course of our day, unwind for a couple of hours before retiring to the bed for a few hours’ sleep before rising again to repeat the same cycle. Hopefully most of us get to rest on Sunday, or at least can make time for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if nothing else…but our normal existence outside of those special times of the year is pretty…well…ordinary.
In giving us “Ordinary Time,” the Church not only signals that she understands the daily reality of the cycle of life, but the Church is, in fact, sanctifying everyday living and setting it apart for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There is nothing at all ordinary about that.