There’s extraordinary in the ordinary
On this the second Sunday of Ordinary time, the Sunday after the Baptism of our Lord and entering the week of prayer for Christian Unity, I’m reminded that, as a child, I found church extremely dull as we entered ordinary time. We had just come out of the beautiful season of Advent with all the its songs of preparing and waiting for the birth of Christ, then the celebrations of Christ’s birth not to mention the gatherings of family and friends, the decorations at church and at home, the anticipation of Christmas morning. Then New Year’s and (for me) my birthday which came two weeks after Christmas. So, when ordinary time came, it felt as if all that excitement and anticipation came to an abrupt halt; the church was bare again, and we started into doing the same boring routines over and over until the next exciting season began.
What I failed to realize as a child, was that there is purpose in the mundane and repetitive nature of ordinary time.
Entering ordinary time, today’s readings and the feelings I felt as a child during this time, reminded me of the movie, Karate Kid where the teacher, Mr. Miyagi, makes his student Daniel engage in menial, repetitive tasks – sanding Mr. Miyagi’s floor, waxing his car and painting his fence – all of which had repetitive, boring movements, but which (unknown to Daniel) helped him improve as a karate student. There’s a scene in the movie where Daniel is furious with Mr. Miyagi telling him that he’s exploiting him by making him do all this useless manual labour and it’s then that Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel what he’s actually learned. We too are in a season of seemingly repetitive, ordinary motions and lessons, but motions and lessons which lead us to a better understanding of what God wishes of and for us.
The repetitive and ordinary feelings of ordinary time remind me of a reflection by an American priest (and musician) John Foley. In it he describes an Ignatian spiritual exercise called repetition where one repeats the same topic of a previous meditation or prayer session over and over again with the purpose of improving on the lesson or finding new meaning in the same space. Foley talks of how he dreaded such exercises and how it was only later that he understood the importance of repetition. Kind of like how I felt about ordinary time as a child.
With that theme of repetition and ordinary in mind, we are reminded on this second Sunday of ordinary time that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The word ordinary jumps to mind again here because in last week’s gospel Jesus presents himself to John the Baptist to be baptized. Jesus, who is supposed to be the Messiah, the great deliverer of the Jewish people, has a ceremony with ordinary people in a very dirty body of water. Not very Messianic or saviour-like but in that ordinary behaviour an extraordinary person is revealed. John the Baptist reminds us in this week’s reading that, while he is just an ordinary man who baptized Jesus in such an ordinary way, he witnessed the extraordinary in the spirit descending on the Son of God.
For the second Sunday in a row Isaiah talks of servitude – of what’s expected and of who is coming and what God wants of those who serve. Again, a repetition that we hear many times in ordinary time. We are here to serve one another and therefore, serve God. In ordinary and extraordinary ways but no matter, as long as we remember that it is our sole purpose as God’s people.
As the week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins, we read St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – written to a community at odds with one another. The church – which is supposed to be followers of Jesus’ life and lessons – has turned in on itself, broken into factions following different leaders with different agendas all fighting among themselves. Sound familiar? Sound repetitive? Yet it bears repeating even today. St. Paul was reminding the church in Corinth that the leader to follow was Jesus and the lessons were of love, kindness, acceptance and caring – all of what Jesus had come to show us. St. Paul was reminding us that we are all in this together. A very important reminder thousands of years later reflected in this year’s theme for Christian Unity in the phrase “They showed an unusual kindness”.
Ordinary time, repeating lessons until we learn them or to remind us to do better to be better, showing unusual kindness – these themes all resonated with me recently as I accompanied a family from out of town who had a loved one who was dying. (I’ve changed some of the details of this to story in order to maintain confidentiality) As a hospital chaplain I am often called to be with families as their loved one is dying in order to help accompany them in the last hours of the patient’s life. In this instance, I was called to the room of a patient who had a very large family who were all there as this person was actively dying. This patient was a great lover of Lego – the building blocks – and had built enormous lego projects while in hospital that were all around their hospital room. As I tried to find something meaningful to help the family come to terms with what was happening, I decided I’d go to the Lego store and grab some pieces of lego to hand out to the family members holding vigil as a symbol of the patient’s great love of lego and of the great love they put into creating this family. So, before leaving for the Lego store I called ahead and told them what I needed and why and that I didn’t have a lot of time because the patient was dying quickly.
When I arrived at the Lego store, I introduced myself as the person who had called earlier when a young clerk came up to me with tears in her eyes and handed me a container of LEGO pieces. She said, “I was so moved by what this family is going through, facing the loss of their loved one, that I wanted to do something special for them.” Instead of just grabbing some random LEGO pieces and dumping them in a container, she found tiny lego decorative flowers and added two to each piece of lego to “make it special” for the family. She asked me to tell the family that they (the staff at the store) would all be holding that family and their loved one in their thoughts and hoped that I could let them know they were being thought of. Wow, I don’t often tear up over work stuff but I had tears in my eyes when I left the store.
After the patient had passed I was relaying this message to the family about the extra steps this employee took and the message she had sent. One family member started sharing the story with the rest of the family and they all began to cry tears of gratitude for the kindness shown to them by a young stranger. This LEGO employee showed an unusual kindness and helped sooth the hearts of those having a very difficult day. She turned the ordinary – selling LEGO to strangers into something extraordinary – bringing comfort to strangers in their hour of need.
I guess my reason for sharing this story is to show that it’s not difficult for us to do what we are called to do by God…to care for one another, to show mercy and kindness…to love. Total strangers can do it and can do it in ways that are seemingly innocuous but have great meaning in the end.
In the ordinary, if we practice – even when it feels mundane or less than extraordinary – we can be extraordinary and thus, fully live what God asks of us – to love one another and create a kingdom of peace here on earth.