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Heaven in ordinary

20 May 2016

THOSE who attend weekday services may have observed that the liturgical colour green quietly returned last Monday. There are two flashes of gold to come: Trinity Sunday, the festival when revelation meets reason; and then, where it is celebrated, Corpus Christi — before Sundays don the same mantle, some­times viewed as linking spiritual growth and the process of ripening unto harvest. Nowadays it is called “Ordinary Time”: “No seasonal emphasis”, explains Common Worship.

“Ordinary” can be a misleading term. “There are no ordinary people,” C. S. Lewis wrote. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.” He was referring to the “overwhelming possibilities” of humanity in the light of eternity. After the heightened emotions of Lent and Eastertide, culminating in Pentecost, it is possible to lose touch with the power the ordinary has. To look at the Church in Ordinary Time is sometimes to see it as benevolent secularists do: gentle, decent, well-meaning, but without much intensity. As Alain de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists, religion “teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober”; it can help the non-religious learn “how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper”. There is no harm in that; but Christian faith has higher expectations.

When George Herbert tried to catch prayer in a poem, he wrote of “Heaven in ordinary”. For the Christian, there is a vast Other, “Church-bells beyond the stars heard.” That heaven cannot be reduced to confines of our own devising; and Trinity Sunday reminds us in a particular way that it “passes all understanding”. Yet there is a sense in which the divine is also domesticated: at Corpus Christi, devotion dwells on the “real presence”: the taking up by God of ordinary things, bread and wine, as a means of reaching out to ordinary people.

And the Church must reach out beyond the Church. There is something heavenly in being willing to engage with others’ ordin­­ary lives. As a cultural theorist, Ben Highmore, has written: “To invoke an ordinary culture from below is to make the invisible visible, and as such has clear social and political resonances.” The purpose of consecrating sacred places — churches, shrines, even cemeteries — is not to desacralise the rest of the world, but the reverse. God, in Christian belief, is in the kitchen, in the pub, at the bus stop. Celtic Christians had prayers for making the bed or doing the washing; and there is nowhere for the complacent to hide. “If you are Christians,” Bishop Frank Weston said, “then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country.” Ordinary Time has no seasonal emphasis be­­cause it is time for the Church’s seasons to bear their fruit.

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