Editor’s note. The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on July 10, 2019, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Let’s check your grasp of what we were taught in kindergarten about the “primary colors.” If someone tells you he’s “in the red,” you know he’s in trouble. If someone tells you he’s “in the black,” you congratulate him. For a couple of weeks now and for the next five months, the Church is going to be “in the green.” That’s right: for roughly eight months of the year, the predominant liturgical color is green, symbolic of life and hope.
These weeks have had different names in different times and places. In the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, they are called Sundays after Epiphany and after Pentecost; in the Ordinary Form, they are termed Sundays “per annum” (throughout the year), which is also the terminology used in the General Instruction of the Missal of 1962, even if not so in the Mass Propers themselves.
Somehow or other, some brilliant Anglophone liturgist decided to change the designation “per annum” to “Ordinary Time.” In defense of that nomenclature, we are told that “ordinary” in this context does not carry its meaning in common parlance, in the sense of “common” or “usual”; rather, it refers to “ordinal” numbers, as in “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. I shall return to that matter shortly.
There are other anomalies, which are intriguing. In the Extraordinary Form, while the designation is of “Sundays after Pentecost,” the preface for the Trinity is used. In the Anglican Usage, those Sundays are referred to as “Sundays after Trinity Sunday,” with the Trinity preface. But why is green used for these Sundays? It seems that prior to the Council of Trent, the color for Pentecost Sunday was green, precisely for the reason I offered above, namely, that green suggests life, which is the precise gift brought by the Holy Spirit – indeed, eternal life. The liturgical reform following Trent changed the color to red to highlight the fiery tongues which descended on the Infant Church – an equally valid symbolism. To add to the liturgical palette, it should be noted that the Byzantine Rite uses green vestments for Pentecost Sunday and, in many places, continues the use of green until the feast of the Prophet Elijah on July 20.
With the numbers and colors treated, let’s get to the heart of the matter. When we talk about the liturgical year, it is appropriately called “The Year of Grace,” which caused Pius Parsch to adopt it for the title of his landmark work. Simply put, there is no such thing as “ordinary time” when we are dealing with things divine – and no amount of explanation of an alternate meaning is useful. It is unfortunate that what began as an American virus has spread to most languages, even though the official Latin maintains the expression of “per annum” or “throughout the year.”
The forty days of Lent are followed by the fifty days of Eastertide, thus comprising a full quarter of the year focused on the Lord’s Paschal Mystery, that is, His Passion, Death and Resurrection, as well as His glorious Ascension and Sending of the Holy Spirit. The “green” Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost allow us to reflect in a very calm fashion on our living out of those saving mysteries; we can step back and look at the big picture. The Church’s desire, in fact, is that the skills or habits taken on during Lent might be lived out per annum. It should likewise be a time of ongoing liturgical education, as the General Instruction encourages.
Scripturally speaking, for this cycle of Sunday readings (Year C), the Church offers us St. Luke as our principal guide. In savoring the Holy Word presented by the Third Evangelist, it would be good to be attentive to themes very dear to him: the centrality of the Holy Spirit; the place of joy in the life of a believer; the ever-present gift of divine mercy; Christ’s particular affection for women.
A most beautiful, touching hymn is “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Meditating on its words can help us appreciate anew what we might be taking too much for granted “throughout the year”:
Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the mem’ry find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
O Savior of mankind!
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!
All those who find Thee find a bliss
Nor tongue nor pen can show;]
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be Thou,
As Thou our prize will be;
Jesus, be Thou our glory now,}
And through eternity. Amen.
Of course, the prayer of a Catholic should not be limited to one’s time in church. With much of the “green” weeks occurring during the summer months, it might also be good to devote some time to spiritual reading – at the beach, poolside, under a great oak. Pick a Catholic classic like The Introduction to a Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales to assist you in deepening your understanding of how to live your baptismal commitment in the world as a layperson. If you want to plumb the depths of the sacramental, incarnational dimensions of the Catholic Faith, as well as being brought face to face with the real-life working out of the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of iniquity) and the mysterium pietatis (the mystery of devotion), you can’t go wrong with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. And who could not benefit from a re-reading (or reading for the first time) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – or at least the Compendium of the Catechism?
Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium teaches us, in its poignant words, that the Sacred Liturgy is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (n. 11). A source, if followed faithfully, leads inexorably to a summit. There are, however, stopping off points – way stations, if you will – which aid one’s attaining the summit. A wise celebration of the “green” season can make for a kind of “second honeymoon” with the Church’s Sacred Mysteries.
As you undoubtedly know, St. Thomas Aquinas produced some of the most magnificent Eucharistic hymns, with “O Sacrum Convivium” among the most profound. Its chant melody is haunting, but composers like Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Tallis, and Gabrieli have put their musical genius to the task of rendering equally glorious polyphonic versions of the text. I would suggest taking this marvelous hymn as your post-Communion prayer of thanksgiving for this per annum season. Listen to this brief but all-encompassing theology of the Most Holy Eucharist:
O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.
That’s the summit toward which we need to be moving. Being “in the green” these weeks should make the climb more practicable and more joyful – and that is certainly nothing that ever can be rightly classed as “ordinary”!
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