July is a special month. And not just because it’s the birth month of our nation, which was inaugurated in 1776 when Benjamin Franklin, having already invented the iPod, introduced the hot dog, which George Washington ate two of, and in the process triggered our young nation’s first commemorative case of acid reflux.
July is also the last month of summer in which a cool breeze can still surprise you on a busy street, drying the sweat off your face as you stand on the corner considering whether to wait for the light or, in the stubbornly independent spirit of our nation, boldly cross against the light, evoking the proud motto of New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die Under a Bus.” The chance of a breeze ends quickly come August, however, when the oppressive heat reminds us that our planet is slowly boiling itself to death and our only hope is in prayers and service to a merciful God.
But thankfully we don’t have to do those things now, because July is also the second full month of Ordinary Time, the period on the Catholic liturgical calendar that is free of religious obligation and ritual. Unlike the other seasons—Advent, Lent, Epiphany, Pentecost, and, if memory serves, Eureka—Ordinary Time requires little from practicing Christians: no sacrifice or acts of charity, no special offerings, no tedious Christmas shopping lists. Nope. Just a few weeks for kicking back and doing something ordinary, like having a cold beverage. For the church, it’s Miller Time.
Before you correct the point, I realize that in this case the word “ordinary” derives from the term ordinal or “numbered,” signifying that the Sundays in this period are not necessarily ordinary, but are simply numbered. But hey, don’t blame me if the early church fathers decided to knock off during the summer. Frankly, as one who is searching for just the right spiritual balance in life, a church-sanctioned season where you and God just, you know, hit a volleyball back and forth is just what this former Baptist has been waiting for.
BAPTISTS HAVE traditionally been skeptical of some Catholic practices, particularly infant baptism, since we feel that to fully comprehend a lifetime of Christian service one must first reach an age of maturity, say about 10; 11 at the outside. Not to mention another big point of tension, what some have characterized as steeple envy, which Baptists often suffer from. (Catholic churches always have bells. We never had bells. I like bells.)
Admittedly, Baptists are themselves pretty weak on religious ritual, unless you count Super Bowl Sunday, which we fully honor with sermons that mine football’s rich allegorical trove: “And Jesus said: ‘Down. Ready set. Go ye therefore and teach all nations ... .’ ”
Occasionally, though, in the small town of my youth, Catholics and Baptists would reach across the theological divide and work together to solve the pressing spiritual issues of our small town. Namely, finding a power forward for our church basketball team. For some reason, Baptists can’t produce good power forwards. (Backward we’re good at, but not forward.) Fortunately, the Catholic church down the street always had extra, most of whom were tired of ringing the church bells as part of their weekly obligation. So they gladly became temporary Baptists, and they didn’t seem to mind taking our sacramental grape juice—or Hawaiian Punch, depending on what was left from Vacation Bible School—and then crossing themselves from right to left. Then, after we forgave them their pope, they went out and practiced free throws.
ORDINARY TIME IS ALSO a good time to atone for little mistakes made in other seasons. For example, during this past Lent—a time of spiritual cleansing and soul-searching—the Defense Department accidentally shipped ballistic missile parts to Taiwan. The shipment was supposed to contain helicopter batteries, but because of an error made somewhere along the supply line, it didn’t. It was ballistic missile parts.
No judgment here. It was an honest mistake, and what better time to make it than during a season of confession and self-examination. (And let them without sin cast the first spare part.) Why, just last week I myself walked out of the grocery store with a case of weapons-grade uranium that I thought was Chex Mix (in the Bold Party Flavor!). Fortunately, the security guard noticed my mistake when his heart pacemaker started playing a local radio station. And, since I still had the receipt, I had no problem exchanging it for cans of tuna laced with heavy metals, for which I had suddenly developed a taste.
But all good things must end, which Ordinary Time does in November with the Feast of Christ the King, followed, I would imagine, by the Second Helping of Dessert for the King, which consists mainly of snickerdoodles, a cinnamon sugar cookie that, it turns out, you can eat 37 of before you realize what a bad idea it was. (When Lent comes around, I’m really hoping I remember that, because giving them up would make an excellent Lenten discipline. These liturgical seasons have real promise.)
Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.