Sermon for the First Sunday in Ordinary Time

A friend said to me recently, “I’m just dealing with the fact that I’m not a rock star.  I’m a high school teacher.”

I laughed.  I also felt a tsunami of compassion swell in my veins.  I knew exactly what my friend meant.

Let me begin by saying I have the highest respect for teachers, especially high school teachers.  My grandmother taught high school history, my mother taught high school science, and my partner teaches high school English.  These beloved people, and all other great teachers, do difficult, honorable, often thankless work.  God’s work.  It is no easy feat to steer a soul out of darkness and into light.

Still, I understood my friend perfectly.   The older I get, the more my youthful aspirations elude me.  Even five years ago, I was wide-eyed with artistic expectation.  Ten years before that I wouldn’t have believed that I wouldn’t always be one of the prettiest, one of the brightest, one of the most talented or most successful.  I didn’t think I deserved those things, necessarily, but I thought I could earn them.  Vanity may be the bane of my generation and tribe, and the crippling misdirection from purpose that society uses to seduce all pretty girls.  Vanity is certainly my Achilles’ heel.  For some people like me to say “I’m a teacher,” to a stranger at a dinner party requires a humility and strength that “I’m a novelist” does not.  In her own way my friend is facing the same realization I’m facing: I may or may not become a writer with a capital W.  I may not become famous or semi-famous or even singled out.  I might not save the world.  My metabolism will slow down.  My muscles will atrophy.  My hair will turn gray.  Many of my students will graduate and forget my name.  I might be ordinary.

As with any trial, I turn to literature.  Or rather, literature finds me like a fairy godmother or talisman. The word talisman comes from the Greek, teleo–to consecrate.  In my case, this August I received a talisman charged with sacred power from Lucille Clifton in the form of this poem:

the thirty-eighth year 

of my life,

plain as bread

round as a cake

an ordinary woman

an ordinary woman

i had expected to be

smaller than this,

more beautiful,

wiser in Afrikan ways,

more confident,

i had expected

more than this

i will be forty soon.

my mother was once forty.

my mother died at forty-four,

a woman of sad countenance

leaving behind a girl

awkward as a stork.

my mother was thick,

her hair was a jungle and

she was very wise

and beautiful

and sad.

i have dreamed dreams

for you mama

more than once.

i have wrapped me in your skin

and made you live again

more than once.

i have taken the bones you hardened

and built daughters

and they blossom and promise fruit

like afrikan trees.

i am a woman now

an ordinary woman.

in the thirty-eighth

year of my life,

surrounded by life,

a perfect picture of

blackness blessed,

i had not expected this


if it is western

if it is the final europe

in my mind,

if in the middle of my life

i am turning the final turn

into the shining dark

let me come to it whole

and holy

not afraid

not lonely

out of my mother’s life

into my own.

into my own.

i had expected more than this.

i had not expected to be

an ordinary woman.

When I first read the poem, I was in the bathtub at a hotel in Farmington, Connecticut.  I ran naked out into the room and said to my fiancee, “Here.  Read this.  This is what’s wrong with me and what I haven’t been able to articulate to you.”  That same warm night at an outdoor poetry reading, I sat next to him, a rich glass of full red wine balanced delicately on the grass between us.  The emcee chose from an entire anthology of poems to read Clifton’s “An Ordinary Woman” to the crowd.  For a split second, I believed in signs.

I also recalled a song I love by Tracy Chapman, First Try, a song she croons in an older, more wistful voice than any song about fast cars.  She sings, “Can’t run fast enough, can’t hide, I can’t fly.  Struggling with the limits of this ordinary life.”

That word again.  Ordinary.

In the Catholic Church, we have what’s called “ordinary” time.  As a child I didn’t understand what the priest meant when he welcomed us into mass on the “Third Sunday in Ordinary Time,” for example.  What was the difference, I wondered, between ordinary time and other time?  In the Roman Catholic Church there are two periods of ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.  The exact timing becomes complicated, but suffice to say that Ordinary Time exists between Christmas and the Lenten (Easter) season, and then between Easter and the next Advent Season.  The time between birth and death.

More people attend mass on Christmas and Easter; these are holy days of obligation and Catholics love them some obligation.  As I get older, I do the opposite: some years I attend Christmas mass, and rarely attend Easter mass.  I show up tempus per annum, the latin phrase for “times of the year”, translated in English as “ordinary time.”   I need lifting when I feel most lowly and alone, most human.

Perhaps that makes sense.  The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen said, “I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes all of creation.”  We can display vanity in our suffering too. We must learn ordinariness.  We have to be common to find communion.

In ordinary time we will arrive at the most holy of our life’s work.  In ordinary time we will be asked to recognize the everyday-miraculous: sunrise, schoolroom, sentence, spoon, soap, sleep.  It is not the high drama of midnight mass with its trumpets and Halleluia’s, nor is it the dusky hours of an Easter vigil.  But it may be the time between birth and death–ordinary time–when life demands from us the most humbling and extraordinary task of coming out of our mother’s lives and into our own.



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