Christmas and Lent are two of the most active seasons for those living out the liturgical year. Between them, what most of us need is something simple, something - well, something ordinary. The church understands. Welcome to ordinary time.
Ordinary time this year is driven by the Gospel of St. Matthew. This is great news for those doing lectionary catechesis. Of all the Gospels, Matthew most wrote his as a catechetical tool for bringing new Christians into the community. In short, the texts are a catechist's dream.
First readings give breadth to our understanding of the Gospel, and the second reading throughout this whole season is drawn from the opening chapters of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth. Catechetically, it's a rich season to enjoy.
Now, what happened to that "ordinary" time?
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jan. 17, 1993)
So if this is the year we focus on Matthew, what are we doing with John's Gospel this week? Don't panic. This happens every year. John makes the transition for us from the Christmas season into the long narrative of Jesus' life and teaching that will guide us through the coming year. Why John? Perhaps because he doesn't get his own "year" - we hear from him during Easter and other seasons. More important, Cycle C of the lectionary (coming your way in 1995) assigns John's account of the wedding at Cana to this Sunday. It does that because it is the last of three classic "epiphanies" of Christ: the visitation of the magi, the baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. They all reveal to the world who Jesus is. Before 1969 we used to hear the wedding at Cana every year on this Sunday. Now we hear it just in year C, and the two stories which precede the wedding are assigned to years A and B. So, that's why we start off this year (Jn 1:29-34) with the arrival of Jesus on the scene and John calling out "Look! There's the lamb of God!"
This passage also gives us John's version of the baptism, which we never hear on the feast of the baptism itself. It's very different from the other three. We hear about the baptism in the past tense in a conversation. Catechesis on this passage may go in many different ways: The composition of the four gospels and the formation of the Scriptures; the distinction between Jesus' baptism and Christian baptism; the title "Lamb of God"; or Jesus' role in taking away the sins of the world.
Today's first reading (Is 49:3, 5-6) is one of the four songs of the suffering servant from Isaiah. It's chosen because of the title John gives Jesus in the Gospel: "Lamb of God." This title shows Jesus as the one who fulfills the servant songs, and foreshadows his role as the Passover lamb who will be slain for the liberation of the people.
Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is one of the most expansive of New Testament letters. So great is its importance that the church includes it at the beginning of all three cycles of the lectionary. Today's passage contains Paul's greeting (1 Cor 1:1-3). This could be a good Sunday to explain the nature of epistles, how they are structured, and what role they played for the early church and for us.
Catechesis this week, then, might include: the nature, structure, and composition of epistles and Gospels; the meaning of the title "lamb of God"; the nature of baptism; and the role of Jesus in his newly begun mission. An interesting text to consider is Paul VI's "The Credo of the People of God," with its description of our belief in the nature of Jesus' mission.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jan. 24)
Opening the Gospel of Matthew now we encounter the beginning of Jesus' mission, the call of the disciples, a prelude to his first and most famous discourse, which begins next week.
We might expect disciples to go seek out the best master, but here the master calls the disciples he wants (Mt 4: 12-23). Catechesis could reflect on how discipleship begins with God's call, not with our search. The calling of brothers shows early on Matthew's theme of community life in Christianity.
Today's first reading gives an excellent example of how the reading in this position frequently relates to the Gospel. This is the passage that Matthew quotes today. Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures a great deal, and in today's case the first reading gives us the full context of the passage to which the evangelist refers. Specifically, Isaiah (8:23, 9:3) promises liberation for those held captive, and Matthew sees in Jesus the fulfillment of that promise. Catechesis on liberation or on scriptural typology could be worthwhile.
Paul jumps right into his theme: divisions in the community. This letter skips over the niceties and goes for the jugular: factions have divided the church in Corinth, and Paul calls them back to unity. He talks about the unitive nature of baptism, the redemptive meaning of the cross, and opens a theme he'll return to shortly: the fallacy of earthly "wisdom."
Catechesis this week, then, might approach the following themes: discipleship, call, community life, typology, liberation, union in the church, baptism, the cross, and wisdom. A text to consider would be chapter five of Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" ("Lumen Gentium"): the universal call to holiness.
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jan. 31)
Matthew divides his Gospel into five big sections, each including a massive discourse of Jesus. The first of these is also his most famous: the Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon begins most eloquently with the Beatitudes (5:1-12). Jesus reminds us how blest are the poor in spirit. The Gospel will remind us that we will find the presence of God especially in the poor. It's for this reason that not just material poverty but spiritual asceticism also expresses the Christian life. All the beatitudes point to the future reign of God, the glorious age when Christ will come again. Catechesis on this text may take up poverty in all its dimensions and the life of the world to come.
Staying in the prophetic literature, the first reading today offers its own promise of the age to come. Zephaniah writes at the time of the Babylonian exile and promises that the poor remnant saved by God will enjoy glory (2:3, 3:12-13). This beautiful prophecy sets the stage for hearing the same promise from the lips of Jesus. Catechesis on this text could include some Bible history on the exile and release of Israel.
Ordinarily, the second reading continues a sequence of readings drawn from a particular letter, and its themes do not match those of the other readings. Today, however, a happy coincidence occurs: the next lines of Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1:26-31) reiterate the theme of God's choice of the lowly. Here the despised are called on to be prophets for a better world.
Catechesis this week, then, may take up material and spiritual poverty, the future reign of God, Bible history, or the prophetic call of God's poor. This would be a good week to explore the preferential option for the poor as spoken in many texts by liberation theologians and Pope John Paul II.
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb. 7)
Salt and light (Mt 5:13-16). Jesus offers the first of his many metaphors. And these are rich. Salt acts as a preservative and a flavor enhancement. The Christian should act the same way - especially the catechist! The prospect of bad salt being "thrown out" introduces the theme of judgment. Our good deeds shine like a light, not to attract attention to ourselves but to direct glory to God. Catechesis on this text can reflect on the effect the Christian should have in the world, and the God who deserves the credit.
Today's prophecy (Is 58:7-10) is another beauty. It underscores care for the poor, the moral behavior to which the Christian is called. This text is chosen because of its frequent use of the same light metaphor so prevalent in the Gospel. A text like this helps us discern just what kind of love the Christian aspires to: It's not a love that expects something in return, but a love that gives for the sake of love. Catechesis today might explore the many ways we offer love to different groups: family, strangers, the poor.
Paul offers a disarming critique or his own preaching skills (1 Cor 2: 1-5). But in spite of his poor abilities, the Spirit was able to work wonders for the Corinthians. This text can instruct us about the work of the Holy Spirit and the action of God in the world.
This weekend, then, catechesis may include the responsibility of the Christian in the world, judgment of our behavior, the motivation behind good deeds, the true nature of love, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the power of God. For a good reflection on our call to love, see Vatican II''s "Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People," no. 8.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb. 14)
Today's Gospel is almost too comprehensive to explore. Jesus starts contrasting the old law with his own teaching. (He'll continue the series next week.) And the topics he takes up are anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing! Does that give you enough to catechize about? Curious that this year these thoughts on adultery and divorce should be heard in our churches on Valentine's Day.
The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, and not found in many non-Catholic Bibles) offers a passage about divine wisdom (Sir 15:15-20). God's word will help us discern the choices we must make. This passage promises God's help in moral decision making, and Jesus gives what we need to know in the Gospel. Catechesis on making moral choices would be excellent today. So might something on the difference between the "Catholic" and "Protestant" Bibles.
Again today, the second reading coincidentally picks up the theme of the other two scriptures. Paul expands now on his ideas about "wisdom." We've heard him mention the term a few times already; today we see that he's contrasting the worldly wisdom of philosophers in his day with the divine wisdom that comes from God. The catechist could compare the many sources of wisdom that vie for our allegiance in today's culture.
Catechesis today may include ethics, anger, adultery, divorce, swearing, wisdom, and moral decision making. Good texts may be found in the introduction to the Code of Canon Law (to explain how the church tries to codify laws in keeping with the mind of Christ and any of the Roman or American Church documents on questions regarding ethical questions.
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb. 21)
Jesus finishes the lecture he began last Sunday (Mt. 5:38-48). He contrasts the old and new law on the topics of retaliation and love of enemies. This is practical advice for all of us who face difficult relationships. Catechesis might get personal this week, to help people face the troubles of their lives.
True to form for the lectionary, since Jesus quotes a passage from Leviticus in his comments today, the first reading gives us the full citation (19:1-2, 17-18). We learn the demands of love. Catechesis might explore what motivates moral behavior: Is it fear? Laws? Love? Selfishness?
Paul concludes this part of ordinary time for us with a passage that relates to nothing in particular (1 Cor 3:16-23). He says we are temples of God's Spirit; that wisdom is accessible to all of us; that we are held by Christ, and Christ by God. Paul seems to be circling back to a theme he began with in this letter: unity. The divisions among us give way to the unity we enjoy in God's Spirit and in our participation in the body of Christ.
Catechesis this week may take up treatment of enemies, the motivations for moral behavior, wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and the unity we have in Christ. A helpful text might be John Paul II's synodal document on the "Christian Family in the Modern World." Sections 18-27 remind us of the demands of love.