25 January 2017

Matthew 5: 13-20, catching brief
moments of eternity in ordinary time

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste how can its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5: 13) … bags of salt tablets outside the Ice House Hotel on the Quayside in Ballina, Co Mayo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In our Bible studies in a tutorial group, we are reflecting on the lectionary readings for the Sunday after next.

Sunday week [5 February 2017] is the Fourth Sunday before Lent, or in some Church Calendars, the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The readings for that Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112: 1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5: 13-20.

Matthew 5: 13-20

13 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς: ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω καταπατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

14 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη: 15 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ' ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐντῇ οἰκίᾳ. 16 οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

17 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας: οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι. 18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται. 19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν: ὃς δ' ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν. 20 λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

NRSV translation:

13 [Jesus said] ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reading the Gospel treading:

Next week [2 February 2017], we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, which marks the end of the season of Christmas and Epiphany. In five weeks’ time, the Church Year, the Liturgical Calendar, changes dramatically at Ash Wednesday [1 March 2017] as we begin the Season of Lent.

In between Candlemas and Lent, in the Church of Ireland, we are calling these Sundays the Sundays before Lent. But in the Church of England and in many other churches, the Revised Common Lectionary provides for counting these Sundays as the Sundays in Ordinary Time. In the Church of Ireland, Sunday week[5 February 2017] is the Fourth Sunday before Lent; but in the Church of England and other churches, this is the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time returns after Pentecost, but once again in the Church of Ireland we have a different way of counting and numbering, and so we count the Sundays after Pentecost or the Sundays before Advent, rather than counting the Sundays in Ordinary Time.

We are now well into the Second Semester, and perhaps we have become so used to the routine once again that we truly feel that this is ordinary time, very ordinary time, with the ordinary round of lectures and tutorials, the Tuesday morning rush for buses into Trinity College Dublin, the ordinary rounds of essays, assignments and chapel life.

But, we ought to ask ourselves, what is wrong with Ordinary Time?

What is wrong with being ordinary?

Being ordinary is a quality of the great poets. The mature style of Philip Larkin, as Jean Hartley observes, blossoms when he starts to observe ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things.’ Hugo Williams sees the turning point for John Betjeman as the moment he took account of the harder, unprotected world of ordinary excellence.

TS Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton,’ the first poem in The Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year, when all things are full of air and grace. For Eliot, it is in the movement of time, ordinary time, that brief moments of eternity are caught.

As Saint Paul reminds us in the epistle reading for the same Sunday, the revelation of God in Christ is the intersection between eternity and time (see I Corinthians 2: verses 1-5; see Isaiah 58: 8-9).

In our Gospel reading [Matthew 5: 13-20], Christ speaks of the eternal values and truths that the Law and the Prophets point to (verse 17), and points himself to the promise and the coming of the kingdom (see verses 18, 19 and 20). Yet he does this while drawing upon very ordinary, everyday, domestic images: salt and its role in preserving and cooking food; lights and lamps that give domestic light in our houses and homes; bushels and baskets; hillsides and homesteads; and so on.

Life and time can be very ordinary – time is ordinary – when things keep going on and on, round and round. But even as we wait for the kingdom, that life and that time, in their ordinary ways, are worth celebrating, time after time, in everyday ordinary life.

The central discussion in TS Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ is the nature of time and salvation. Eliot emphasises our need to focus on the present moment and to know that there is a universal order. By understanding the nature of time and the order of the universe, we are able to recognise God and to find redemption.

He emphasises that the present moment is the only time period that really matters, for the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown. He describes how consciousness cannot be bound within time, yet we cannot actually escape from our own time, even if we waste this ordinary time. He concludes ‘Burnt Norton’ with these lines:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

As we move on in life, we waste sad time more and more, as we settle, as we prosper, as we age. Slowly but surely, we slip away from the chores and routines that mark out and make up the reassuring rhythms of ordinary life.

We hire someone else to clean our house because the amount of time it would take us to do it is ‘worth’ more than we have to pay. We order in takeaway food rather than cooking for ourselves because it saves ‘valuable’ time. We have our dry cleaning delivered to our offices rather than doing our own ordinary errands on an ordinary Saturday morning.

And then, as we try to commodify time and to trade in time, this distortion of our values takes a grip and seeps into our lives. We start evaluating even important relationships in the same way. We miss a child’s ‘Nativity Play’ and think we can make up by buying a new game for their DS. We constantly miss dinner at home with our partner, and then think we can make up for a year’s worth of an empty chair at the table by splashing out on an expensive Christmas present.

Gifts and games can be bought. But ordinary time with those we love can never be bought, and can never be bought back.

Time and money cannot be compared. Time cannot be traded on the exchanges or bought in SuperValu or Sainsbury’s. Christ spends time – typified in the lengthy time on the side of the mountain during the Sermon on the Mount, which we are reading from this morning –Christ spends ordinary time with the disciples, teaching them in ordinary ways about who he is and what the cost of discipleship is, what the cost of following him is. In that ordinary time they spend with him, they will come to realise who Christ truly is.

Christ teaches us, time and again, that time spent with friends and family resists commodification. Because ordinary time is an essential part of what makes up our relationships. I cannot buy time, and I cannot buy friendship and love. And the more time I spend with people, paradoxically, the more time they have for God (see verse 16).

A close friend is not someone I meet solely at the big functions in state, church or academic life, is not someone I exchange business cards and email addresses with, or someone who occasionally clicks Like or Share on my Facebook postings. A close friend is someone I spend significant time with, and this means not just quality time, but ordinary time too.

Friendships are knit together not only by taking part in shared activities, but by sharing and reflecting on the memories of those activities over the course of the years in ordinary time.

For the first Christians, Sunday was not a day of rest; it was a regular, ordinary working day in ordinary time. Yes it was also the first feast; but for the first Christians, the great and joyous mystery of the cosmos and of salvation was celebrated regularly on an ordinary day, in an ordinary house, in the midst of ordinary life.

This original social context for our Sunday celebrations vividly represents how in-breaking eternity, clothed in time, truly sanctifies ordinary time, giving it a meaning that transcends our temporal trials and travails in this everyday life. This validation of human time, of ordinary time, takes place within the Eucharist, Sunday after Sunday.

No human time that has its meaning anchored in Christ’s salvific activity can possibly be commodified, reduced without distortion to a monetary value and bought and sold to further our selfish desires. Indeed, Professor Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame University suggests that the story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas for thirty silver coins testifies to this truth.

The liturgical calendar of the Church is designed to help us to appreciate each moment of salvation history, even while viewing it all from the eternal perspective of the resurrection. The liturgical year begins with Advent, a time of waiting, followed by the season of Christmas, including Epiphany and culminating with Candlemas. Then follows this Ordinary Time, in which the earthly life of Christ is recalled and celebrated, Sunday after Sunday.

Next we have Lent, preparing us for Holy Week’s ‘real time’ commemoration of the events we celebrate each Sunday. Easter follows, and then Christ’s Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. Then along comes another, second, but longer season of Ordinary Time that ends with the feast of Christ the King.

Time in the liturgical year is not freely exchangeable – it cannot be traded, bought or sold. So, we do not fast at Christmas, nor do we feast on Good Friday. Each time and season in the liturgical calendar conveys something of the uniqueness of the opportunities we are presented with, the time-bound character of our invitations and obligations, and the need to lay hold of them in a moment of decision.

We cannot make up for having ignored Lent by observing our own private penitential season in the first week of Easter – no more than we can make up for having forgotten a partner’s anniversary or a child’s birthday by giving a bigger or more expensive present the next day or the next week.

And the Church fails to grasp the intersection between temporal reality and eternal truth when it misses the opportunity to hear the ordinary concerns of people when they articulate them. In missing the opportunity to listen to the Occupy protesters in London some years ago, the community of Saint Paul’s Cathedral missed an opportunity, a moment in time that can never be presented in the same way again. In this failure, a blessèd opportunity to express the mission of a cathedral – to allow the nation to speak to the Church and the Church to speak to the Nation – was lost, never to be recovered in quite the same way again.

We must guard against losing our saltiness, against hiding our light, against living in the reality of ordinary time which Christ is born into and which the Kingdom of God is breaking into.

TS Eliot reminds us, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ In the economy of salvation, time is imbued with mystery. The fundamental mystery of the universe, the depth of its meaning, is the very reality of God himself. The Kingdom of God is truly but only dimly present in our midst, but will be revealed in God’s own time.

In the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, Eliot writes:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

So, may we enjoy being ‘At the still point of the turning world.’ May we enjoy ordinary time, celebrate ordinary time, enjoy the ordinary things of life. Ordinary time is not a commodity to be traded or exchanged. For we are truly blessed when, in the movement of time, ordinary time, we glimpse brief moments of eternity.

‘… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 16) … candles lighting up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


O God,
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
Grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

God of tender care,
in this Eucharist we celebrate your love for us and for all people.
May we show your love in our lives
and know its fulfilment in your presence.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.


In reading and preparing for this Bible study, I was grateful for ideas expressed by Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny in ‘Living the fullness of Ordinary Time: a Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life’ (Communio, Winter 2001, vol 28, no 4, pp 771-819).

She is Darald and Juliet Libby Professor Boston College since 2014, and a former Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. That paper was a revised version of the Baker-McKenzie Lecture in Ethics at Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2001, published as ‘Billable Hours in Ordinary Time: A Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life’ in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.

Other references:

TS Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).
Sarah Arthur, At the Still Point (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2011).
Hugo Williams, John Betjeman, Poems selected by Hugo Williams (London: Faber and Faber, 2006).
(Professor) Conor Gearty, ‘St Paul’s – reflection on the court ruling on eviction,’ 11.01.2012.
Patrick Comerford, ‘A Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cambridge,’ a sermon preached at Choral Evensong in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on 5 February 2012.

(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin (Limerick and Killaloe) and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with MTh students on 25 January 2017.

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