Numbering My Days: Life in Ordinary Time

Jacob had had enough. After ten days’ hot pursuit from Haran to the doorstep of Canaan, Laban had finally caught up with him, demanding a reason for their sudden departure, and accusing him of stealing the family gods. When the (actually) stolen items could not be found – thanks to some quick thinking on Rachel’s part – Jacob unleashed the angry diatribe he’d held in check for decades, describing himself as perennially swindled and lied to by the father-in-law who was never the adoptive family he so desperately needed (Gen. 31:36-41).

It wasn’t only Laban’s grifting or accusations of theft that incensed Jacob, but the apparently wasted time itself. “Twenty years I’ve been with you!”* Can you imagine? Maybe you can, but as a 31 year old who’s moved almost as many times, the concept of staying in the same place, around the same people, doing the same thing, for two whole decades is an utterly foreign concept for me. Life still comes at me in months, not decades. For Jacob, how many times in those years had he fantasized about going back – about returning to Canaan, the land of his birth, the land promised by God to his father and grandfather? How many times had he wondered whether Esau had forgiven him and would allow him to return in safety?

Of course, Jacob’s season of waiting was coming to an end: he was about to wrestle with God through the night and emerge a new man who would find peace with his brother.

When reading ancient stories, I have to make a concerted effort to remember the exceedingly long time frames we’re dealing with. Often, years and even centuries fly by with barely more than a mention. A lot can happen to a person in a single day; what is it like to simply pass two or three generations of human lives without even a footnote? Are we to expect nothing happened in those historically-quiet years? That just because a famous person didn’t wage war against another famous person, nothing of interest occurred? What about those twenty years of Jacob’s exile, his stock and family growing, but his heart yearning to return home? What about the years we live between life-events?

* * *

Though time moves slowly for the young, I cannot help feeling myself at least a little akin to Jacob at this stage in my life. My family is parked in the in-between; standing in the liminal space between a past and a future. Trying to let go of past slights and cut the albatrosses hanging from our necks (i.e. two homes we can’t seem to sell), yet looking ahead to long-delayed dreams and faded hopes, it seems we are perched precariously on the threshold between two realities, unable to either fall back or step forward.

Or more accurately, we stand on a long road disappearing into a hazy horizon. Smoke rises from the hills behind us, where bridges and past lives have been left in ashes, but uncertainty lies ahead. There surely must be crossroads in the miles to come, but it looks for all the world as though our future contains only more of the same weary, unswerving path.

As I try to make sense of this, I think to the frame in which I’ve lived and understood my life: the story of Jesus, particularly as expressed in the Church calendar. Today, however, I do not find my family’s place in the eager expectation of Advent, the joy of Easter, or even the deep suffering and trials of Lent, but rather the doldrums and deep monotony of that in-between season, Ordinary Time.

Stretching from Pentecost in May to Advent in late November, Ordinary Time is the long period between the end of the biblical story of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost and inaugurated the age of the Church, and Advent, when we again turn our hearts to waiting for the fulfillment of hope in the coming of the Christ as Jesus. It’s a season full of “minor” saints’ feasts and the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry; a time between planting and harvest, when agrarian societies would tend their flocks and crops, watching them anxiously through the long, hot days, hoping they would have enough to survive another winter.

Ordinary Time is the season when the road seems endless, the days unnumbered; when the calendars of our hopes and plans seem out of sync with the lives we lead.

Yet what I’m finding is that it is precisely in these seasons that we must not lose track of our lives. That when our days seem unnumbered is precisely when we must be “taught to number” them (Ps. 90:12); when the road seems its most long and lonely is when we must be aware of the ordinary beauty of the path itself – and most grateful when we unexpectedly pass fellow-travellers, “minor” saints, along the way.

This “everyday unhappiness” doesn’t make the disappointment unreal or the path less laborious, doesn’t make me less impatient or frustrated, but it does call me more deeply into the experience of the ordinary, urging me to take notice of the numbers flashing by on the calendar, living within those boxes rather than simply checking them off. Ordinary Time is the litmus test for the Christ story’s retention rate, when I find whether the previous year’s journey through the Church calendar has made me more like the Christ . . . or less; the training ground for whether my eyes eyes have opened a little more than last year to the Divine bursting forth in the beautiful and the boring.

Sometimes, when this season seems interminable and I long for the fulfillment of deferred-hopes, I feel the rage rise as I think of the accusations and slander, the grift and injustices my family has experienced. I find myself returning to the well-trod mental arguments with those who have wronged us, knowing exactly what I would say to those who failed to be the spiritual family we needed. I think of miles from Haran to Canaan and wonder if I’ll ever again feel at home. I know that the wrestling with God, the limp and the new name – and the reconciliation and return – will come in time, but for now, I count the miles and try to live into each beautiful, weary step.

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