Scene: Union Station, Thursday morning, early summer. A woman stands by the curb, gesturing to the sky. She yells:
“These are my clothes. These are my shoes. Who the hell do you think you are?”
Scene: Outside the Shaw-Howard University metro stop, mid-July. A man sits on the edge of his blue walker. His mouth is parted and he holds out his hand, thin as a bird claw. His lips and fingers open at precisely the same angle.
He says nothing.
Scene: Anacostia Library, Saturday afternoon, late fall. Two men stand at the window, watching a woman get out of her car. One says to the other:
“The last time we talked was at the Safeway, buying pork chops. I don’t know what happened. I must have made her mad.”
None of these are narrative, not yet. They are fragments of life that I have brushed by, as you might touch a stranger’s hand on a crowded crosswalk. Somehow, though, these scenes have lingered in me. They are pieces that demand assembly, moments that demand meaning. Who was the woman who yelled outside of Union Station? Why did the man in Shaw not speak? And what happened, that infamous day in the Safeway?
Without a narrative, these moments jingle like a pocket of loose change, noisy and distracting and easily misplaced. Not even enough to buy a pack of pork chops.
I moved to this city over two years ago, but still sometimes its jostling fragments surprise me. Before the city, I lived on a wide expanse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The movements of the Chesapeake Bay and the migrating geese overhead took on mythical proportions, mostly because they were the only movement. The bay, the wind-torn trees, the baby foxes all wove themselves together into a single meandering narrative.
Here in the city, missing the stillness, I try to orient myself to the Christian church calendar and the postures it invites me to take. December is Advent; time to wait and hope and light many candles. Elizabeth and Mary are large with child, and Jesus comes with tiny toes. February and March are Lent; time to pare down and exchange sludgy coffee for slippery tea. The Israelites and Christ hunger as they wander through the wilderness. April and May are Eastertide; red tulips brim over and Alleluias flow full and free. For nearly half the year, my own shape-shifting story is held inside these stories the church tells.
As I move through these months, these stories train my memory: how has God acted in ancient times? They train my imagination: what form will the coming Kingdom take? As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Is now. That is where the church calendar and its narratives cut me adrift. June to November, or the end of Pentecost to the beginning of Advent, is Ordinary Time. The origins of the title are disputed; some trace it back to the word ‘ordinal,’ meaning counted time, but I like the way the Cambridge English Dictionary puts it.
“Ordinary: not different, special, or unexpected in any way; usual.” Ordinary time is normal time, boring time, unpunctuated-by-excitement time. Consequently, time without narrative. It has no set Scripture. Instead, the Christian is supposed to somehow contemplate all aspects of the mystery of Christ.
For these six months, the priests wear silky green stoles over their white robes. They are bright green, almost St. Patrick’s Day shade, meant to conjure the idea of growth. Supposedly, it is during ordinary time that we grow.
The exuberant feasts are over, as are the times of deep penance. It’s time to till the ground and weed. Hope for rain, hope for harvest. Work continues in the absence of results. The Spirit has swept into his people in wind and flame, but what might his work look like when the winds have grown silent and the wick has burned low. Is he still moving? Is there green growth?
For now, memory seems eroded; imagination feels constricted. It’s hard to pray. But every Sunday, my church family recites the mystery of faith before we receive communion: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the narrative that holds us together, even in ordinary time.
Soon, ordinary time will be over. A decree will go forth from Caesar Augustus. The people who fumble along in darkness will see a speck of light. The Word will again become fragile flesh and come to dwell in our cobwebbed hearts. Faulty memory and flimsy imagination notwithstanding, we will be swept up into all the pageantry of the story of our Lord.
The onset of Advent will not illumine all things. I still won’t know why the woman at Union Station gesticulated to the sky, nor why no words spilled from the open mouth of the man in Shaw, nor what rupture separated the couple at the Safeway. My own experience, in all its messy and disparate parts, will not clink into place.
But to those who cannot make a story, yet cannot live without one, Emmanuel will come. The light of Christ, which was and ever will be, will glimmer again into this present moment.
Elisabeth McClanahan is an English graduate student at the George Washington University. When she is not lost in stacks of books, she adventures outdoors and makes large pots of stew. Her writing has also appeared in the Englewood Review, Topology Magazine, and Humane Pursuits.
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