Why isn’t there a First Sunday in Ordinary Time?

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By Father Brian Morris

Q: Why was Sunday (January 14) the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time instead of the First Sunday in Ordinary Time? The previous Sunday was the Epiphany, the Sunday before that was the Feast of the Holy Family, and before that were the four Sundays of Advent. I don’t understand why there isn’t a First Sunday in Ordinary Time.

I’m writing this week from Rome where I’m spending some time visiting the Eternal City and many priest and seminarian friends who are studying here. So I tried to knock on the door of St. Peter’s to ask the Holy Father the answer to this question, but he was otherwise disposed. So I’ve done a bit of research and feel comfortable in giving a solid answer. Let’s hope the Holy Father approves when he reads my column this week!

First of all, in the Roman Calendar before Vatican II, which some of you may remember and is still observed by those practicing the extraordinary form (aka. the Traditional Latin Mass), there is no such thing as “Ordinary Time.” There were basically three seasons. The first was the season of Christmas, which included Advent and then up to six Sundays after Epiphany. The second season is Easter, which included Lent and actually the three Sundays before Lent. Those three Sundays were called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quincquagesima, referring to 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter respectively. And then the last was the Season of Pentecost, which went all the way to Advent.

So, in the old calendar there could be between 23 and 28 Sundays after Pentecost depending on where Easter fell. Basically, if Easter was early, the prayers and readings for one of the Sundays after Epiphany was transferred to a Sunday after Pentecost. Just a little Roman Calendar trivia for you for the next time you’re on Jeopardy!

But in the modern calendar we have these weeks of Ordinary Time. According to the Universal Norms of the Roman Calendar, these Sundays represent a yearly cycle of “thirty-three or thirty-four weeks in which no particular aspect of the mystery of Christ is celebrated, but rather the mystery of Christ itself is honored in its fullness…” Ordinary Time always begins on the Monday following the Sunday after January 6, which is usually the date for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. However, this year was different since Christmas fell on a Sunday and pushed some things back. The other feast is the Epiphany, which always falls on the Sunday that is between January 2 and 8. Well, this year that ended up being the 7th. That would also be the Sunday after the 6th, which is supposed to be the Baptism of the Lord. The solution is that Epiphany takes the Sunday and the Baptism is moved to Monday and Ordinary Time began on Tuesday. Got all that?! This happened last year as well, as that Sunday fell on the 8th of January. Before then it hadn’t happened since 2012.

We still haven’t really answered the original question though: Why isn’t there a first Sunday of Ordinary Time? We cannot say that Epiphany Sunday is part of Ordinary Time because it is officially part of Christmastime. Normally, the first Sunday of Ordinary Time is actually the Baptism of the Lord, but as I mentioned, that was celebrated on a Monday this year.

The simple answer is the Sunday is the first day of a liturgical week. When we offer the prayers of a weekday in ordinary time, assuming there is no particular feast that day, we use the prayers from the Sunday before. So to call the Sunday that we call the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time the First Sunday would be to look backwards and not forward in the week, which is not the way we view liturgical time. So in the Roman Missal the prayers for those days are listed under the “First Week of Ordinary Time,” while the prayers for every future week fall under the “xth Sunday of Ordinary Time.”

I hope that makes sense, and that you’ll send in more questions. And remember, even crazier this year: Ash Wednesday is Valentine’s Day and Easter is April Fools Day!

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.