Ordinaries and Propers

Another use of the term “ordinary” in Catholic liturgical parlance is to identify prayers that are always included in the liturgy, as opposed to the “propers”, which are prayers specific to a particular day. With very few exceptions, all these prayers have prescribed texts, translated from the official Latin text.

In the current Roman missal, most of the ordinary prayers have several options, and the priest who is celebrating mass may select which option will be used.

Were you aware that there were some prayers that were always used, and some that were specific to the day? What do you think about that?


Ordinary Time

After the close of the Christmas season with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the season of Ordinary Time begins. Although the colloquial meaning of “ordinary” does apply here, since Ordinary Time is “everything outside the festal seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter,” the term actually derives from the Latin word meaning ordinal or counted time.

The liturgical color for Ordinary Time is green: so we’ll see green altar cloths and priestly vestments.

Every year, shortly after Ordinary Time begins, it is interrupted by the seasons of Lent and Easter. Because the date of Easter varies each year, we get a small but varying number of weeks of Ordinary Time before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Holy Water

Holy water, which is ordinary water that has been blessed by a priest or deacon, is one of the most common sacramentals in Catholic life. Traditionally, Catholic churches have a small font (a bowl or dish) containing holy water just inside every doorway into the church, either mounted on the wall or free-standing. We bless ourselves with this water (that is, we dip our fingers in the font and then make the sign of the cross) as we enter and leave the church, as a reminder of our baptism.

Some Catholics have similar fonts in their own home; when I was growing up, I had one mounted just inside the door of my bedroom. There is a holy water dispenser available somewhere in most churches so that people can bring the water home to fill these fonts.

Holy water can also be used to bless other objects by sprinkling them with it while praying over them; the book Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers includes a number of such prayers suitable for family use, such as blessing an Advent wreath or a Christmas tree.

The Sign of the Cross

The sign of the cross is the first prayer that most Catholic children learn, and we learn it very young: even a toddler can learn to make the sign of the cross and so begin to participate in family and ecclesial prayer.

Because it has both a verbal and a gestural component, it is also an early exposure to the Catholic practice of praying with our bodies as well as our words; this practice distinguishes Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) from most Protestant traditions.

The sign of the cross is almost always used to open any time of Catholic prayer, whether communal or individual; and is often used to end prayer as well.

The words are Trinitarian (“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”) while the gesture is cruciform (using one hand to touch forehead, chest, and each shoulder in turn, tracing a cross over our person). Thus, although it could appear to be merely some sort of etiquette (“this is what you do before you start to pray”), its expression of two fundamental elements of the Catholic Christian faith establishes it as a prayer in its own right.

The idiom “to bless oneself” means to make the sign of the cross.

Baptism of the Lord

This weekend, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, closes the liturgical season of Christmas.

All of our Christmas season biblical stories have come from the first two chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke; these are sometimes called the “infancy narratives” because they describe the how the birth of Jesus came about.

In chapter three, these two gospels synch up with the first chapters of Mark and John, and describe how Jesus came to the river Jordan, as many others came, to be baptized by his relative, John the Baptist, whose mother was Elizabeth. Luke reports that Jesus was about 30 years old at the time.

Because Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry, it is very fitting that this feast closes the celebration of the Christmas season, and leads us into Ordinary Time.

Returning from hiatus


After a very busy 2014, I am bringing this blog back out of hiatus. The next post will neatly pick up at the same point in the liturgical year where we left off. 🙂

If any questions have occurred to you over the intervening year, or if you’ve encountered a Catholic who didn’t know something that you thought they should, please do post them here or in the Suggestion Box.

Happy New Year!


Although the main visuals for Epiphany are the star, the magi, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the main message of the feast of the Epiphany is the revelation of the birth of Christ to the Gentiles — the “nations.” For most Christians, that means us: if you, your family, or your ancestors were not Jewish, then this is the feast for you.

Until Epiphany, everybody in the Christmas story was Jewish. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the people coming to Bethlehem for the census who filled up all the lodgings, the shepherds to whom the heavenly host appeared: everybody. But the three wise men weren’t Jewish: they came from other nations, and came looking for the new king of the Jews, to bring him gifts and do him homage.

You can see this theme in the other readings for the day: the first reading from Isaiah foretells kings from the “nations” coming to Jerusalem where the LORD will appear in glory, bringing wealth, and frankincense, and myrrh. Psalm 72 also talks about kings bringing tribute, and rejoices that “Every nation on earth shall adore you, LORD.” And Paul’s letter to the Ephesians spells out the good news:

that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The Gloria

The Gloria begins with the words that the angels sang to the shepherds, according to Luke 2:13-14:

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

(The exact wording of that second line depends both on which Greek manuscript is being followed, and how it is translated. The above is taken from the NABre, which explains in a footnote that it follows the Western and Alexandrian manuscripts rather than the Byzantine, which read “good will towards people.”)

And so it is a particularly Christmasy text. This is why we abstain from singing or saying the Gloria during Advent: so we can sing it at Christmas mass, as if for the first time, with the multitude of angels. (Did you notice we were omitting it during Advent?)

Here’s a setting of the Gloria from Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation, which is one of the most commonly known Mass settings among American Catholics:

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a Season

Christmas is a season… that starts on Christmas Day. You can think of the season of Christmas as complementary to the season of Advent: during Advent we anticipate what during Christmas we celebrate.

You’ve heard the phrase “the twelve days of Christmas”? Those are the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. But the liturgical season of Christmas lasts all the way to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a week later. This feast marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as an adult, as described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and so it’s a suitable closing for the season of Christmas.

Advent Wreath Symbols

The Advent wreath is a traditional Catholic devotion that was primarily for use in the home. The Advent wreath kit that my family had when I was growing up came with prayers and instructions that assumed it would be used at the family dinner table.

The circular shape of the wreath, and the evergreens out of which it is made, or with which it is decorated, symbolize eternity. The four candles, of course, symbolize the four weeks of Advent; the light of the candles symbolizes the coming of Christ, the Light of the World. Traditionally, three of the four candles are purple, while the third is pink; if the wreath is decorated with ribbon, it is also purple. Purple is the liturgical color for Advent: it is the color of royalty, and the color of penance.

Prior to Vatican II, Advent was celebrated in a more penitential manner than it is today; part of the liturgical reform was to make a greater distinction between the anticipation of Advent, and the repentance of Lent.

The third candle is pink, which is also the liturgical color for the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice” (or, more precisely, “Rejoice, you!”), and comes from the first word of the opening antiphon in the missal for this Sunday. On the third Sunday of Advent, we rejoice because we are more than halfway to Christmas.

My other blog is named after Gaudete Sunday.