The Order of our Lives

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Even though the Church has been in Ordinary Time since Pentecost, because of the solemnities of the Most Holy Trinity and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, this is the first Sunday in Ordinary Time we have celebrated since before Lent, nearly four months ago. Compared to other seasons of the year, Ordinary Time appears rather hum-drum. Because we associate the word ordinary with things that are plain and unremarkable, the very name seems uninspiring.

The reason why the Church calls this time of the year “ordinary” is because the Sundays are denoted by ordinal numbers — that is, numbers that denote sequence. This Sunday is the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Next Sunday will be the 14th, and so forth. Admittedly, that understanding of the word ordinary is not much more inspiring than the usual connotation.

But if you get back to the root of the word, you’ll find it comes from the Latin ordo, which means “order.” And here things start to get interesting, because one of the first things the Bible tells us about God’s creative work is that he brings order out of chaos.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters — Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness.

Gen 1:1-4

God does not merely have a preference for order, like we might prefer a tidy room whereas our roommate is fine with a little mess. Order is part of who God is. God is a rational being, which means he possesses an ordered intellect. His thoughts are not random and chaotic. This rationality of God is reflected in the order of creation.

The fact that creation is ordered means that it can be studied, which is the premise that makes science possible. Of course, to study creation, we must also have rational minds. God made man in his image (Gen 1:27). This means that, like God, we also possess a rational intellect. It means that, like God, order is part of our being.

Creatures of Habit

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all tend to some sort of order. We are creatures of habit. We like having routine in our lives. This may not be a strict military-type routine. But most of us generally like to wake up and go to sleep around the same time each day. We have certain daily tasks and rituals, from brushing our teeth to doing daily prayers. Our growling stomachs prompt us to eat our meals on a schedule (and let us know if we miss one). Intentional or not, there is a rhythm that orders our days, weeks and months. If one is not imposed on us externally (by work or school) we naturally create our own routine — and we become unsettled when that routine gets disrupted.

Holy Orders

Given all this, it is not surprising that the Church also has a preference for order. Once you begin looking for it, you find it everywhere.

Every aspect of Catholic liturgy is ordered. We speak of the “Order of the Mass” or the “Order of the Rite of Baptism” or the “Order of Celebrating Matrimony.” We don’t just make up rituals as we go along in the Catholic Church. There is a prescribed order for how we do things, guaranteeing the essential elements in each ritual are performed in a logical and consistent manner.

Bishops are even called ordinaries (Can. 134). As chief shepherd of the diocese, it is the bishop’s role to properly order the local Church. He has this authority by virtue of his order, which is one of three ranks of the sacrament of holy orders — deacon, priest and bishop. This sacrament is called holy orders because it orders the recipient to ecclesial ministry and the bishop possesses the fullness of the sacrament of orders. Those in holy orders are often referred to as the hierarchy which simply refers to a group ranked by order.

The Church also refers to religious congregations as orders. There are monastic orders such as the Benedictines and Carmelites. There are mendicant orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. Members of religious orders dedicate themselves to following a communal rule which helps them order to their lives to God.

A Call to Order

All Christians are called to order their lives to God, not just monks, nuns and clergy. All of us should ask the question, “What is my life ordered toward?” I mentioned above that we are creatures of habit. Habits can be good or bad. Good habits help to instill proper order in our lives and help us to become people of virtue. Bad habits cause our lives to be ordered toward vice and can lead us away from God.

In teaching about the moral life, the Church often uses the term disordered to describe any desire that is contrary to right reason. Disorder is not the same thing as chaos, which is the absence of order. Disorder means order in the wrong direction. If you are trying to drive to Canada from North Carolina by heading south, your navigation is disordered. You are not going to end up in the right place.

So lying is disordered, because our minds are made to know truth. Adultery is disordered because marriage is ordered toward fidelity. Hate is disordered, because our hearts are made to love. Every sin stems from a disordered desire in the human heart. Christ’s call for repentance in the gospel, then, is a call to order. Jesus calls for a radical reordering of our lives toward God.

The first reading this Sunday (1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21) tells of the prophet Elijah anointing Elisha as his successor. Answering this call causes Elisha to reorder his entire life. He slaughters his oxen and breaks apart his yoke and plow, symbolizing a total departure from his former way of life. He leaves his father and mother behind to follow Elijah.

We see this echoed in our gospel reading (Lk 9:51-62) when Jesus tells someone who wants to say farewell to his family before following Christ, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). This doesn’t mean telling your parents goodbye before leaving is wrong — in fact God commands us to honor our parents (Ex 20:12). But it underscores the radical reordering of our lives Jesus calls us to. Reordering our lives to Christ might involve us leaving behind things that we have strong attachments to. We need to be prepared for this as Christian disciples.

Live by the Spirit

This new order of Christian discipleship is spelled out more explicitly in this Sunday’s second reading (Gal 5:1, 13-18). Without God’s grace, we are ordered toward our own selfish desires, pleasures, comfort and pride. We are disordered because we can never find fulfillment by serving ourselves. St. Paul instead calls us instead to “serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13). He instructs us to “live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other…” (Gal 5:16-17). By “flesh” Paul doesn’t just mean our physical bodies. He means our former self, before we put on Christ — who we are without God. To live by the Spirit is to live according to the divine order.

This is what Christian discipleship means. It means being ordered to the eternal mind of God as revealed in Christ, who demonstrates for us perfect love of God and love of neighbor. To be a disciple may involve leaving certain things behind — in fact it almost certainly will. And this may seem difficult, as I am sure it was difficult for Elisha to burn his plow and yoke. These were the sources of his livelihood. To let them go required great trust in God.

You and I may not be called to leave behind ox and plow, but we are each called to leave behind the “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1) – the sin that leaves us slaves to our own disordered desires. God did not make us for slavery, but for freedom. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). Our hearts are free when they are ordered toward what is good, just as our minds are free when they are ordered toward what is true. By ordering our lives toward Christ we begin to live in the Spirit of God, which as men and women made in his divine image, is what we were always meant to be.