I got an extension on my taxes this year, which means that tomorrow is the deadline for their submission. Yesterday I completed my taxes, got them postmarked, and sent them to the Internal Revenue Service.
Taxes come every year. As the maxim reminds us, besides death only taxes are certain. Taxes are also representative of a civic promise between the state and its citizens. They annually remind the citizenry to render to the state what is the state’s. For one of our Presidential candidates, they are an occasion to tally business losses.
Because of my extension, my tax deadline fell in a period of the liturgical year called Ordinary Time, which seems more apt than the traditional timing of Tax Day, so close to Passion Week. Ordinary Time takes place twice in the year. It stretches from the Monday after Pentecost to the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent. It picks up again on Epiphany, January 6, and wraps up on the day before Ash Wednesday.
One of the strengths of this liturgical calendar is that it is organized to account for human experience. Banalities like paying taxes and cleaning the kitchen are built into the calendar of Christian life. The fact that that the two calendar periods that make up Ordinary Time combine to form the bulk of the liturgical year should resonate with any adult who has felt overburdened by responsibility. Like a tax sheet that drones on and on, item by item, chores and errands can accumulate like a pile of laundry until the 24 hours in a day become five hours of sleep and 19 hours of obligation.
And just as the experience of paying taxes forcing the taxpayer to take stock of her life in a way that is entirely material and reductive and, for those allergic to bureaucracy (who isn’t?), soul-crushing, during Ordinary Time it can be difficult to sustain belief in anything that doesn’t manifest itself materially. And this belief is hardly uplifting. Welcome as they are on my W-2, itemized deductions fail to inspire me to faith in a higher being.
In 1944 the poet W.H. Auden published long poem titled “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” Towards its end, a narrator depicts the malaise of a sleepy English house in the days after Christmas. The fridge is full of leftovers no one wants to eat. There’s a tree to be dismantled, decorations to be returned to the attic, and dealings with relatives to be relived, perhaps regretted. This is Ordinary time in “the moderate Aristotelian city,” where the varnish of the great promise of the holiday has lost its shine and “the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.”
What the liturgical calendar calls Ordinary Time, Auden’s narrator calls the Time Being. He wrestles with this limbo, the interim after Christmas and before whatever is to come:
…In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
So what is one to do during Ordinary Time? How does one believe? Auden’s narrator offers little direction, instead closing with a perhaps haunting reminder of a promise: “God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”
David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King is set within the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois. The text careens from extensive footnotes on tax minutiae to riffs on boredom and bureaucracy. One such riff comes from an IRS employee reflecting on one thing he’s learned, what he calls the key to functioning in a bureaucratic world, what a priest would call Ordinary Time and Auden calls the Time Being:
The key is the ability . . . to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.
Here, an IRS employee delivers a call to remember that the calendar extends beyond Ordinary Time. It’s a mandate to resist boredom and disillusionment and maintain consciousness in the face of taxes and leftovers and the scrubbing of kitchen tables. It’s an assurance for the time being, when we pay taxes and heed other ordinary promises while remembering extraordinary promises that are yet to come: promises that are presently withheld, that can be neither deducted nor itemized, and are certain and endless in their return.
“For the Time Being” closes with these words, sung by a chorus:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety,
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.