Ash Wednesday

February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, ca. 1855

Don’t tell your co-worker he has dirt on his face; he’s been told this a dozen times already today, and it’s not dirt.

The ashes on his forehead, resembling the shape of a cross, most likely come from palms that were burned last year after Palm Sunday and were blessed by a priest. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, Catholic priests and some Protestant ministers mark their parishioners foreheads with the ashes, which symbolize both repentance and mortality.

“…till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19

Or as the Book of Common Prayer succinctly puts it: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Ashes have symbolized repentance since the days of Moses, when Hebrews used the ashes of a burnt sacrificial cow for purification:

“Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke…It is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered…The heifer is to be burned…

…A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer… They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin.” Numbers 19:2-9

Later, in the time of Esther:

“When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.”  — Esther 4:1

Sackcloth and ashes often went hand in hand in the Scriptures.

According to  Questions on the Lessons, Collect, Epistle, and Gospel in the Sunday Morning Service of the Church (1847) by Reverend Thomas Jackson:

“The name of Ash Wednesday is derived from a custom that prevailed in the primitive Church, for penitents at this time to express their humiliation by lying in sackcloth and ashes.”

Though featured prominently in the Bible, sackcloth was no fashion statement. It referred to different fabrics over the centuries, often a coarse material made of goat hair. Whatever it was, it wasn’t comfy. Criminals were forced to wear it as punishment, and to signify their status to others. People also wore sackcloth for mourning and repentance.

“Such persons as stood convicted of notorious crimes were on this day excommunicated by the Bishop, and not admitted to reconciliation with the Church until after the most public testimony of sorrow and repentance, and the greatest signs of humiliation.” (Jackson, 1847)

The sackcloth-and-ash self-flagellation combo was firmly established by Jesus’ day. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus denounces cities in which he had previously performed miracles by saying:

“If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”  Matthew 11:20-21

The Ash ritual became an annual event that marked the beginning of Lent sometime around the 7th century. Forty days before Easter, sinners were denounced and temporarily excommunicated. They were cast out, like Adam and Eve from Eden, and forced to live apart from their families and the parish for 40 days, hence the root of our word quarantine (“40 days”).

It’s actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The “40” days don’t include Sundays.

During the Middle Ages the emphasis on repentance shifted from from sins against the public to internal sins against God, a theme that is still at the heart of period known as Lent.

Pancake Week

Date varies. February 20-26, 2012

There’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival in Russia. Lent doesn’t descend on Orthodox Christians in one big swoop as in Catholicism, but in a series of events with increasingly strict regulations.

Triodion begins a full month before Lent.

Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.

The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.

In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.

Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev, 1919

The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.

Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.

The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.

Maha Shivaratri

Date varies. New moon (13th) of Phalgun.

February 20, 2012

March 10, 2013

Give it up to Shiva today. The new moon of Phalgun (that’s today) is known as Maha Shivaratri in the Hindu religion. To the adherents of Shaivism, who worship Shiva as their primary god, today is the holiest day of the year.

Shiva gets a misleading rap as The Destroyer. It sounds cool and daunting, but is only half accurate. Being the Destroyer, Shiva is also the agent of transformation and dissolution that makes recreation possible.

Shiva’s often pictured as blue.  One time Indra was trying to regain his wealth and prosperity—taken by an angry sage. Brahma suggested churning the Ocean of Milk to create the “Nectar of Immortality.” But during the churning of the Ocean, a great poison called Halahala was released, deadly to all living things upon the earth. Shiva was summoned to save the world by drinking the Halahala. He wasn’t killed, but his throat became permanently blue.

Shiva is one part of the Hindu triumvirate. The other two parts are Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, the preserver of it.

Today is considered by many to be the day Shiva married Parvati.

Shiva and Parvati
Shiva & Parvati

Shiva is at times ascetic, at others hedonistic. When Shiva was in one of his ascetic moods, Parvati tried seducing him but with little luck. The god of desire, Kama, was sent in on Parvati’s behalf to lure Shiva from his asceticism and ignite his more lustful side. Kama used the sounds and scents of spring at her disposal. It worked, but Shiva repaid Kama by burning him to ashes with his middle eye. [Caveat Matchmaker!] Shiva and Parvati were later married in a grand celebration. Kama was resurrected when Shiva embraced Parvati, and the sweat from her body mixed with Kama’s ashes.

According to legend, “their lovemaking is so intense that it shakes the cosmos, and the gods become frightened. They are frightened at the prospect of what a child will be like from the union of two such potent deities.”

The couple have a child named Ganesha, pictured with the trunk of an elephant. The three are often pictured together. Shiva and Parvati reflect the perfect balance of the universe. Parvati represents harmony in nature and the power to create and nourish.
(posted March 2008)

Nirvana Day

February 8; February 15

All beings by nature are Buddhas,
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice,
Apart from beings, no Buddhas.

— Hakuin Ekaku, Zen Buddhism

Parinirvana, depicted in Ajanta Cave 26
Parinirvana, depicted in Ajanta Cave 26

Even though today marks the death of one of the most revered figures in world history, Nirvana Day (or Parinirvana Day) is a celebration. Buddha’s death in the 5th or 6th century BCE is seen as the release of Buddha from his earthly body into a state of pure Nirvana.

* * *

Gautama Buddha first achieved enlightenment, or Bodhi, at age 35, while sitting beneath what is now the “Bodhi Tree” in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in India. Buddha means “One who has achieved Bodhi,” or “the Awakened One.”

He spent the next 45 years traveling the countryside teaching the Dharma and practices of what came to be known as Buddhism, a revolutionary religion which had no caste system, nor discrimination based on race or class.

* * *

Buddha was 80 years old when he ate his last meal, in the mango grove of Cunda the Blacksmith. Months before his death Buddha had forewarned his disciples:

“My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short…”

After the meal that Cunda had prepared, the Buddha became ill.

“…dreadful sickness came upon the Lord. But nature’s pangs he endured. ‘Come, let us go to Kusinara,’ was his dauntless word.”

Buddha and his disciple Ananda carried on, until the weary Teacher asked to rest by the side of the road. They took shelter beneath a tree.


At the Kakuttha River, Buddha bathed and drank, lay down on his right side and told his chief lieutenant Ananda:

“It may come to pass, Ananda, that someone will cause remorse to Cunda the metalworker, saying: ‘It is no gain to you, friend Cunda, but a loss, that it was from you the Tathagata [Buddha’s name for himself] took his last alms meal, and then came to his end.’

Then, Ananda, the remorse of Cunda should be dispelled after this manner:

‘It is a gain to you, friend Cunda, a blessing that the Tathagata took his last alms meal from you, and then came to his end. For, friend, face to face with the Blessed One I have heard and learned: “There are two offerings of food which are of equal fruition, of equal outcome, exceeding in grandeur the fruition and result of any other offerings of food. Which two?

The one partaken of by the Tathagata before becoming fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment; and the one partaken of by the Tathagata before passing into the state of Nirvana in which no element of clinging remains…”

The last days and teachings of Buddha are described in the Maha Paranibbana Sutta, parts of which are recited on Nirvana Day:

“And what, bhikkhus, are these teachings? They are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four constituents of psychic power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path.

“These, bhikkhus, are the teachings of which I have direct knowledge, which I have made known to you, and which you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well being, and happiness of gods and men.”

DN 16: Maha-paribbana Sutta

Commonly celebrated on February 15 by Mahayana (Northern) Buddhists, it is alternatively celebrated on February 8.

Love in the Time of V.D. (Valentine’s Day)

February 14

Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays in February comes another birthday, one that has been celebrated far longer than either President, but for a man whose life is all but unknown.

The awakening of spring has always been associated with the blossoming of love. In the Roman calendar February was the last month of the year, a time of purification before the new agrarian planting season.

Lupercalia commemorated the She-wolf that suckled the babies Romulus (founder of Rome) and his brother Remus in a cave on the site of the future capital. On February 15 each year a group of priests known as the Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Luperci, would strip to their birthday suits and sacrifice a dog and goat at the cave. Then they’d put on loincloths of the goat’s skin and go about the streets of Rome smacking women on their backsides with an animal skin lash, known as a februa (from the Latin februare, meaning “to purify”) in a ritual intended to promote fertility and ease the pangs of childbirth.

Romulus, Remus, & Ma Wolf
Romulus, Remus, & Mama Wolf

The Romans celebrated another festival in mid-February: Juno Februata. On the 14th of February eligible young men and women would participate in Roman Spin-the-Bottle. Boys would draw the names of eligible girls and ‘couple up’ during the festivities, sometimes for the entire year.

Around 496 AD Pope Gelasius banned the old pagan rituals and introduced the Festival of the Purification of the Virgin on February 14, which was later moved to February 2. The Church tried to replace to earlier rituals by having boys and girls draw the names of a saint and emulate the life of that saint. For whatever reason, that zany tradition never caught on with the same vigor as the Roman one.

Some scholars say that St. Valentine’s Day was a minor feast with no connection to romance or couples up until the 14th century. It was then that writers such as Chaucer and his contemporaries began referring to it as the day that birds chose their mates.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer wrote “The Parliament of Fowls”—referring to birds, not the English governing body—in tribute to Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia in 1381.

”[it] was on seynt Volantynys day
When euery byrd comyth there to chese his make.”
(It was sent on Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird comes there to choose his mate…)

It was a common writing device for poets to link certain events with the saint whose feast was observed that day. However the Valentine Chaucer referred to was the one whose feast was celebrated on May 3, for May 3 was the date of the King’s engagement. Chaucer describes conditions common to late Spring. (Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine.)

The marriage of the royal 16 year-olds Anne and Richard was one based in love rather than politics. It ended with Anne’s death from plague 12 years later. Richard was never the same after her death, and was deposed and killed in 1400…on February 14.

Nearly a dozen ‘Valentines’ were canonized in the first centuries of the Christian Church, and to this day no one really knows which one we celebrate on February 14. (Would the Real Saint Valentine Please Stand Up)

Saint Valentine
St. Valentine

[Others say Valentine’s origin is a case of semantics. That Valentine comes from the Norman-French term galantin, meaning something like “woman-lover” in a chivalrous sense. It’s where we get the words “gallant” and “gallantry”.]


February 13-15

She-wolf suckles Romulus & Remus

It’s Lupercalia time, baby.

On this day the ancient Romans remembered the She-wolf who suckled the baby Romulus—the future founder of Rome–and his brother Remus.

The priests of Rome, known as the Luperci, or ”Brotherhood of the Wolf,’ would commemorate this day by running around in loincloths smacking women on the back with an animal-skins.

What is immediately apparent in a comparison between the sacred rites of then and now is that then it was much more fun being a priest.

The ritual was intended to promote fertility, and the part about whipping girls legs is still practiced on Easter Monday in parts of Eastern Europe.

Over time this festival of the Romans was superseded by the Purification of the Virgin and the Festival of Saint Valentine.

Shipwreck of St. Paul

February 10

Shipwreck of St. Paul, the Vatican

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from Judean port
Aboard a Roman Ship.

The weather started getting rough,
The Roman ship was tossed.
Because of the sermons of the fearless Paul
Not a single life was lost.

They splashed about for 14 days,
No sight of sun nor star.
Until they crashed upon the reef
Of Malta’s rocky shore…
Of Malta’s rocky shore.

Reminded this was nothing to
His Savior’s sacrifice
Paul introduced the pagans there
To eternal life with Christ.

Here, on St. Paul’s shore!

St. Paul (the artist formerly known as Saul of Tarsus) was one of the worst persecutors of Christians before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus. The former Bad Boy of Tarsus is the only Apostle never to have toured with the living Jesus; yet he has more New Testament works attributed to him than any other author. At least 7 NT books are attributed to Paul, and he’s credited with having written or inspired another 8, making him responsible for up to half of the New Testament’s 27 books.

In the late 50s AD, the Apostle Paul was nearly stoned to death by his fellow Jews for bringing Gentile into a Jewish Temple. He demanded his right to be tried before a Roman court, hence his journey across the Mediterranean around 60 CE.

Because of the shipwreck, Paul was a few years late for his court date. He continued proselytizing in the Mediterranean before being tried in Rome. He lost his head during the reign of Nero, around 64 or 67 AD.

St. Paul is the patron saint of Malta, and the bay where he is believed to have crashed still bears his name.

February 10th is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as the feast day of the Shipwreck of Saint Paul, and it’s a national holiday in Malta. On this day each year the statue of St. Paul is carried in a procession through the streets of Valletta.

June 29, 2008 to June 28, 2009 was declared the “Year of St. Paul” by Pope Benedict XVI.

Apollo’s Feast Day – Golf Balls on the Moon

February 9


February 9th is Showtime for Apollo, the sun god of the ancient Greeks, whose chariot rode across the heavens each day.

February 9 wasn’t the only feast for Apollo. The Spartans celebrated Apollo in August (Carneia). The Athenians celebrated his birthday in May (Thargelia) and held a harvest festival in his honor in October (Pyanepsia).

But according to Roman records, at some point the Festival of Apollo was celebrated on the Vth (5th) day before the Ides (13th) of February.

Unlike the Ides of March, the Ides of shorter months were observed on what we consider the 13th of the month, not the 15h.

Yes, the 9th is actually four days before the 13th, not five, but the Romans always included the dates they were counting from and to. In other words, by Roman calculations Wednesday would be three days before Friday, and the 9th would five days before the 13th. (Don’t think about it, just thank the Arabs.)

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In the Christian Era, February 9 became the Feast Day of St. Apollonia and the Martyrs of Alexandria. No they weren’t ancient Egypt’s pop fusion sensation, but a group of early Christians who were killed in 249 AD by angry pagan mobs. Among the Christians was Apollonia, whose teeth were beaten out. Then, when she was ordered to renounce Christ or be burned alive, she leapt into the fire to meet her death.

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In more recent times, a third Apollo milestone occurred on February 9:

Sixty-eight years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, another charioteer of the heavens, Apollo 14, splashed into the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971, having completed a successful mission on the moon.

Though not the first trip to the moon, Apollo 14 was a much needed success after the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, in which man’s cutting-edge technology crashed down to Earth in Icarian defeat.

More important, Apollo 14 was the first time in history that anyone played golf on a planet other than Earth. (Okay, technically, a satellite, but still…)

Alan Shepard attached a six-iron head to a metal collection device, with which he hit two golf balls on the surface of the moon. Shepard was admittedly no Tiger Woods…

Actual transcript:

Shepard: Got more dirt than ball. Here we go again.

Mission Control: That looked like a slice to me, Al.

No, I’m not making that up. Fortunately, Shepard’s third swing went “miles and miles and miles” by his own calculation. Shepard’s estimate was later reduced to only a few hundred yards.

Either way, the drive was indisputably out of this world…


How Many Golf Balls are on the Moon?