Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Random Thoughts After The Carnival

It is clear in the work of the German romanticist painter Carl Spitzweg (1808–85) entitled Ash Wednesday, that the time of Carnival has come to an end. That's right, dear minions, the party is over. And, in the words of Smokey Robinson: "Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid ..."

Wait, that's a different clown. I digress.

Today, the Western church begins the season of Lent, known in Latin as Quadragesima ("forty days"). And yes, if you don't count the Sundays, the days starting with this day, going on six and a half weeks through Holy Saturday, it really does last for forty days, as is demonstrated by the convenient chart below (which you can tell was made in Europe because the week starts with Monday, which we all know is wrong ... but, that's another story).

Lent is one of the two major penitential seasons of the Church Year in the West, the other being Advent (which, while not totally penitential, is still kinda sorta penitential). The rules for the Dioceses of the United States of America are, that every person fourteen years or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.

Of course, they really should abstain from meat on Fridays year round, or devise "an alternate form of penance." (Yeah, like that's gonna happen.)

In addition, every person between the age of eighteen and fifty-nine must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That means having only one full meal on those days, with each of the other two meals being a "light collation" (or in Yiddish, a "nosh"), which together do not add up to the full meal.

Oh, and no in-between meal snacks either. This presumes, of course, that there is a discernible end to the main meal and the beginning of the light collation. Personally, I never understood how that works. It's like someone rings a bell that says: "Okay, kids, the meal is over, the no-eating-between-meals begins!"


People go to church on this day, even though it's not a holyday of obligation, if for no other reason, to be marked with ashes on their foreheads. The priest or deacon will say these (or similar?) words:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.

(Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.)

Of course, not all those you see on the streets so marked are Catholic. The practice has long been popular with Anglicans and Lutherans, and has also become common among "Methodists, Moravians, Nazarenes, Independent Catholics, as well as by many from the Reformed faith."

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Walk the streets of your city or town, and people (like Bert Beier of Fox News) make no attempt to hide the mark of the season. Once I went to Saint John's Episcopal Church, located just north of the White House in DC (hence its being known as "The Church of the Presidents"), only because it was a lot closer to the office. Of course, for a genuinely practicing Catholic, that isn't quite the same.

Maybe what nobody knows won't hurt them, don't you think?

Or don't you?

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Candlemas Day (or, Why Punxatawney Phil is a Catholic)

“When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.” (Luke 2:22-24)

Today, both the Eastern and Western churches observe the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (known as "Candlemas" in the West), and traditionally cited as the fortieth day of Christmas. (Yes, I counted them the other day, and with Christmas itself as Day 1, this is Day 40.) In the Catholic tradition, the Christmas Cycle officially ends with this day, and preparation for Lent can begin, which includes the "Carnival" season in much of South America. But today, and throughout the world, the faithful will process in and around their churches bearing lighted candles, which are blessed for the coming year.

The origin of this feast is described in detail, in this excerpt from the classic work of Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, entitled The Liturgical Year.

The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.

This year's formality is provided courtesy of the NBC affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio.

Six more weeks of winter. Oh joy. (sigh!)

In Catholic Europe, especially in Germany where the practice originated, this feat of prediction was ascribed to German badgers. But since badgers are not found in the eastern United States, German immigrants to this country were obliged to depend for meteorological guidance on a species of marmot called by the Indians 'weejak' or woodchuck, also known as ... the groundhog.

Finally, we end with the appropriate carol. Yes, there is a carol for ending the "forty days of Christmas." The lyrics are by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), employing a Basque melody adapted by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). This recording is courtesy of John Roberts and Tony Barrand, two of the foursome known as "Nowell Sing We Clear."

"We tend to think of Christmas decorations around the house being a fairly modern invention, like the Christmas tree brought to the UK by Prince Albert, but in earlier times houses were decorated for many months of the year with sprays of leaves and branches, and those decorations changed through the seasons, following the church's year. This lovely seasonal carol was written to celebrate Candlemas Eve by the great 17th Century poet and priest Robert Herrick ... and is taken from his book Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve published in 1648 while England was under the rule of Oliver Cromwell."

And with that, on to Carnival!