Our great nephew was born in Australia on March 1, 2012. The news of his birth reached us the day before, on Feb. 29. It was a leap year. So, while he may be turning eight in the land down under, to us in Canada, he is only turning two. You may play the same kind of creative math with someone close to you who happens to have been born on Feb. 29.
Every four years or so, we add one day at the end of February so that our modern-day Gregorian calendar remains in alignment with the earth’s revolutions around the sun. It takes the earth about 365.242 days (365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds to be exact) to orbit the sun once. This is technically called a solar year. A solar year is measured from either the spring or fall equinox to the following one, or from the summer or the winter solstice to the one that follows.
Five hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds doesn’t really seem like very much in the context of a whole year. However, if we didn’t add a leap day every four years, after only a century, our calendar would be out of synch by around 24 days. A missing six hours adds up over time.
Feb. 29 becomes a day of course correcting, of bringing things back into alignment, of synchronizing our earthly everyday lives with the heavens. In a similar way, Ash Wednesday summons us to stop, to correct our course, to take an accounting of our lives and find ways of immersing ourselves in the ancient means of recalibrating our souls. The branches of Palm Sunday, once waved in adulation and hope, are reduced on Wednesday to ash to remind us of the fragility of life, of our mortality, of our propensity to lose our footing and to wander away from God.
In the busyness of our lives, of making ends meet, of working and raising families, of volunteer work and getting stuck in traffic, or lost in the latest Netflix series, it is easy to assume that all that matters is what is in front of us. And before long we can miss the numinous moments that call us back to reality and life.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the presider summons the community to prepare to enter the season of Lent by saying these words: I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God…
Lent becomes the one season in our Christian year when all is righted. And we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through this Christian Passover, we gain more than just a day. We gain life itself.
This Lent, I encourage you and your parish to join me in participating in the Signs of Life program devised by Virginia Theological Seminary and the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Details about the program can be found at www.signsoflife.org. The Lenten program invites us to contemplate the themes of light, water, food, shelter and community – elements of everyday life that sustain us, and symbols too that permeate our worship and faith life through which Jesus is present in our lives, with the power to transform us. I will be hosting a conversation on the symbols each Tuesday evening in the month of March. The location of these gatherings will shift week to week throughout the diocese. I hope that you will consider joining me at the location closest to you. Let’s take this Lenten leap together.