A Lenten Leap

Well, it’s that strange phenomenon of the 29th February once again…
Our TVs and radios are filled with “human interest” stories about people with birthdays that only come round every four years, meaning that a father may have had fewer birthdays than his son, or the hoary old chestnut concerning this being the day when women can propose marriage to men. Originally it actually applied to the whole leap year, but it has wisely been restricted to the single day -  can’t have women behaving like men for a whole year! The beginnings of this has been variously attributed to Saint Patrick or Brigid of Kildare in 5th century Ireland, although there was never any reference to this before the romanticisation of Celtic Ireland 19th century. The earliest reference is actually to a 1288 law in the name of the infant Queen Margaret of Scotland which imposed fines on a man if a marriage proposal was refused today, with the compensation ranging from a kiss, to £1 (a substantial amount in those days – think I’d have opted for the kiss, no matter how unpleasant) or a silk gown.
I have also heard reference to it finding it’s origin in Scotland in honour of the 4 year mating cycle of the native Haggis, which is often most active at the end of February, numbers having recovered from the Burns night cull. (Culled this straight from Wikipedia – caveat lector)
The origin of the extra day thrown in on an intercalary or leap year is down to an attempt to keep our calendar more or less in sync with our position around the sun, because one solar orbit does not take 365 days (which is hardly a handy number to begin with) but 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 16 seconds approximately.  We owe this idea to Julius Caesar (or whoever was advising him at the time), who, when he wasn’t off “veni, vidi, vici”-ing, regularised the old Republican hybrid luni-solar calendar, by scattering a few days throughout the year and putting in an extra day every 4 years instead of a whole extra month every so often. Originally it was slipped in after the 23rd February, for some reason that eludes me… But after various revisions we settled on putting it in after the 28th February every 4 years… except for those years that end in 00 where the first two digits are not divisible by 4, hence 2000 was a leap year but 1900 was not… Actually it is EVEN more complicated than that again, because even with all this juggling of days, we aren’t quite in sync with the solar system…
Which brings me back again to the whole phenomenon of Lent, which is a bit of a spiritual intercalary period to help us get in sync with God and his ways.
The Psalmist says to God:
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalms 90:12
And while this was originally a reference to the total number of days, suggesting that realising our mortality might help us to get things into perspective (which is part of the Lenten discipline of self-denial too), it could also be applied to our attempts to be masters of the world around us, instead of living our lives according to the God-created rhythm of cosmos.
We think we are so clever… with our ways of telling and managing time, imposing order on what at times seems a disorderly universe… Yet our very system of days, and months and years doesn’t quite fit the actual rhythm of the solar system, so we have months of unequal length and extra days thrown in here and there… The actual behaviour of the physical world doesn’t completely fit with any of the so called laws of physics, so that the deeper you go in such subjects the more you learn about exceptions to the rules and the fact that the laws are actually much more complicated than you were first told… So much so that physicists are still striving for the so-called GUT or grand universal theory.
And if our attempts to describe and systematize time and the created order are stretched to the limits, how much more is that the case when we try to do the same with the creator of the universe and the Lord of time and eternity.
As God asked Job
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Job 38:4-5
There are some who understand more of the workings of this wonderful world than I do… but God alone knows it all… And if any of us think that we have God sorted out and packed away in an easily understood theological box, then the God we are worshipping isn’t God at all…
So on this Lenten Leap day, let us ask God help us number, and pace our days according to his pattern… And so gain a heart of real wisdom…

This is an extended version of this morning's Just a Moment for Downtown Radio. 


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