Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday—Calendar Coincidence Clash

Regular readers know that silly calendar coincidences trigger compulsive versification in me the way a strobe light sets off an epileptic’s seizure.  It ain’t pretty to look at and witnesses are embarrassed for the victim but can not tear their eyes from the spectacle.
This time it is the quite contradictory urges of Valentine’s Day, fixed on February 14 way back in 496 when Pope Gelasius I was regularizing the calendar of Saint feast days he assigned the date to a legendary early Christian Saint of whom literally nothing was known, and Ash Wednesday, the floating observance of the first day of Lent and the second most solemn day of the year after Good Friday.  One observation celebrates romantic love with all of the urges and excess that implies while the other calls for penance, fasting, and a solemn rejection of the temptations of the flesh that might detract attention from the coming sacrifice of Christ.

A guy could get whiplash trying to cover both bases in 24 short hours.
It isn’t the first time calendar serendipity involving one of the observations triggered a spasm of poetry.  Back in 2012 Ash Wednesday fell on George Washington’s Birthday. 
Despite the popular image of Washington in reverent prayer the so-called Vision of Valley Forge was invented out of thin air by his early hack biographer Parson Weems.  Elevated to the status of a virtual saint by American Evangelicals, Washington’s religious views were much more nuanced and complex.  He dutifully fulfilled the roles appointed him as a leading gentleman of his Anglican parish.  He attended services as rarely as possible and always left before communion.  He was influenced the Deists, but his true religion may have been his cherished Free Masonry. 
So back then I was moved to scribble this conjecture.

Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, have long tried to paint George Washington as a kind of a saint and reverent Christian based largely on the invented-out-of-thin-air fable of the so-called Vision at Valley Forge made up by Parson Weems.  The great man was not a "Christian" as they would define it, although dutiful to obligations of a gentleman.  Like most educated Virginians of his class he was basically Deist and personally looked to Free Masonry for his spiritual life.

The Vestryman
Ash Wednesday/Washington’s Birthday 2012

The Vestryman performing the duty expected of the local Squire
            attended chapel when absolutely necessary
            and when no good excuse like fighting an Empire
            or Fathering a Country was handy.

He sat bolt upright on a rigid pew
            contemplated the charms of Lady Fairfax
                        or later dental misery.

            When came the Altar Call, he would stand up,
                        turn on his heel, and march straight out
                        as if a legion was at his back.

            No filthy priestly thumb ever grimed
                        that noble brow.

—Patrick Murfin     
An icon of the almost surely mythical St. Valentine.
Today’s convergence conjures different musings.  The early Saint for whom some wild tales were invented long after the fact has been officially scrubbed from by the Catholic Church from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because so little was known about him that his very existence might be called into question.  He was not, however, completely erased from the roster of Saints like other popular but probably apocryphal figures like St. Christopher and St. George the Dragon Slayer.  Local Bishops have the option of keeping his Feast Day on February 14, but it is safe to say that virtually no religious content remains in the celebration which is no longer called St. Valentine’s Day by most folks.

Cupid, the Roman God of erotic love, son of Venus and Mars, lover of Psyche.
Valentine certainly does not show up on the Valentine cards exchanged today.  The Roman god of erotic love CupidEros to the Greeks—is the most ubiquitous symbol of the occasion. He is usually depicted as a plump Victorian cherub, not the vigorous and amorous winged youth of classic mythology.  Paganism meets sentimentality.
For some reason the inner voice called for arcane language and verbal lace and ribbons.

Cupid as a Cherub by Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier.

Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018

Doth the thumb smear on Cupid’s brow,
dour penance and virtuous sacrifice
            subdue ardor or blunt the arrows
            from his quiver?
Or doth affection triumph after all,
            lust work its wanton magic, pagan heart
            smother sanctimony?

—Patrick Murfin

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