Thursday, March 1, 2018

March


March is the thiird month of the year, the first in the original Roman calendar, which curiously considered winter as a non-time. It was named, obviously, after the Roman god of war, Mars, the putative father of Rome's founder, a war god who happened also to have an agricultural role. Spring, of course, was the season for both agriculture and war to start up again after winter's hiatus. Modern people are less tied to the seasons and the environment than our ancestors. Modern progress means we can make war all year round! And we can also access formerly season-specific vegetables and fruits all year long. The change of seasons is seen now largely in recreational terms, which are increasingly the terms that define social and cultural life. The deplorable Daylight Saving Time now also begins in March (this year, March 11).

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, the monochrome purple character of our modern Lent is interrupted by two great festivals - Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, on March 19, and the Annunciation on March 25. (I am especially partial to the latter feast, since it is my birthday!) Modern life takes little note of the calendar of Christian feasts and seasons that was once-upon-a-time so central to society's self-understanding. But, way back when, the attitude was wildly different. The critical turning points of the natural year (the spring equinox, for example) were all invested with profound religious significance. 

Thus, according to Saint Augustine, He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.(De Trinitate V, 9). Some medieval interpretations went even further - connecting March 25 with the eighth day of creation! (For a far more erudite treatment of these themes, see A Clerk of Oxford blog: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/this-doubtful-day-of-feast-or-fast-good.html and https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-days-of-creation.html)

In the Latin Rites, Annunciation gets displaced this year by Palm Sunday - another harbinger of spring. I am just old enough to remember when Holy Week was "reformed" by Pope Pius XII, resulting in a (temporary) surge of popular interest in and enthusiasm for the symbolically evocative archaic rituals of those fascinating days. 

In the Jewish calendar, today is the 14th day of the month of Adar and thus Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman's plan to exterminate all the Jews living in the ancient Persian Empire.  According to the Book of Esther, Haman persauded King Ahasuerus (possibly Xerxes I) to kill all the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his adopted daughter Esther, who had providentially risen to become Queen of Persia. The day destined for genocide became instead a day of deliverance and since then a day of feasting and rejoicing - a fun holiday with a perennially and still seriously relevant message.

Meanwhile we moderns have Employee Appreciation Day, which is observed on the first Friday in March in the secular calendar in the U.S, and Canada!

(Photo: March from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is widely considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

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