BY ELIZABETH McKENZIE
If “April is the cruellest month” then February must be the most fickle.
In the northern hemisphere, the arrival of Spring on February 1 signalled that on the whole things were looking up. Any minute now, daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses would venture above ground in the absolute faith that winter, however much it might linger (sometimes until summer), was ultimately banished.
Days would become brighter and longer, winds would become less than gale-force, rain rather than sleet and snow would water the earth. Of course it wasn’t to be expected that all this would happen overnight or even over several days or weeks or in a bad year, months. But the hope of better weather was not to be gainsaid however equivocal the reality.
The first of February was also the feast day of St Brigid who was held in as high regard as St Patrick in some quarters (my mother’s for example). Long before feminism took hold, St Brigid was held up as a model of female achievement.
For a few weeks, in the glow of ‘anything is possible now that Spring is here’, becoming an abbess, leading a dedicated life of celibacy and prayer if not of power, could be included in a young women’s career choice.
Until mid-February. Then all such ambitions dissipated as surely as the winter snows, in the feverish activities, mostly confined to card choosing, sending and receiving, leading up to and including St Valentine’s Day. And as we basked in the possibility of a career change from abbess to more pragmatic options, Lent was upon us - a reminder of the fickleness and flightiness of February – not to mention our own! Lofty ambition and earthly pleasures alike were subsumed in various and mostly killjoy penitential practices.
February in the southern hemisphere is just as fickle as it is on the other side of the globe.
It starts very positively in the middle of summer with its emphasis on sand, sea and surf, the high season of Australian identity, of freedom, pleasure and fun. Then it quickly degenerates into a season of anxious waiting, for the onset of the bushfire season, or flooding rains or going back to school.
And of course, there is no escaping Lent no matter in which hemisphere you’re lodging. (But penitential exercises don’t seem to be as onerous when the sun is shining, and the sea is inviting and you can feel sand between your toes. And you’re living in a post Vatican II interpretation of what penance is all about - at least for the moment.)
Nature’s seasons might be fickle and unpredictable but there is nothing fickle about the liturgical seasons of the Church. They set a measured pace, predictable and consistent in an otherwise topsy-turvy world. There are readings and rituals, rites and devotions, hymns and specific vestment colours for each season.
There can be no mistaking what part of its year the Church is celebrating, even if involvement with all things liturgical is merely cursory. And there is a certain balance to the liturgical cycle. Reminders of the need to do penance, to offset our general sinfulness, or bolster our frail commitment to holiness, or just acknowledge that we are in need of salvation are juxtaposed with reminders that we are already saved, loved, invited to participate in the divine life of our God.
Low-key penitential periods give way to great dramatic celebrations of Incarnation, Resurrection, Pentecost. Great truths contained and promulgated in the flow of the seasonal liturgy are just waiting to be found by each and every one of us.
Elizabeth McKenzie is editor of the Tinteán magazine of the Australian Irish Heritage Network.
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