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The six day week mentioned in a previous post may seem absurd, but it's an actual fact this time of year. Lent is a forty day fast in preparation for Easter. Its forty days echo the forty days and nights of the Old Testament flood and the New Testament fast of Jesus in the desert, and yet Lent is not forty days long.

Easter calculations have always fascinated me. The average person has no idea how or why Easter falls on the day it does. I include large numbers of Catholics in this group. Most people know about Lent, but not exactly what it is. They may know about Ash Wednesday, the day people have smudges of ash on their foreheads. They certainly know about Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, without necessarily understanding how everything fits together.

Years ago, when I lived in a community in the hills east of Orange, one of the more colorful residents organized a Mardi Gras party the Friday after Mardi Gras on the grounds that "Mardi Gras isn't just on Tuesday anymore." His function consisted almost entirely of announcing the event. Other functions included barbecuing steaks, buying beer and providing the venue. On a very small scale, the party was a big success. No one had the least idea what Mardi Gras meant except good times.

I'm not advertising Catholicism, even Christianity per se, but there are parts of the Christian year that are deeply entrenched in our culture. Even Jews get behind Christmas as a seasonal event. When we lived in the Valley, my kids celebrated Chanukah with their friends. I asked if they knew what Chanukah was and they said, "It's when you spin the dradle." They also joined a Christian church and were baptized in a see-through plexiglass fount behind a retractable wall as a large choir sang. If nothing else, my kids were flexible. I've always tried to explain things, but explanations are sometimes superfluous.

Fixing Easter is the first problem. Easter is a coordination of the solar and lunar calendars. The Jews and others, for use in their religious observances, make use of a lunar calendar. Christians, followers of a solar deity, have relied on an increasingly accurate series of solar calendars. Sunday vs. the Sabbath, which falls on Saturday, is a contentious argument with a history all its own. It has nothing to do with football. The key point in the solar year is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox. It's not the only point of interest, but the seasons themselves are solar based, and the vernal equinox arrives at a time of new growth and returning warmth. It is the logical place to celebrate the new year and the return of life. The first day of spring is called the vernal equinox because the day and night are of equal length. A point of celestial balance.

But, the vernal equinox marks only the sun, it has nothing to do with the lunar calendar. It leaves the second luminary out of balance. So the Church worked out a formula. No. Not all churches agree on it. It has a history also all its own. What follows is the formula most commonly accepted. Easter falls on the first Sunday on or after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. First the sun, then the moon, then the feast day. Every so often, they all fall on the very same day. Because the days of the week shift from year to year for a given date, and because the phases of the moon are not tied to the seasons of the sun, the exact date of Easter changes from year to year. St. David's day, for example, the patron saint of Wales, is the 1st of March. His feast day is fixed. Easter comes when everything is right for it, when all the rules are met. Easter is a moveable feast.

It's an immensely rich tradition. I know only bits and pieces of it. Lent is a forty days fast ending the night before Easter, which is always a Saturday, since Easter is always a Sunday. But Lent is not a continuous forty days. All the Sundays in Lent continue to be feast days. In other words, the six full weeks of Lent preceding Easter are only six days long — six regular days of fasting plus one feast day. Counting backwards from Easter gives us thirty-six days of fasting, and forty minus thirty-six leaves us with four days unaccounted for. Skipping Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, we count Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, therefore, is the first day of Lent, and the day before that, the day everyone knows but seldom understands, is the last day to sow wild oats, to inject frivolity into one's otherwise dull existence, to do things not permitted, not entirely accounted for, before the grim period leading up to Easter.

It's like taking a deep breath before diving into the pool. The people of the northern Mediterranean, the people of Brazil, of New Orleans, and elsewhere, have been fortunate to avoid the shriveled dictates of the Victorian era. They love louder, feel more openly and accept with greater ease the fortunes and misfortunes of everyday life. Any stiffness they encounter is not in the upper lip. Their chaotic and boisterous existence is the inevitable effect of renewal, of balance, of the cycles of life met face to face, the very things of the Easter.

The boys and I used to put our names on the list every Thursday for a loaf of raisin challah at the bakery inside Gelson's. The frivolity of raisins on the Sabbath would be unthinkable. So the Jews' tiniest of reverential breaths before jumping in was raisins in their best loaf of bread. Springtime celebrations and remembrances — Beltane, Passover, Holi, May Day, Easter, even spring cleaning — speak to us about humankind and our place in the cosmos, about our fears and hopes, which as everyone knows aren't just on Tuesdays anymore.
 
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