As many of you will know, I’m fascinated by words. Perhaps that’s hardly surprising given I’m a writer. ‘February’ is an interesting case in point. Its origins lie in Roman antiquity. It’s derived from the Latin name for the second month of the Julian calendar, ‘Februarius’. This name itself was derived from the Roman festival of ‘Februalia’, a term which basically means ‘purification’. So, the meaning of ‘February’ is – effectively – ‘time of purification’.
I have to admit, when put like that, ‘February’ sounds rather ominous. ‘Time of Purification’ sounds like a slogan Chairman Mao might have used in Communist China, c.1965. It would have
presaged nothing good. For the Romans, ‘purification’ would have referred to rituals of cleansing and preparation, of purging excesses. In an agrarian society such practices would have been
significant as it prepared for spring and the agricultural year. It was both ‘spring cleaning’ and ritual purification.
These ideas of purification – of purging excess and spring cleaning – all have resonances in our modern world. February is usually the month in which we begin Lent, that extended season of preparation and fasting. Shrove Tuesday is a modern way of gathering up ‘excess’ and having a splurge before a time of restraint. And in February – as we usually see the first signs of spring – people often begin to think of having proper ‘spring clean’.
This year February is slightly different. As Easter is very late, it’s March before we begin Lent. Yet, in some ways, perhaps this year’s extended wait for Ash Wednesday only amplifies the (forgive the word!) ‘purgative’ nature of February. In my imagination, February always conjures a time when the weather is at its bleakest and – despite the appearance of flowers like snowdrops – there is snow on the ground. It feels to me like the deepest bite of winter. I think of it as ‘cleaning up’ the last remnants of the previous year.
In our modern technological world in which most people live in cities perhaps we’ve lost connection with the deep rhythms of life that most of our forebears knew. Pieter Bruegel, the great 16th
century artist, understood how seasons, life and devotion all went hand in hand. He – and his team of painters – produced extraordinary images of early modern life in which ‘holiness’ and
devotion were simply part of life. That incredible painting of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is shown as taking place in deep snow in the Netherlands. He is always alert to how the divine – in both beautiful and terrifying manifestations – waits to greet us in the ordinary. If you have time, look that painting up (as well as the justly famous copy of his ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’.) The extraordinary always lurks in the ordinary.
Perhaps that’s what we all need to recover: a sense of God’s grace and wonder and terrific power in the midst of our humdrum lives. As we prepare, once again, to enter
Lent, perhaps it is time to look around and see, or to still ourselves and listen. February can feel like a bleak month, where we are caught between the echoes of the old year
and the desire to get on with spring and summer. But perhaps that’s its power: God is sometimes to be found ‘in-between’: in our frustrations and longings as much as our joy and fulfilments. On
chilly and dark mornings I hope that you, along with me, are prepared to wait on God and discern his love, emerging like the first spring flower.