The Divine Hours of Lent

Today is Leap Year Day, and it positively cries out for some religious commentary or other–some treatise on how it got to be Leap Year in the first place etc., etc. Admittedly, all of that is a pretty good story. It is also an unbelievably intricate and complex one. If you don’t believe me, go google “Leap Year” or punch it into Wikipedia, and you’ll see what I mean.
The truth of the thing is that a lunisolar year like ours is almost [but not quite] 365 days and 6 hours long. As a result, unless we picked up the not-quite-six hours every four years …4 x 6 is 24, in case you’re not tracking here…we would soon have a disaster, or we would in a half dozen centuries or so. Of course, since the six hours is “almost” and not “exactly,” we have to correct our over-correction by not having Leap Year in years that are divisible by 100 unless they can also be divided by 400, which is why, should anyone presently living be concerned, there will be no Leap Year in 2100.
And if you think that is complicated, just go look up the math behind it all. Then look up the religion behind the math.
Every institutionalized faith on the earth has tried to modify the natural flow of time and time-keeping to fit with its religious obligations and observances. In Christianity’s case, the accommodation presents as the modified Gregorian calendar under which we and most of the rest of the world run our lives [including our blog sites] every single day. We do that so that Easter in the Western Church will always fall on the Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the Vernal Equinox on March 21st. Were matters not carefully corrected, then who knows when the Vernal Equinox [and therefore, Easter] might show up? So if Easter is to be ever and always reassuringly on point, the sun and the moon will simply have either to conform or to be fiddled with; and we have chosen to fiddle. So too have Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, the religions of China, albeit with somewhat difference excuses for their meddling.
But there is one thing about the hocus-pocus of Leap Year that is handy. That is, there is a centuries-long tradition of using Leap Year Day to honor a person or a historic event of sacred significance that might otherwise not be celebrated; and that’s what I am going to do today. Washington Gladden was born on February 11, 1836; but I have held his story until today, thinking thereby to put his mention where I think it belongs: folded into the hallowing of Leap Year Day.
Gladden was a journalist who was driven to the ministry and, in 1860, was ordained. He was to say that he was driven actually to practice “a religion that laid hold on life,” and Gladden’s Christianity most certainly did lay hold.
Because he had trained and worked as a journalist, he knew how to work the system in a way that few others in the active pastorate did in the late 18th century. Thus, for example, he became the first major Christian leader to support unionization and worker-rights. As Religion Editor for The New York Independent, he opposed Boss Tweed with both ferocity and success, though that was a dangerous thing to attempt, much less to succeed at. He wanted “to realize the kingdom of God on earth,” he said. He also believed he could do it, at least in his part of this world; and so he did.
Gladden famously once refused a hundred thousand dollar donation to his Congregationalist denomination, because it was being offered by John D. Rockefeller; Gladden regarded the money as therefore “tainted” and not fit for holy use. He dared, in the early days of the last century, to visit Atlanta University and meet with W.E.B. DuBois, after which he began to stir up public awareness of, and concern over, the deplorable state of Negroes in the Reconstructionist South. He even served for a while as the President of Ohio State University…or he did until he was relieved of his post because of his outspoken demands for fair treatment of Native Americans. In addition to all of that, like many another good journalist, whether preacher or not, he wrote more books than anybody can even remember all the titles of now.
But none of that is why I want to wrap Leap Year Day this year around Washington Gladden. What I want to celebrate is Gladden, the hymn writer, and specifically Gladden as the writer of what is, still to this day, for me anyway, one of the softest, humblest, most persuasive statements of purpose that any Christian ever managed to refine and capture in words. Great man or no, I suspect it really didn’t matter to Washington Gladden how our human years would see him. I think what mattered is caught here in these words he left us and that so many thousands of us sing/pray or pray/sing today:
O, Master, let me walk with thee
in lowly paths of service free:
tell me your secret, let me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.
Teach me your patience; still with thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong.
In hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future’s broadening way,
in peace that only You can give,
with thee, O, Master, let me live.

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