Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.
Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?
An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.
I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.
This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?
This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.
On President’s Day, my wife pointed out an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger headlined, “‘Biblical’ snowstorms battering New England.” She asked, reasonably enough, “What makes a snowstorm biblical?” Since I have written a book on the weather in the book of Psalms, I might be able to speak to that. First off, yes, there is snow in the Bible. It’s not mentioned often and it is a rarity, but the Israelites knew what snow was. In fact, one of the most difficult Psalm weather references is to snow, in Psalm 68. The man interviewed in the newspaper, however, was not being literal. “Biblical” has come to mean disastrous. I can exegete that a bit more: disastrous because of quantity. Too much of a good thing. Or bad thing. In Boston this year the weather just won’t quit. The topic that really has people talking, however, is the temperature. It has been very chilly. My daughter complained when her university didn’t cancel classes with the air temperature at about 9 below. Her note prompted my thoughts of a day to remember.
When I taught at Nashotah House, the weather did not stop us. Ever. It was a residential facility with both faculty and students living on campus. Everything was within walking distance. My close exposure to the weather was one of the reasons I wrote the book. One Lent, and this must have been in February, we had a quiet day. Quiet days were taken very seriously. On this particular occasion the day was to be used for a meditation in the Milwaukee Cathedral, some 35 miles away. The problem was the air temperature was -42 Fahrenheit. That isn’t wind chill, that’s how cold the air actually was. (For those of you reading in Europe, Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same at -40, then they begin to diverge again.) It did not stop us. We piled into the van and prayed earnestly that we’d get there safely. On the way home we manically recited Evensong from memory. When the wind blew the chill dropped to -70 (my Minnesota friends will believe me here). If ever weather was biblical, that day was.
I do wonder if overusing “biblical,” however, will wear it out. Where do we go after biblical? What is conceptually bigger than God? Anselm would panic. What if next year it’s even worse—how will we describe it? We’ve already used up the apocalypse. We’ve entered into a crisis of superlatives. Nothing is big enough any more. As I look at the early fading light of this President’s Day, the snow is beginning to fall again. When I was a child we had, I seem to recall, a simple word to describe it. We didn’t invoke the Almighty. We didn’t hear the galloping of distant hooves. We didn’t act as if a day out of the office were the end of the world. Our simple word for it was this: winter.