Happy Groundhog’s Day.
I am a strong believer in Groundhog’s Day, at least locally applied. This morning Punxsutawney Phil crawled out of his hole, and didn’t see his shadow, foretelling an early Spring. But I don’t think a groundhog in Pennsylvania has any idea of what it is like in Florida. If we had groundhogs in Florida they would see their shadows this morning and so, it appears spring is not near.
I am not a big fan of winter, even here in Naples, and each year I anticipate its end from the moment the first cold snap arrives and I seek signs to indicate the hastening of its end. When I lived elsewhere I would mark the arrival of the robins. However, I learned last year that robins do not migrate through Naples. Instead I have learned to look for the emergence of snakes. Frankly, I’d rather have the robins. I make note of the sky early in the morning on Groundhog’s Day as I did today. I even long for bad weather on March 1st so that I can revel in the fact that March is entering like a lion so that it will go out like a lamb.
Today isn’t just Groundhog’s Day, it is also the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord. It, too, falls every February 2nd, and it is not a coincidence that the two share the same day.
The Feast of the Presentation is one of the few feasts that take precedence on Sunday morning. That is why we are celebrating the feast today
and not marking the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
If today’s feast sounds peculiar to you it may be because February 2nd hasn’t fallen on a Sunday in 6 years.
Our feast today marks the presentation of the Holy Family at the Temple after our Lord’s birth. Under Jewish Law, Jesus, being the first born male,
was considered sacred and dedicated to the Lord. An offering had to be made in his stead. Mary, having given birth to a male child, was,
under the same Law, considered ritually unclean for 40 days. She, too, had to make an offering for her ritual cleansing. That is why our Feast is on February 2nd. It has been 40 days since Christmas.
The actions of Mary and Joseph may strike us as rather strange in our modern times but they were normal actions for the people of their day. There would have been nothing out of the ordinary for a family to make such offerings at the Temple, in fact, it would have been expected.
That is one of the interesting things about Luke’s account of the birth and early years of Jesus.
All the events are ordinary, none of them were odd. But at each event something peculiar and even magnificent happened.
Though all families made their offerings after birth and upon the birth of the first male child; though there may have been numerous families
at the Temple the very day Jesus, Mary and Joseph were there, Simeon and Anna only focused their attentions, and praise and prophecies upon Jesus.
Luke tells us of the praise offered by Simeon. As our Prayer Book has these words,
Lord, you have now set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior who you have prepared for the whole world to see, a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
For centuries these words have been a part of the Church’s worship. They appear no less than three times in our Prayer Book:
in both rites of Evening Prayer, and in Compline. It is the symbolism of light that has struck the Church in these words. It is why we use this song for our worship.
It is also, believe it or not, why we mark Groundhog’s Day today.
The history of the Church has numerous days that are celebrated because of ancient pre-Christian holidays. Most of these revolved around agricultural and natural phenomenon.
Christmas is December 25 because of its proximity to the Winter Solstice, not because it is Jesus’ actual birthday. I have seen Jesus’ birth certificate. He was not born in December!
The Church placed the festival of his birth in the midst of darkness. During the longest nights of the year, when the light of the sun is most dim, the Light of the World is born. The depths of darkness cannot extinguish the Light.
But winters are long and often dreary. Patience and hope can wear thin. Numerous cultures throughout Europe marked this time of year with moments of hope that Spring was soon to arrive.
In Britain it was believe that clear weather on the Feast of the Presentation meant more winter was to come. It was also believed bears would emerge from their caves to test the weather on February 2nd. Also, if wolves were spied returning to their lair on the second of February there would be more winter. In Scotland, this was the day that many thought snakes started emerging from the ground. In Germany, a place not known for its snakes, groundhogs were the pivotal animal. In Italy it was held that February 2 was the last cold day of winter.
These notions may have no facts behind them. They may be all based on coincidence or legends. But they speak of a deep human hope and a longing.
Even today, as we sit in heated homes and drive cars that have seat warmers, and can brightly light nearly any space against the gloom of short and overcast days, we still look for a time of new birth, of new energy, of reason to believe that the days will be growing brighter soon.
There are a host of metaphors at work on Groundhog’s Day and the Feast of the Presentation. But all of them bring to mind that at times we can be waylaid and weary. We can find ourselves almost overcome by moments of exhaustion and ennui.
But even in these moments there is hope.
Imagine an aging man, who longed for a brighter day. He had spent his days in faithful prayer and it had been revealed to him that he would not die before he saw the calling of Israel to a new life and hope.
We are not told whether that revelation was a promise or a sentence. We are not told if he sought the sight of Israel’s consolation with anticipation
or if he was he simply longing to be released from this vigil.
We are not told if he was looking for a strapping warrior seeking God’s blessing for a rebellion. Or if he as thinking that a bold and mighty prophet
might rise up to call Israel into the future. Or if, perhaps, he thought a strong and charismatic king would be crowned and bring David’s royalty and grandeur back to a defeated, broken and oppressed people.
But it was none of these. It was a baby, just like all the rest that were brought through the Temple each day. The baby was just like all the rest, but unlike every one before him or after. He was the light to enlighten the nations and the glory of the people of Israel.
That’s the funny thing about hope. It has a way of popping up in the strangest places and in the strangest ways. Maybe that’s why we look for it in places like rodents not seeing their shadows. Or bears coming out of their dens or even cloudy, stormy days on March 1st.
We look for these signs, just as Simeon did, because we need them. Even when the weather is bright, our days might be darkened by fear. We look for these signs, just like Simeon did, because we deep down we even expect them. Even in our darkest moments we cling to the knowledge that the light cannot be extinguished.
A light to enlighten the nations, and a light to strengthen each of us, whether in the depths of a cold and dreary winter or in the depths of a dark and confusing time.
There is a light and it is growing.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni