Groundhog Day

“Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!”

In the movie, “Groundhog Day,” that’s what weatherman Phil Connor  wakes up to in his hotel room in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

It happens again the next day, and he feels a sense of deja vu. 

And it continues the next day–not just the radio program, but every event of the day. Day after day after day after day after day, it’s always the same day.

That’s how my Soldiers and I felt on deployment. Every day a repeat of the day before. Almost every Military member today refers to every day deployed as “Groundhog Day.”

That piece is just what the movie contributed to how we think about today.

The bigger question is this: How did we get the idea that a big rodent can predict the weather based on whether or not it sees its shadow on February 2?

For that we have to go back a few centuries. In the historic Christian calendar February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord — and has been celebrated since at least the year 300.

It is the 40th day after Christmas. In the Jewish law, a woman had to present herself at the temple forty days after birth of a firstborn, if a son, to be purified. And that’s what Mary and Joseph do in this text. They go to the temple, and there they meet Simeon and Anna. And Simeon declares that this baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

And since Jesus is the light, this was the day in later centuries when all the candles would be brought to church and blessed for use in the coming year. So it became known as Candlemas. Or, in French, La Chandeleur. Other traditions were added, including, in France and Canada, the eating of crepes or pancakes for breakfast.

The English had this rhyme:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight,
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.

And the groundhog? Well, Germans had the idea that if a hibernating animal saw its shadow on this feast of light, there would be six more weeks of winter. First they said it was a bear, then it became a badger, and when Germans came to Pennsylvania, it became a groundhog.

Today, it is one groundhog, Punxatawney Phil. He said this morning that spring is coming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says he has been right 40% of the time.

It’s kind of crazy how traditions develop. So many layers upon layers, that we forget how it all started, and the point of it all.

So let’s go back to the Bible passage at the root.

Luke 2, verse 22, sets the stage:

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

In verse 25, we meet Simeon:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon had waited long, yet he had received this promise of God, that he would see the Messiah. He waited in hope. And now he says, “Lord, now I can die in peace. You’ve kept you word.”

This baby, he says, is the Lord’s salvation. The redeemer of all. A light for revelation of the Gentiles, and for glory to Israel.

His words echo the promise of Isaiah 9:2,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. …

And verse 6,

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.

As I read those verses, I can’t help but think of the musical setting Handel gave those words. He turned it into a song of praise and triumph.

But Simeon has more to say. Luke continues, verse 33:

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

It won’t be all hope and glory. He will suffer. And Mary will suffer, too, as she sees what will happen to her Son.

But this baby is now the hinge upon which the world turns, he is the decisive point in history, he is the judge of all. As Mary had sung when she greeted Elizabeth,

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Lots of people use the name of Jesus today. Some use the name of Jesus as a curse. Some as a prayer. Some preachers use it as a formula by which they hope to enrich themselves–if you just have faith in them and give generously. Some politicians piously use his name as a way to manipulate you to vote for them. Some have made him a token of superstition—a plastic figure on a dashboard. And as a society we’ve replaced his resurrection from the dead with the revival of a hibernating rodent.

All this folly, Scripture says, he will cast aside. All our pretensions, he will smash. All those in power he will laugh to scorn, and pull down from their thrones. All those who aspire to greatness will be reduced to begging.

While the meek shall inherit the earth. The humble will be lifted up. The hungry will be filled.

Be careful who you look up to. Be careful who you trust. Lots of people are asking you to trust them. Lots of politicians say they can fulfill your hopes and dreams. They all tell you how they will make the nation great.

Psalm 146 says,

“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

Instead, trust in the Lord, Psalm 146 says, continuing with verse 5:

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Trust in the Lord. Believe his word. Know that his values are counter to the values of the world. He turns upside down everything the world esteems.

He’s got the whole world in his hands, we sing. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”—The boundaries we draw and the walls we erect mean nothing to him.

He looks at those who are oppressed, despised, and hungry with mercy. Those in pain. Those in prison. Those who cannot see, those who are bowed down by care and worry and fatigue and fear.

The migrant in the desert, thirsty under the hot son, trying to find a path to a better life. The widow who is alone and cannot pay her rent. The child without parents, or separated from parents, even warehoused in a tent city in a strange land.

These are those whom the Lord loves, and cares for, and protects. In their darkness he comes to them. His light surrounds them. His love embraces them.

And the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The poor have this in common with Phil Connor, the weatherman in “Groundhog Day.” Every day is the same to them. Every day brings more trials. Every day brings more fears. Day after day, a trap they cannot escape. The rich say, climb up out of your hole. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Just pay more on your credit cards, I saw someone say the other day on Facebook.

But God shines his light into their darkness and says, I am with you. I am your hope. I am your rock. I am your justice.

He fills their hearts with a song of joy, as he did for Mary.

The good news of this text is that our days do not have to be more of the same. We do not need to press on without hope. We are not in darkness–we are in his light.

Our future is not controlled by our creditors, nor by politicians, nor by professors; we are enslaved to neither a horoscope nor a groundhog.

We serve the Lord of Hosts, the ruler of all nations, the Savior of the World. Whether the world’s light shines on us or covers us in shadow, his light shines in our hearts and on our path, guiding us in freedom to his eternal kingdom, where his justice will prevail for ever.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!