Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as The Purification of Mary, also known as Candlemas, and also, not coincidentally, Groundhog Day. Suffice it to say that there is a lot, ritually and thematically, going on today. In Catholic tradition, today was called the Feast of the Purification of Mary (commonly known as “Candlemas” in the manner that the Nativity of Christ is known as “Christmas). Now, however, following the liturgical and calendrical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to reframe the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year according to their original scriptural and Christological contexts, today is called the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. And looking today’s Gospel reading, we see that today, in fact, commemorates both events: Mary’s Purification and Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple. Both names of the feast are represented in the Gospel. Today’s liturgical feast was also commonly referred to as Candlemas because it was the traditional practice in the Middle Ages and into the modern era for the clergy to bless candles today, then distribute those blessed candles to their congregations for use in domestic devotional rituals. These candles were sacramentals, on par with blessed bread and holy water, and were an important link between the liturgy and worship of the Church and the prayers and worship in the home. The faithful lit these candles in times of distress (during storms, floods, and illness) as a reminder that their prayers, like the prayers of the Church, would be heard by God.
The timing of today’s feast gave rise to other, more interesting, practices related to the weather. Today we are entering the last leg of winter (unless you reside in the Upper Midwest, in which case winter may never end) and, as an important fixed feast (unlike that pesky, roaming Ash Wednesday) and the final one connected the high feast of Christmas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord took on meteorological, as well as liturgical, meaning, like many Christian feasts that coincide with important agricultural markers. Depending on one’s location and major agricultural interests, you can find guidance from the liturgical calendar for timing any major agricultural undertaking or for predicting the weather or success of a crop. Coming from a farming area of the Upper Midwest myself, I can tell you that wheat is harvested on (or near) the Assumption of Mary, that your best potatoes are the ones you plant on Good Friday, and that you shouldn’t cut the heads off of thistles in your pastures until the Nativity of John the Baptist (otherwise those heads will grow back, unlike poor John’s). This embroidery of agricultural folk wisdom, stitched upon the sacred calendar which marks our liturgical time, has, for the most part, been lost as our culture became industrialized, our calendar secularized, and our understanding of weather and climate has come to rely less upon almanacs and folk wisdom and more upon science and technology. I am not lamenting this inevitable loss, so much as I am pointing out the hybrid folk-agricultural-liturgical origins of the odd cultural and ritual anomalies that persist in our culture even today, such as Groundhog Day. All over Western Europe, from the Middle Ages on, funny little rituals involving weather prognostication marked today. And, in parts of Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, German immigrants transferred their folk belief in a badger or bear’s weather prediction abilities on February 2nd onto a more readily-available (and docile) local mammal: the groundhog.
Now, traditional ritual celebrations of Groundhog Day aside, my favorite modern way of celebrating this folk holiday is watching the Bill Murray/Harold Ramis modern classic, Groundhog Day. Yes, Groundhog Day, every theologian and minister’s favorite Bill Murray film to theologically analyze. It seems to me that, while I’ve just discussed the original agricultural/folkloric connection between the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and the celebration of Groundhog Day, we can can also tease out another link between the Christian feast and the folk ritual of today, via that modern-day morality play courtesy of Bill Murray and the late, great Harold Ramis.
[Warning: Spoilers] In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Pittsburgh television weatherman Phil Connors, who is The. Worst. Sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the city’s annual Groundhog Day celebration, selfish, narcissistic Phil has a terrible day. What’s worse, the next day is just as bad. And the next. And the next. Because, for Phil Connors, every day is Groundhog Day, as he is stuck in a cosmic loop, repeating the same day, over and over, forever stuck in Punxsutawney. Over the course of the movie, we come to see the depth of Phil’s terribleness, but also the depth of his loneliness and despair. But, while Phil’s predicament is unfortunate, his despair, loneliness, narcissism, and terribleness were all part of his preexisting condition of being The. Worst. You see, Phil only wants one thing in life, and it’s not the fame, success, wealth, sex, or other vices that he chases both before and during his time in Punxsutawney; Phil wants what we all want: control over chaos and knowledge of the unknowable. And, in a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, Phil is blessed and cursed with just that: he gets to/has to exist in a universe set on repeat, where everything within the bubble of Groundhog Day is repeatable, knowable, and controllable. And, after manipulating his tiny universe in every imaginable way to fulfill his every imaginable desire, Phil realizes just what a curse ultimate control and ultimate knowledge is, and tries to kill himself (also in every imaginable manner). Since he cannot die and cannot leave, Phil begins to believe that he is in Hell. But in Hell there is no enjoyment, no growth, and no hope. And as Phil lives this day over and over again, he begins to do the unthinkable: he encounters and interacts with, learns from and appreciates other people on their own level. He helps people and saves people, with the end result that he is himself helped and saved. His loop, then, is not his damnation, but his purgation; and for Phil, Hell is not other people– other people become his salvation.
Now, let’s compare the trials of terrible Phil to the lives of two people from today’s Gospel: devout and righteous Simeon and the holy prophetess Anna:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem
Simeon and Anna, like Phil, were waiting for their salvation; but, unlike Phil, they were righteous and devout, faithful people. While Phil was made to repeat the same day again and again, Simeon and Anna, like the rest of us, lived the routine monotony of everyday life. But, unlike you, me, Phil, and the rest of us, Anna and Simeon awaited their own and their people’s salvation with the certain knowledge that the Messiah was coming soon. And when he did come, appearing in the tiny form of a vulnerable, poor, 40-day-year-old infant, Anna and Simeon, unlike the countless others in Jesus’ lifetime and in the centuries that followed, did not question that their Savior came in a manner likely very different than what they had imagined. They embraced their child Savior, proclaiming for all to hear, and for the generations to sing each evening, that salvation had come for Israel and for the whole world (Simeon’s canticle, Nunc Dimittis in Latin, is sung daily in the Liturgy of the Hours). Where Phil sought ultimate control and knowledge, Simeon and Anna ultimately trusted in God’s will and God’s plan. Now, we may not have the gift of prophecy and the Holy Spirit may not be telling us when Christ will return, but we are graced with the Gospel message that life in Christ is our only salvation. So, noting our Phil-like tendencies and also the same promise of salvation that Simeon and Anna knew, we have to ask ourselves today, on Groundhog Day and the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, as we await and hope and work for the coming Kingdom of God: who are we more like? Could we see our salvation if it was right in front of us? Can we recognize, in monotony of daily life, that there is redemption in the everyday? Do we see other people as objects for our own pleasure and advancement, or even as our own personal hell, or can we recognize in our neighbor the sources of our own salvation? Can we give up those self-destructive, sinful, overwhelming desires to control (others, our lives, the means of our salvation, God) and to know beyond our means (the future, the past, as God knows)? Can we accept that which we cannot know and that which we cannot control? And is such a life still meaningful to us? Are we Phils, or are we Annas and Simeons? As we await Christ’s return, and as we await the return of spring, perhaps these questions are better predictors of our happiness than asking a groundhog about the possibility of an early spring.
 Except for this theologian, who prefers Ghostbusters.