2024 02 04: Candlemas 2024

Posted on 05 Feb 2024

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Traditionally, February 2nd marks the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, known as the Presentation of Our Lord.  It is an ancient festival dating back to the 4th Century celebrating the Jesus Christ as the Light of the World. Regrettably, we live in a society today where the majority us are far more versed in the February 2nd commemoration of the groundhog seeing his shadow than Jesus being seen in the Temple. And you can blame this travesty on the Germans. They’re always as easy target.

In Germany, there was a folk tradition surrounding the Festival of the Presentation of Our Lord or Candlemas. February 2nd was known as Dachstag – Badger Day, with a saying that roughly translates as, “If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole.”

The German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania, brought this tradition with them.  Lutherans, Catholics, and Amish alike kept the tradition, except it became six weeks instead of four, and since there were no badgers or hedgehogs native to Pennsylvania, they adopted the groundhog instead. Thus the tradition of weather prognostication and Candlemas found its way into America, all except for the religious connection of Jesus prestation in the Temple.

In 1886, the longest lasting community celebration of Groundhog’s Day began in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This celebration inspired the 1993 romantic comedy of Groundhog’s Day with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The movie was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois.  My sisters and I stumbled upon the town a week ago on our way back from Chicago. The central character in the movie is a cynical and self-serving weatherman named, Phil Connors like the name of Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog. He records a half-hearted report on the day’s events, gets snowed in and retires to bed early only to wake up the next morning to find that he is living the same Groundhog Day again and again and again. Phil’s initial confusion gives way to despair, as he follows the same mindless routine and meets the same irritating people, day-in and day-out.. Feeling isolated and miserable, he starts to lose hope that anything will ever change. Yes, it is sort of the pandemic year 2020 all over again.

Phil, eventually recognizes that all his choices in life were according to what would serve him best, but never brought him any true joy, so he decides to change. He sets his focus on others and not himself.  They’re all small steps.  He chooses to give 100% of his energy to his job. He learns a new language. He helps strangers who need help. Studies piano. Treats people well, and in turn becomes a beloved town hero.  And he goes to sleep that on that “last” Groundhog Day, feeling exhausted as he recalls his many blessing, he is grateful and content. Phil must have finally seen his shadow, for when he wakes the next morning, the day has moved on to the 3rd of February, and the city of Punxsutawney is covered in a layer of fresh fallen snow.

It’s a bit ironic that the Groundhog Day movie and Candlemas should both fall on the same day. One focuses on a shadow while the other focuses on light. No doubt, we all have our Groundhog Days hibernating in shadowy places. Sometimes we go there by our own choices or actions and other times as a result of someone else’s action or circumstances.  Minutes become hours, hours turn into days, and days into weeks. Things just do not work out or change as we hope. Indeed, sometimes every decision and action that we make seems helpless and hopeless. Our patience is tried, and we just give in.

The old man Simeon in Jerusalem should have felt that way. After all, he journeyed faithfully to the Temple every day for years. He had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, but I don’t suspect that he had been given a specific date or time or place, so that he could enjoy the ongoing events of life until that appointed hour. Instead, he spent his whole life keeping both eyes wide open, looking for the Messiah everywhere, yes, returning to the Temple, day in and day out, and with every day unfolding in the same way, hoping and trusting that one day it would be come true.

The nation of Israel itself had endured an even longer Groundhog Day.  For 500 years Israel had been waiting for a Jewish Messiah. Generation after generation had experienced one foreign ruler after another. But Simeon knew the promises of scripture. According to Orthodox tradition, he was one of the 70 scholars who translated the Bible known as the Septuagint from Hebrew in Greek.  He especially knew the passages written by the prophet Isaiah.  “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Legend says that when Simeon was translating the words: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son,” he thought that “virgin” was inaccurate, and he wanted to correct the text to read “woman.” At that moment an angel appeared to him and held back his hand saying, “You shall see these words fulfilled. You shall not die until you behold Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.”

The promises of scriptures sustained Simeon throughout his long Groundhog Day. Finally, when that glorious moment came in Jerusalem’s Temple, Simeon experienced more than seeing just a child. He looked at Jesus and he saw his salvation. He saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. He saw the Lord’s Messiah, the Light of God’s glory, the freedom to depart in peace, the fullness of his own life and it fit him perfectly. That is the salvation that God longs to share with us this day as well.

So how do you and I, in our own Groundhog Days become more like Simeon who waited patiently and hoped longingly and did not lose heart?  Surprisingly, there may be a lesson or two to be drawn from that romantic comedy.

First of all, remember that “Anything different is good.” That is one of the closing lines in the movie. Many people become disheartened with God because they keep doing the same thing without knowing why.  Physicist Albert Einstein once said, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Anything different is good.  Simeon understood that, and instead of seeing only the sameness, he chose to seek God in the new things he witnessed every day.  He meditated on God’s promise of the consolation of Israel, while he kept this hope alive by reading and listening to the words of scripture and searching for the new shadows. God’s ways are not our ways, so you need to keep your eyes open and searching for the shadow of that something yet to come.

Then, when you do see something different, be prepared to share the good news with others boldly- even if it is the smallest act of charity and love. The simple act of counting one’s blessings increases satisfaction and fulfillment with life. In sharing the story, you yourself will be strengthened and changed, and a new day of life will be given- perhaps even a fresh new winter snow.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Roman Williams once said, “The mission of the church is seeing what God is doing and joining in.” My friends, you and I must join in and act on what we believe will be a brighter future- even if your actions seem to be small of steps.  For once your begin to reflect the true light of Christ, you will discover that your life and the world around will be changed as well. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.