Tomorrow is Groundhog day here in Pennsylvania. Each year on February 2nd thousands of people flock to the sleepy little town of Punxsutawney to watch as a chunky little critter named Phil is yanked out of his den at the first light of dawn and made to prognosticate the start of the coming spring. Everyone is anxious to see if Phil will see his shadow because that’s how he makes his weather prediction. The poor little creature is hoisted into the air in front of a huge crowd of revelers, onlookers and town council members. The officials are dressed in old fashioned tuxedoes and top hats reminiscent of nineteenth century undertakers. There is band music and national media swarming all over Gobbler’s Knob. A good part of the crowd has been enjoying adult beverages for a while already to “keep themselves warm” in the frigid sunrise. All in all it’s a good excuse to party in the middle of a long dark winter and folks enjoy it. Phil apparently whispers his verdict to the president of the groundhog club, who announces it to the world. Instantly the pronouncement goes to news outlets all over the world. When it’s all over the town goes back to normal and the people of Punxsutawney go about their business again.
Even before “Groundhog Day” became a classic movie in the 1993 we were well aware of the tradition here in Pennsylvania. We didn’t pay much attention to it and shrugged it off as another strange Pennsylvania Dutch custom. My father, although he wasn’t a native Pennsylvanian, wasn’t so quick to dismiss it. Daddy grew up on a small family farm in southern rural Indiana during the depression. It was important that a farmer knew and understood the cycles and movements of the natural world. They were accustomed to noticing small, almost insignificant things that the rest of the world was unable to see or was too busy to notice. When there are no grocery stores around it’s a matter of survival that they pay attention to the signs around them.
Daddy knew how to interpret the different colors of the sky and the significance of the timing of the last snowfall. He could smell things in the wind that I couldn’t smell and could tell by the position of blowing leaves that a storm was coming. He could take a pinch of dirt between his fingers and analyze the quality of the soil. And he would notice things about the behaviour of the little animals in the woods around us.
February 2nd is also the Feast of the Presentation. Mary and Joseph bring their infant son to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord as was prescribed by the law. There they are met by Simeon, a just man who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Simeon took the baby in his arms and began to prophecy. “Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant, for my own eyes have seen your salvation.” “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.” Luke 2:29-35. How did he know?
Simeon was looking for a sign of God’s promise and he recognized it when he saw it. Others who may have seen this family entering the temple carrying a pair of turtle doves would have assumed that they were only a poor couple who couldn’t afford a lamb for the sacrifice. Joseph and his wife would have been barely noticed. They were nothing special about them. They didn’t wear fine clothes, own property, have any influence in the temple, and they weren’t especially learned. No one would have noticed the lamb in Mary’s arms, Christ the Lamb of God. But Simeon did. He was looking for it.
February 2nd is also known as Candlemas Day, the Church blesses the candles that will be used at Masses, Baptisms, Confirmations, and Anointings. Candles are important to the rites and rituals of the Church as a sign of the presence of Christ, the light of the world, who saves us from the darkness of sin and death.
The signs of the presence of Christ in the world are all around us. It’s often easy to overlook them, but they are there. Am I looking for them? If I would have seen Mary and Joseph carrying the King of heaven and earth into the temple, would I have missed him completely?
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.” — old English song
It’s been a long winter and I’m ready for winter to be over. I hope Phil needs an umbrella tomorrow.