A number of events collide on the calendar today.
My guess is that to most of the country today is first and foremost Super Bowl Sunday, a day when even people who are not football fans find themselves in front of a television, maybe surrounded by friends and food, cheering for a team they know nothing about.
Today is also Groundhog Day. Sometime this morning a groundhog in Pennsylvania will come out of its hole and blink at the cameras surrounding it waiting to see if it sees its shadow, something to which it is probably oblivious.
Legend has it that if the groundhog sees its shadow before heading back into its hole we’ll have six more weeks of winter. If not, spring will be early that year.
And then there’s the church calendar, which celebrates not football or groundhogs today, but the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple.
Super Bowl Sunday’s date is variable, but Groundhog Day and the Feast of the Presentation are always on February 2, which prompted this joke in seminary – that if baby Jesus sees his shadow in the Temple today we’ll have six more weeks of winter.
The Feast of the Presentation is on the 40th day after Christmas.
Forty is an auspicious biblical number, beginning in the Book of Genesis with Noah’s Ark and the rains that poured for 40 days, flooding the earth. The people of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness after they were freed from slavery, until they finally reached the Promised Land.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness with nothing to eat or drink after his baptism, which is where we get our 40 days of Lent. Forty days after his resurrection he ascended into heaven.
In Jesus’ day it was customary for faithful Jewish women to go with their infants to the Temple 40 days after giving birth. The mother has been ritually purified after giving birth, her body has rested from the ordeal of labor, and now she may be received in the Temple and return to corporate worship.
And if the infant is a first born male, he is offered to God on this day as the first fruits of the marriage, and then redeemed by offering a sacrifice to take his place.
By engaging in these rituals we know that Mary and Joseph are obedient to the laws of their faith. And we also know that they are poor, because they offer two pigeons as a sacrifice. The law calls for a sheep to be sacrificed, but the poor are allowed this lesser offering.
The Temple is a busy place, with crowds of people coming and going. A poor peasant couple with a baby was not likely to draw any attention. They are not people of wealth or importance.
So Mary and Joseph must have been shocked when suddenly an old man approaches them.
Simeon is described as righteous and devout, full of the Holy Spirit, who has promised him he will not die until he sees the Messiah. On this day, he feels the insistent nudge that he should go to the Temple, and he obeys the Spirit’s pull.
When he goes into the Temple he sees something that all the others gathered in that crowded place have overlooked – this peasant couple holding their infant son.
Simeon knows without a doubt that this is what the Spirit has brought him to the Temple to see. He takes the child from his mother’s arms and begins to praise God.
“Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
An old man, now ready to die, holding a six-week old baby who he knows is the Messiah.
No sooner has Simeon spoken when Mary and Joseph are approached by an old woman. The widow Anna never leaves the Temple, but spends night and day there praying and fasting.
One can imagine that if people notice her at all they probably think she is a little crazy.
But when she sees this baby, she, too, begins to praise God, proclaiming that this child is the redemption of Jerusalem.
Simeon and Anna, an old man and woman, faithful and devout, take one look at this baby, who looks no different from any other baby, and see the truth.
The extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary, and that realization fills them with joy and hope, for the light of the world is before their eyes.
The Feast of the Presentation is also known as Candlemas, a celebration of the light of the world in Jesus.
Beginning in the fourth century, Christians would bring the candles they planned to use for the whole year to church to be blessed on this day that is midway between the winter and spring equinox.
In many places, the Candlemas celebration included a candlelit procession through town at night, proclaiming light in the midst of a cold and dark winter.
At some point in Germany, a hedgehog was introduced into the Candlemas tradition. Whether the hedgehog could see its shadow was a predictor of the length of winter.
When Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s there were no hedgehogs, but they carried on the tradition with a groundhog.
Which brings us back to groundhogs, and Jesus, and shadows.
Because there was a shadow that fell across Jesus and his mother that day in the Temple. After praising God and declaring that this child was the Messiah, Simeon had words for Mary.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed,” he says.
And then I imagine he looks at Mary with sadness as he adds, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Simeon knows light creates shadows, and there are always those who prefer to hide in the shadow’s darkness.
“Jesus will bring truth to light,” Biblical scholar Fred Craddock says. “But in so doing he throws all who come into contact with him into a crisis of decision – will we move toward the truth, toward the light, toward God – or will we back away?”
That is the question for us this Groundhog’s Day.
Will we walk as children of the light?
Or will we be ruled by the shadows?