Today is an important day on the Church calendar, the day of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple. This day is considered so important that if it falls on a Sunday, it preempts the regular readings for that day. (That happens with only two other feast days, The Holy Name on January 1, and the Transfiguration on August 6).
Of course, today is also Groundhog Day. Legend has it that if a groundhog in Pennsylvania sees its shadow when it emerges from its hole (as it did today) we’ll have six more weeks of winter.
Groundhog Day and the Feast of the Presentation are both 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 story of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is told in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. It was customary for faithful Jewish women to take their infants to the Temple 40 days after giving birth. The mother has been ritually purified, her body has rested from the ordeal of labor, and now she may be received in the Temple and return to corporate worship. 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. We also know they are poor because they offer two pigeons as a sacrifice. The law calls for a sheep, 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 surprised when 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 arrives he sees something that all the others gathered in that crowded place overlook — this peasant couple holding their infant son.
Simeon knows without a doubt that this is why the Spirit has called him to the Temple. He takes the child from his mother’s arms and begins to praise God.
Those of you who were regulars at Compline will recognize Simeon’s words:
“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 recognizes as 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 fasting and praying. One can imagine that people 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 infant, who looks no different from any other child, 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 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 candlelight procession through town at night, proclaiming the 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, Jesus, and shadows.
A shadow did fall across Jesus and Mary. 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.”
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 live in the shadow’s darkness.
“Jesus will bring truth to light,” Bible scholar Fred Craddock says. “But in doing so 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?