Recently our church’s Christian Life Center (Gym) had a visitor, a small bat. The bat had somehow made it into the building and was spotted one morning zipping around, flying in tight little circles all around the CLC. Word of the bat spread through the church staff till many dropped what they were doing to come and help try to wrangle the small mammal into a net so it could be taken outside and released. If you have ever had a similar experience with a bat in a large building, you can imagine what a spectacle it was. You also can imagine that all church programs normally using the gym were stopped until the unwanted guest could be escorted out.
This brought to mind another small mammal that all North American Christians have encountered. This small mammal has also strangely entered into the church to disrupt and often influence our programming– perhaps even our worship: The Easter Bunny. I’m not going to rail against the Easter Bunny. However, it is interesting to me that the Easter Bunny is not the only small mammal that has come through secular culture to disrupt and even derail important expressions of Christian worship. Enter the Groundhog.
Somewhere in the past, I overheard a church history professor explaining to someone how Groundhog Day is actually covering up a date that formerly was quite important to all Christians. My interest was peaked. Groundhog Day is 40 days after Christmas. This coincidence has never occurred to me. 40 days are very important in Scripture. It rained on the earth for 40 days during Noah’s time on the ark. For 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert preceding his public ministry. Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after His resurrection. And Mary, 40 days after giving birth to Jesus, was considered ceremonially cleansed from the birth process enough to come out of her home and present herself and the child at the Temple. Many Christians are familiar with the stories of the infant Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and the interactions with both Simeon and the prophetess Anna. These are the stories of Presentation Day or as many know it, Candlemas. As many more know it, Groundhog Day.
What Exactly is Candlemas?
Just as 40 days after Christ’s resurrection we remember Christ’s Ascension, so 40 days after Christmas we commemorate Jesus’ presentation at the Temple.
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” -Luke 2:22-24 (NIV)
The other significant parts of this story are the Holy Family’s interactions with Simeon and Anna. Scripture tells that the prophetess Anna, a faithful 84-year-old woman, blessed the infant Jesus and testified to all around concerning his significance. Scripture describes Simeon as a man in Jerusalem who was righteous and devout and that the Holy Spirit was upon him as he waited for the consolation of Israel.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. -Luke 2:26-27 (NIV)
Scripture goes on to report that as soon as Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the Temple courts “to do for him what the custom of the Law required,” Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. Simeon’s praise is written in the form of a song. As a song, it has been treasured as a canticle of scripture and for centuries it has been set to music, given the title Nunc dimittis. Within Simeon’s canticle is the theme of Christ as a “Light to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). The theme of Christ as a light inspired the worship services commemorating this day. Services usually include the use of candles which help give it the name, Candlemas. One of the ways many Christians celebrate in these services is by bringing candles from home that will be used later in family worship. Another practice is for churches to distribute candles in the service meant for use in family worship throughout the following year. This worship celebration closes off the season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the same way that Ascension closes off the redemptive cycle of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. These days the observance of Candlemas is not as prominent as it was in past times. As with some other important occurrences in the Christian year, the remembrance of Christ’s presentation at the Temple has been sadly forgotten and in this incident, inexplicably replaced with a woodchuck.
How did this happen?
How is it that Christians traded this symbolically rich and meaningful time of worship for the spectacle of cameras and crowds around a groundhog hole? There are a few explanations. There is some evidence that pagan European cultures used badgers as a clue predicting the end of winter, thus determining the best time to plant spring crops. Also, because of dueling calendars, there were two competing methods for calculating the astronomical end of winter and beginning of spring. The badgers began serving as the tie-breaker for this dispute. Years later, the ancient superstition/pseudoscience of badger watching was still mentioned in poems and songs from several Northern European cultures. These poems all referred to the timing of the badgers in relation to Candlemas. Overtime, the well accepted and valued remembrance of Candlemas lost ground to the quaint pagan weather prognostication of the badger. This was brought to North America and transferred to the groundhog.
Why does this matter?
I wrote an article several months ago on the topic, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, which means, the way we worship shapes our faith. When our worship services, even for purposes of evangelism and seeker-sensitivity, begin to resemble secular culture more than the Gospel, we can end up sacrificing things that should never be lost. Groundhog Day is a great example of this. Somewhere along the way, our fathers and mothers in the faith lost their will to observe and remember some parts of our faith story. Candlemas can be a meaningful and memorable worship service involving prayer, scripture, music and candles that reminding believers Christ is the light of creation. As worshipers re-tell the story of his presentation at the Temple, they remember that Christ came to redeem all of creation. Just as Jesus was formally presented to the world, we as believers are also presented by God to minister to a hurting and dying world.
Modern Western Christians (mainly we evangelicals) may be the inheritors of a faith that has been sadly stripped of some of the jewels that were meant to help us become more like Christ. It doesn’t have to stay that way. In past times, particularly ancient ones, it was more common for believers to orient the way they experienced time, not according to secular culture, but around the important stories of their faith. This is how observance of the Christian year began. When and what we do in worship is extremely important. Robert Webber wrote,
We are now called to live in the pattern of his death and resurrection. And it is Christian-year spirituality that helps us live in our baptism, for it is ultimately an ordering of our lives into the pattern of dying to sin and being raised to the new life in Christ.
February 2nd may be a day that popular Western culture gathers to pull a blinking and confused groundhog from its hole. But I encourage believers to meditate on the stories of Candlemas. I encourage Christians to examine the special days in your personal calendar. Are they generated by the transient whims of popular culture or by the timeless and holy stories of our faith? I also encourage believers to have times of family worship in your homes. There are numerous websites and books with great ideas for fun and engaging ways that families can worship together– rehearsing the stories of our faith. Let’s orient our lives around things more important than a groundhog.
Connell, Martin. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year, volume 1. New York, NY. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
Stookey, Laurence H. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN. Abingdon Press, 1996.
Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Publishing Group, 2004.