Yesterday, the 2nd February, the world – or at least Americans and a few international onlookers -celebrated Groundhog Day. Fifteen years ago Groundhog Day would have meant very little to most people, but the Columbia Pictures movie starring Bill Murray which is set on that very day has given it some level of notoriety.
The film was released in 1993. The main storyline in the film is about a man who wakes up every morning at the beginning of the day which has just ended. In the film he re-lives the same day every day. The day starts in exactly the same way, and over time he learns to live it better. Now obviously at the end of the film he finds some way out of this cycle that he is trapped in (probably because someone kisses him, I can’t quite remember). At any rate, what I do know is that the day that he re-lives over and over again is Groundhog Day — the 2nd February.
The legend of Groundhog Day is that on that day every year groundhogs come out of the holes in the ground which they have been in for their long winter sleep, in search of their shadows. If the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow it goes back into its hole for another six weeks, but if it does see its shadow it stays out because it knows that the winter hibernation season is over, and that spring
is on the way. Yesterday thousands of people gathered to watch for the first sighting of a groundhog in America, which will not make much sense to us here in Merewether (or indeed anywhere in Australia) because we do not have groundhogs in this country, and because we are in the middle of summer at this time of year, unlike countries in the northern hemisphere which are looking forward to the beginning of spring.
The whole Groundhog Day superstition has grown out of a much older tradition surrounding the feast which the Church around the world celebrates on that same day, and which we are celebrating this morning, because the 2nd February is not just Groundhog day it is the Christian celebration of Candlemass. And the much older legend surrounding Candlemass has in fact been the inspiration for Groundhog day itself. As an old Scottish song puts it: “If Candlemass be fair and bright, come winter have another flight. If Candlemass brings clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” Well, as only Americans could do, they transferred that longing for Spring to the obscure creatures groundhogs!
In medieval times Candlemass was the day on which priests blessed the supply of Church candles which would burn throughout the year, and when special blessed candles were given to parishioners to burn in their homes: Candlemass is the Eucharist of candles. There is a church in Reading in the UK which burns hundreds of candles on the altar during the Eucharist on Candlemass to keep the tradition alive each year. For the people of the past, who did not have our luxuries of electricity and gas, Candlemass was a powerful festival of hope in the cold and the dark of winter. It would have been a particularly powerful symbol of hope because by the beginning of February people living in the northern hemisphere have begun to see, albeit very slowly, the lengthening of days, and the first signs of spring. So there is a real hope that winter is coming to an end.
Candlemass has a number of different names. In our Anglican calendar we call it the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, other Christians have called it the Naming of Jesus, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Whichever name we use, the festival celebrates and remembers the wonderful account in the Gospel which we have just heard of Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus, taking him to the Temple to be offered to God as a baby. Joseph and Mary have come to offer a sacrifice in the Temple in recognition of the fact that they are offering their son for the service of God. A wealthy couple in those days would bring a lamb and a turtle-dove to be sacrificed; and poorer people would bring two turtle-doves, or if doves were not available (because they are migrating birds) pigeons would be offered in their place. To onlookers in the Temple on that day, these parents were just another provincial couple, who had come to Jerusalem to keep the Jewish religious law.
It is sometimes hard for us to remember that Jesus was not a Christian. Of course we know that he could not possibly have been because he could not be following himself, but when we hear about the Temple we need to remember that Mary and Joseph weren’t going to Church, as we have come here this morning. They were Jewish people worshipping in the Jewish religion. I think that that is so exciting! It means that those words which we heard from the letter to the Hebrews can be true. Jesus was not context-less, he was like we were, a baby born into a family, with a name, and a home, and a language, and an ethnicity, and a history. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested now.”
Jesus is a very Jewish name. In Hebrew it is very close indeed to the word for salvation. It is the same name as Joshua. And if we ever find ourselves forgetting Jesus’ Jewish-ness we need to return to this story to remind ourselves that he was very much a Jew, born into a Jewish family, offered to God in the Temple within the provisions of Jewish law. Given a Jewish name, and almost certainly having a Jewish nose. Those Eastern Christians who call this festival the Naming of Jesus are focusing on something important. This was the moment of his naming in the Temple: the moment when he would be revealed as “Salvation.”
This is a moment of deep significance in his life, because it is the fulfilment of what had been told to Mary by the Angel messenger. She was told that she would bear a son, and that she would call him Jesus, call him salvation, and in the Temple on this day he is named as the messenger had described so many months before. They are not doing this because Jesus is different from any other baby, on the contrary they are doing it because he is a normal little baby. And Jewish religious law stated that the first born son must be offered to God. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to name him, and to give thanks for him, and to offer him for the service of God. If you are wondering why this event in the life of Jesus is remembered on 2nd February, it is because this offering of the first born son took place in Judaism forty days after birth. And so if Jesus was born on 25th December, he was offered in the Temple forty days later; you can check my arithmetic.
His parents are not the only ones to name him on that day. As we heard a few moments ago, an old and righteous man named Simeon, knew that there was something different about this child. And Simeon took the baby in his arms when he saw him, and praising God, he said those words which have become known to us as the Nunc Dimittis. “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.”
Simeon says, “now I can die in peace, I have seen this baby the hope of salvation for all. For he is light of the world. He is Jesus — he is salvation.”
What an extraordinary scene! This Jesus who is so intimately connected with the God who has been worshipped in that Temple for so long, is now present there in the Temple in a new way, in flesh and blood. A symbol that a new age is dawning; that the first signs of spring (of hope) are on the way.
Just like those candles being lit in the darkness of winter-time as people wait for the hope of spring, Jesus shines out to Simeon, and then to Anna, as a light in the darkness. And 2,000 years later we continue to celebrate the revealing of that light today.
The first Christians (the earliest followers of Christ) were known as “Children of Light.” Light in the darkness has been a profound image of the power of the gospels, and the saving work of Christ for 2,000 years. At the heart of Candlemass we remember not only, that Jesus has ignited a light in this world which can never be quenched, never be darkened. We remember too, that it is through us (his Children of Light) that that light will continue to shine here in this Parish.
Right at the beginning of our baptismal re-creation, like all who have been baptised into the life and death of Christ we were called to “shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father.” We may have been called to be a doctor, teacher, father, mother, brother, sister. We may have been called to be a good neighbour, or someone who can be trusted in times of need. But our primary calling, laid upon us at our baptism, is to “shine as lights in the world” — lights shining in the darkness, proclaiming that in Christ there is hope, that the love of God will conquer.
Just as we remember this morning that Jesus was named “salvation” in the Temple, so we remember too our own calling, our own name, “children of light.” – children of the light of salvation. That is why this morning we will be given our own candles to take home with us from this place. Those candles are a two-fold symbol: they are symbols of Christ’s unquenchable light in the world, and they are a reminder to us that our own lives are the vehicle for that light shining in our own local community — we who are called to shine into the dark corners of this world. At the end of this Eucharist we will take our candles home, and burn them in our homes. To remind us that the light of Christ can never be extinguished, and to celebrate the fact that that light doesn’t just shine when we are here in Church — that light brightens the whole of our lives as well. Because the people who saw Jesus in the Temple, were to find out in years to come, that the presence of his light wasn’t restricted just to where we might expect to find it, in the Temple, in the place of religious worship. No, that light (just like the coming of Spring in a land of winter) has broken out all around us.
All of us who have been baptised are children of God, Children of the Light. God calls us to be a candle-people. People who burn with the light of Christ in the darkness. People who burn with hope, like those ancient Candlemass candles burning at the beginning of the Spring which will replace Winter. The Son of God is named “salvation” in the Temple, and today we are reminded that that saving light which he has brought to the world, shines on (like a candle burning in the darkness) through each one of us.