Dear Brothers and sisters – Today we celebrate – Groundhog Day. Some of us also celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, but I couldn’t work that into today’s homily. I don’t follow sports well enough to make a metaphor out of it. So Groundhog Day is it. The idea of Groundhog Day is that if a groundhog comes out of its burrow and sees its shadow, then there will be more winter. If it doesn’t see its shadow, spring is on the way. I’ve tried to put this together logically, and think that maybe it’s because on the very coldest days, the sky is cloudless, while on warmer days it’s more liable to be cloudy. I don’t know. At any rate, what’s important for the point of this homily is that it marks the end of something and the beginning of something else – the end of winter, whether soon or in six weeks, and the beginning of the road to spring.
The fact that we mark Groundhog Day on the 2nd of February is not entirely arbitrary. This day, today, marks the exact mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. If the days do not necessarily grow warmer right away, we at least notice that the sun rises earlier and sets later. Of course this has been happening all along, ever since the winter solstice, but now is the time we really start to notice it. So, in Western Europe, this day became a festival of light. A celebration of the return of the light. It used to be the custom to light candles in the windows of all the houses on this day, a sign that the light is overcoming the darkness. We ourselves continue this tradition, as is abundantly evident from the candles in our hands.
Light overcomes darkness. Isn’t that the basic Christian message? Light overcomes darkness, good overcomes evil, life overcomes death. This is the reason Christ came into the world—as it says in the reading from Hebrews today, “that through death he might destroy the one who has power of death, that is, the Devil.”
But of course, the main celebration today, the one announced at the top of your programs, is the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. As a side note, this is also known as the feast of the Purification of Mary. According to the law of Moses, each woman who has given birth must wait for 40 days to be purified. This is why we celebrate this day as a feast of Mary in our regular offices, skipping our regular Marian antiphons, since the whole day is dedicated to her. Anyway, getting back to the Presentation, according to the Mosaic law, a first-born son or daughter must be consecrated to God, or redeemed by a sacrifice. This is because of the events of the Passover, when God killed the first-born of every animal and family in the whole of Egypt, except the firstborn of the Israelites who had marked their houses with the blood of the sacrificial lamb.
This feast, the Presentation, marks a further epiphany of Jesus, a time when his true nature is revealed. There are several epiphanies in Jesus’ life – we celebrate some at the actual feast of the Epiphany, but there are others, including this one. They each mark the end of something and the beginning of something else. If we look closely at Simeon’s speech, we see that it falls into two distinct sections. In the first, he gives thanks to God for the end of his long wait, for the end of the darkness in which the world has lived up till now and the beginning of an era of light. He identifies the infant Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel.” The end of darkness, and the beginning of light. In the second part of his speech, he moves into the future. This is not nearly as comforting as the first part. He says that Christ will be “a sign that will be contradicted.” Speaking presumably to Mary, he tells her “a sword shall pierce your own soul.” (Our translation reads, “You yourself a sword will pierce,” but the Greek says “Kai sou auths thn psyxhn” – psyche generally referring to the soul, and most translations keep this meaning). Not consoling at all. We know the meaning of these words, since we know the end of the story. Light will overcome darkness, life will overcome death, but not before great tragedy, the eventual suffering and death of this little infant.
In order for light to overcome darkness, there has to be darkness in the first place. And the journey from darkness to light is not without struggle. In our first reading today, from the prophet Malachi, we read “Who will endure the day of his coming?” For “he is like the refiners fire….He will sit refining and purifying silver…refining them like gold or like silver.” The process of refining was time consuming and exacting. It involved melting the metal in question and then skimming off the dross, or the impurities, which either rose to the surface or sank to the bottom. This had to be done repeatedly, as we sing in Psalm 11 – “like silver from the furnace, seven times refined.” So, to extend the metaphor to ourselves, for us to be refined is a fairly painful experience, involving a lot of heat.
This process is also known as testing – a small amount of a substance was melted in a crucible, and its purity was revealed. So to test a substance is to find its true nature, how pure it is. This refining or testing happens to all of us, whether we sign up for it or not. We may be used to thinking of a test as some unpleasant measuring process imposed on us by cranky teachers. But actually, the purpose of a test is not to see whether we are successful or a failure, but to see what we really know. At its best, a test simply tells us where we are, what we have learned and what we still need to learn. Tests help us along the way by telling us the truth about ourselves. Life itself is a crucible for testing us, which is why none of us can avoid it. At times this refining might seem like one long darkness, though of course the refiner’s fire also gives off light, though we may not be conscious of it. We all have to endure hardship, sometimes financial hardship, almost always hardship in relationships, and at some point or another, hardship in the form of the loss of loved ones. All of these experiences can make us better people, more compassionate to others whom we now know suffer as well. We are all of us in the same situation – everyone’s life has its share of hardship and tragedy. Our compassion toward others and our growing reliance on God to guide us through these dark times are the way we grow in this life. As it says in Hebrews, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” We can rely on Christ, because Christ knows all about suffering. As we know, Christ himself was tested in the Garden of Gethsemani when he asked that, if possible, he might be spared the cup of suffering. As we know, he accepted this bitter cup.
It may be difficult for us to see Christ in the middle of being purified, in the middle of our suffering. And in fact, it may not be possible without the help of the Holy Spirit. As we see in our Gospel reading, the Holy Spirit enabled Simeon to see the true nature of the little baby in front of him. In other passages, the spirit reveals Christ to others – at the baptism, for example, in the form of a dove. And the mysterious star that guides the wise men from the east to the newborn Christ – could that not be the Holy Spirit? We can rely on Christ to be with us in the midst of our suffering, whether we see him or not, and we can rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal him to us when we most need it. Often this will not be in the form of a star or a dove or a direct revelation, but in the unexpected kindness of a neighbour, a sister or brother, or even a stranger, a moment in which we can see Christ shining through another person. And we in turn can become Christ to others, by letting the compassion which we have learned through our own suffering shine through us.
Today’s feast marks the end of the grip of winter, of darkness, on the world and the beginning of the spring thaw, the coming of the light. As we hold our candles, may we remember that we too can be that light to others, since Christ lives in us and we in him, that we can show Christ to others in the form of our own compassion.