February 2 Co-incidence?

(written 2/2/20)


Forty days after Christ was born, our Lady and St. Joseph followed the prescription of Exodus 13:1-2: The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me.’ [Spanish]

Why perform the ceremony? We read, in that same chapter of Exodus:

If your son should ask you later on, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall tell him, ‘With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, that place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every first-born in the land of Egypt, every first-born of man and of beast. That is why I sacrifice to the Lord everything of the male sex that opens the womb, and why I redeem every first-born of my sons.’ Let this, then, be as a sign on your hand and as a pendant on your forehead: with a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:14-16)

Faithful Israelites kept this law of the Old Covenant to remind themselves that they owed everything to the Lord—their land, their freedom, their nation—everything. Our Lady and St. Joseph cherished these words of Scripture. They dutifully obeyed this law, as we read in the holy gospel, on the fortieth day after Christmas.

Now, up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, they have a famous groundhog. Named Phil. Every year, on the fortieth day after Christmas, the nation wonders: Maybe the Lord will give us an early spring? All attention focuses on the groundhog, and whether or not Phil will see his shadow when he emerges from hibernation. All this on the same day we Catholics keep this holy feast of Candlemas, when we travel spiritually to the Temple in Jerusalem to encounter the baby Jesus, like Simeon the priest encountered Him.

Is it some kind of unbelievable co-incidence that these two events occur on the same date? Candlemas and Groundhog Day—both February 2. Just a co-incidence? Negative. It’s no co-incidence.

Rembrandt SimeonWay before Punxsutawney Phil the hibernating groundhog—many centuries ago—in Austria and Hungary, they looked for the hibernating bears to awake on Candlemas Day. Since they were Christians, they understood a hibernating bear waking up from its winter’s rest in a spiritual way. They saw an image of the resurrection of the body, through the triumph of Christ over death.

To us the whole business of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow—it might seem weird. But it has this ancient Christian origin. The Europeans of former centuries thought: if the hibernating bear sees his shadow, that meant he had not fully put off his soul in death. Therefore, the bear could not yet represent Christ’s resurrection. So springtime had to wait another six weeks. But if the bear emerges with no shadow, that means the sleep of death has run its course. The waking bear represents the resurrection of the body. Time for spring.

Now, the actual bears and groundhogs involved in all this could hardly make any sense out of it. They cannot grasp the Christian spiritual interpretation of the passage from winter to spring. But we can make perfect sense out of it. Especially when we meditate carefully on the mystery of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple.

When our Lady and St. Joseph brought the baby to the Temple to present Him to the Father, “Simeon took the child into his arms and blessed God, saying: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:27-32)

The picture of Simeon receiving the Lord Jesus in his arms and rejoicing with pure faith: that image explains the spiritual meaning of the hibernating animals waking up from the sleep of winter.

Simeon rejoiced because he knew by faith that his long wait was over. The Messiah had come. The day of salvation has arrived. That mystery unlocks for us the true meaning of everything we experience on earth. God has destined us for eternity. The incarnate Son of God has conquered death for us.

To imitate Simeon is the true spiritual goal of February 2. To receive Christ into our hearts with pure faith, to rejoice that the day of salvation has come, and to rest our minds and hearts in the Good News. That is the unending springtime of Christian life.

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