Punxsutawney Phil can thank Catholic culture and tradition for his notoriety. In national lore, Phil, America’s favorite rodent, has been prognosticating longer winters or early springs since the late 19th century. The tradition of Groundhog Day comes from a German tradition, via the Pennsylvania Deutsch, of a badger being the weather predictor. Both are secularizations of an old Candlemas tradition, a feast that goes back to the 4th century. There is an old rhyme that says: If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, go winter, and come not again.
This Sunday, February 2nd, we celebrate the 40th day since Christmas with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The Church remembers that, in fulfillment of the Levitical law (Lev. 12:1-8), having circumcised Jesus on the 8th day, the Holy Family came into the Temple to complete Mary’s purification as commanded by the law and to offer the proper sacrifice because of the newborn Jesus. The Feast of the Presentation’s more traditional name is Candlemas, literally meaning the Mass of Candles, because this is also the day when the Church traditionally blesses all her candles for the coming year. Candles are blessed on this feast because Jesus is the light that has come into the world, a light even for the Gentiles, as Simeon states and is recorded for us in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
Luke’s narrative of the Presentation introduces us to Simeon and Anna. We are told that Anna was eighty-four years old, was a prophetess, and remained in the Temple constantly. Luke does not recount an encounter between her and the Holy Family but we can deduce that it happened because tells us that Anna “spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem,” and this encounter must have brought her great joy. Luke does recount for us Simeon’s encounter with the infant Jesus and the mystery that God had made a personal promise to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. After many years of waiting, God’s promise to Simeon is fulfilled and Simeon’s response is one of a prayer of praise that heralds who this child is and what this child shall be. This prayer or Canticle of Simeon, known in Latin as the Nunc Dimittis, is central to the Church’s life of prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and is prayed at the end of every day in the Church’s night prayer.
From whether or not winter will end early, to Simeon’s heralding of the infant Jesus as a light of revelation, to the blessing of candles, the Feast of the Presentation is a feast of light; not just any light, but Christ who is the light who has come to scatter the darkness. Unlike Simeon, we don’t have to wait for the light to appear. The Lord Jesus remains. He is always present to us, especially in our darkest times, but we, as disciples, must make the conscious choice to walk with Him who is Light from Light.
The light of Christmas in the crèche and the poinsettias and the trees, all these things now finally fade away at the end of these forty days, but not our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the true light of Christmas that knows no season, in whom there is no darkness, and who seeks to show us the way each and every day. May we cooperate with the grace of God given to us so that we might follow the Light wherever He leads us, ultimately home to the Father.
Father Christopher House is the Rector of the Cathedral and serves in various leadership roles within the diocesan curia, namely Chancellor and Vicar Judicial.