Groundhog Day has come to mean two different things. Will there be six more weeks of winter? … or something that is repeated over and over. C. S. Lewis probably would have liked both, as they’re instances of God walking around incognito.
Thousands of folks will converge today on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to witness whether a groundhog (Phil) sees his shadow. Six more weeks of winter weather if he does. No shadow means an early spring. But since the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, this day has also come to mean something that is repeated over and over. C. S. Lewis would say both traditions reflect a hidden God.
For instance, few know Groundhog Day has roots in the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to the Law of Moses, this ceremony was for Mary’s purification as well as the redemption of the firstborn son. Mary and Joseph also encountered Simeon, who was anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Over the years, all sorts of church traditions have celebrated The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2, forty days after Christmas. It’s for renewal, purification, and anticipates Christ’s return.
In Europe this tradition came to include clergy distributing beeswax candles during the evening service. The faithful would carry the flame out into the darkness, symbolically bringing light into the void. The candles came to be seen as anticipating how long and cold the winter would be. According to an old English song, if the candles brought weather “fair and bright,” winter was not going away—it would “have another flight.” If the candles brought “clouds and rain,” winter would “come not again.” Spring was close.
Germans expanded on this by selecting a hedgehog for predicting weather. In America, German settlers in Pennsylvania switched to groundhogs, which were plentiful. In 1887, a newspaper editor belonging to a group of groundhog hunters from Punxsutawney declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. In 1993, the film Groundhog Day added a second meaning. “Groundhog day” came to mean something that is repeated over and over.
These Groundhog Day traditions—anticipation and repetition—might sound like a far cry from the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. They aren’t. In 1940, at a literary society in Oxford, C. S. Lewis read a paper entitled “The Kappa Element in Romance.” (“Kappa” is the initial letter of the Greek word meaning “cryptic” or “hidden.”) In a fallen world, God hides his face so that we’re not incinerated. In this way, he romances us, accepting an inevitable “overlookability,” as Lewis put it. Not to worry. “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God,” Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm. “The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
Most of Lewis’s work features the Incognito God. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, winter is filled with anticipation but stuck in endless repetition. “Always winter, and never Christmas” is how Tumnus describes to Lucy what the White Witch has done. Lucy passes on the grim news to Edmund and later Peter. “Always winter and never Christmas” are, perhaps, the most famous words Lewis wrote. The endless repetition is broken when Aslan begins to stir. Winter begins to melt. Spring arrives.
This is why Groundhog Day, while long removed from Christ and candles, is a good thing. Will there be six more weeks of winter? echoes ancient longings for the return of Christ and the end of a cold, fallen world. Groundhog Day is redemptive as well. Bill Murray keeps repeating the same day over and over until he “gets it.” These two traditions—anticipation and repetition—are instances of God walking around incognito.
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