I’m ambivalent about February.
On the one hand, I’m starting to get pretty tired of winter by the end of February (and don’t even get me started
about late March!). But then again, February’s signature holiday is Valentine’s Day, and it’s “Heart Month” for the American
Heart Association (the Cardiac Rehab unit in Penn Yan festoons all the exercise equipment and walls with hearts,
not too surprisingly).
This year, with Easter being so early, it turns out Ash Wednesday is on February 14. The “Things They Didn’t
Teach Us in Seminary” Facebook group I follow finds this rather funny. One priest said that since the season of Lenten
penitence doesn’t technically begin for a believer until the imposition of ashes, she was thinking of having their Ash
Wednesday service late in the evening, like at 10:30 pm, so as not to cramp members’ romantic dinners and her consumption
of chocolate. Seems good to me.
But then there is the other grand holiday, Ground Hog Day. This one is more important in our household since
my son was born on February 2nd. Yes, he has heard all the jokes.
Other people pay attention to that whole carnival around Punxsutawney, PA where groundhog celebrity Phil
“predicts” the end of winter by whether he sees his shadow or not. Of course, with all the TV lights glaring, I expect him
to. I also expect 12 more weeks of winter just because I’ve lived in upstate NY for so long….
While joking (I thought) with someone about groundhogs and how to make that a newsletter pondering, that
person suggested something about how Christians should not be spooked by the shadows. I liked that. At the other
end of Lent is Holy Week, with Good Friday and Easter. The Crucifixion is the most cosmic of shadows, yet it sets up
the most cosmic of sunrises, the resurrection of Christ from death. The spooky shadows of this world simply cannot
match the glory of God’s love. So, by extension, we Christians should not be spooked by shadows any day of the year,
for we live in the grace of Christ. In the valleys of shadow, we fear no evil.
Yet as I got thinking more about it, many churches succumb to an ironic variation on being afraid of the shadow.
Like the folklore of Punxsutawney Phil and his rodent sisters and brothers seeing their own shadows and ducking back
into their holes, a whole bunch of churches are skittish and panicky about their own shadows and scurry backwards into
their safe little hiding places in their buildings, afraid to come out again. Sadly, some don’t come out for another six
weeks or even six years or six decades. Instead of walking in the light, they get spooked by their own shadows.
And the worst part of it is that you only get shadows (for groundhogs or Christians or churches) because the
light is shining! And if you are looking scared at your own shadow, it means you are probably not looking at the light of
God’s love. The spiritual discipline which aids you when you are afraid of the darkness is to turn toward God’s care and
hope and grace and love. It can be hard sometimes, but when you are worried, turn around and reverse your gaze to
see the God who loves you— not the problems that fear focuses on.
The other reference for this time of year is the 1993 movie, “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, Andie Mac-
Dowell, and Chris Elliott. An annoying, arrogant, obnoxious weathercaster unhappily goes to cover Phil, only to discover
the next day is a repeat, and so is the next, and he ends up in a weird time warp, fated to reliving Groundhog Day.
After many repetitions, beginning with the same alarm clock, he starts to try new things and learns some new skills and
begins to behave slightly differently, and he realizes that he’s in an endless loop until he figures out what to do right. At
the end he gets his choices right and his life begins to progress. I’ve seen lots of churches doing the same thing over
and over and over and expecting the proverbial different results, getting caught in a permanent loop, going nowhere.
The good news from “Groundhog Day” is that if you try to learn something about the world and yourself a little bit each
day, you will finally break out of your rut and start living. God keeps giving us new chances, even when it seems like we
are in the same old place, until we suddenly “get it” and get on with it.
So I challenge this congregation this February to wish each other Happy Valentine’s Day and share the love,
not to get spooked by shadows but head toward the sunlight, to use Lent as a time of reflection and penitence to embrace
the sunlight, and to let God surprise us with new days of new hope and growth!