February 2nd in America is, of course, known as Groundhog Day.
As holidays go, it’s pretty weird, though objectively speaking I suppose it’s no weirder than Guy Fawkes’ Day in Britain. Traditionally, if a groundhog (large burrowing rodent) sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, there will be four (six?) more weeks of winter.
So, divination of annual weather changes based on the actions of an overgrown rat, then. Ok…
Weirder still, at some time in the legendary past, the Pennsylvanian town of Punxatawney elected itself Keeper of the Official Groundhog, Punxatawney Phil. And Pennsylvania being a very cold place with the coldest sort of snow and ice all over it, the town council of course manipulate events so that it is impossible for Punxatawney Phil to see his shadow, thus “guaranteeing” an early spring.
Punxatawney is itself an odd-sounding name in English, but it pales into normality beside some British place names. Like Husbands Bosworth (Leicestershire), Cold Christmas (Hertfordshire), Ugley (Essex), or my personal favourite, Spital-in-the-Street (Lincolnshire). And I guess as a way to put your town on the map, it’s better than some of the alternatives. Like Obesity Capital of the USA, or being known for prostitution or vice.
But it’s still a weird holiday.
Reading up on it, apparently it came in with the Scandinavian settlers, who brought it in from those cold climes in which a badger or similar was used and which generally speaking follow the pattern that sunny days at the beginning of February harbinger cold weather to come.
Americans, being rabid borrowers of other people’s culture (something I think they got from us and raised to the nth power), took it and put their own spin on it.
Moving beyond the surface weirdness, though, it’s an interesting reflection on hope.
In the cold wilds of Scandinavia and the northern states of the US, winters are long and hard. It’s dark for a massive proportion of the day, there’s a blanket of ice and snow on everything, the skies are grey as likely as not and the trees are brown and bare. It’s a hard, cold, mostly lifeless world.
But at the beginning of February we’re heading into the final stretch of deep winter before the spring begins to arrive. We’re past the shortest day of the year and the daylight has been slowly increasing enough to let the first tendrils of a change of season be felt.
And at this time of year comes Groundhog Day. An expression of hope for a change of season.
It all strikes me as rather similar to our position as followers of Jesus in these days between Pentecost and the Second Coming. The world is cold and dark, largely. There are some showings of compassion, some stirrings of life, but you only have to open a newspaper to see that it’s a fallen world in the grip of sin and selfishness.
But there are those signs of an Age to Come. The grace of God poured out on His people to overcome sin and show His power in the world. Miracles and wonders do happen, even if we don’t see them very often.
Unlike Punxatawney, we don’t have any spiritual groundhog that we can manipulate into guaranteeing that Christ will return in our generation. We know that He’s coming, and like the spring, we know that it’s soon. The one sign we’re told with certainty is that “this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in all nations as a testimony, and then the end will come” (Mt 24:14).
Want to hasten the Coming of the Lord? Preach the Gospel. Particularly, preach the Gospel where it has not yet been proclaimed.