Groundhog Day

wheeler 1-_APN4878-EditFebruary is a strange month. Of course it’s the shortest month, but there’s more. When February arrives, the anticipation and celebration of Christmas and the New Year – exhilarating for some, full of anxiety for others, a mixture of emotions for still others – are receding in the rear view mirror. The days tend toward cold, gray and wet and spring seems a distant fantasy. The one standard issue holiday occurring in February, Valentine’s Day, is as laden with ambiguity as Christmas. It’s no accident that Portland’s annual “Worst Day of the Year” bike ride is scheduled for February.

But there is a modest and whimsical little holiday – one that doesn’t take itself too seriously – that pops up every February: Groundhog Day. (It has always been well noted in our family because it’s my Dad’s birthday; he’ll be 99 this February 2.) You know the story. The groundhog sticks his head out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow, expect six more weeks of winter. 2014 was the warmest year in 135 years of modern meteorological data, climatic zones and seasons are shifting; I wonder if the groundhog knows that.

The classic celebration of Groundhog Day takes place each year in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town northeast of Pittsburgh, where Punxsutawney Phil is hauled out of his burrow before the assembled masses to see his shadow or not. As whimsical as this event is, its celebration is rooted in the deep history of annual renewal rituals which includes pagan celebrations of the spring equinox and our own Easter observances. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, even in February.

One of my favorite movies is the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays Phil Connor, an arrogant and self-absorbed news broadcaster who feels that his Groundhog Day assignment in Punxsutawney is beneath him; MacDowell is Rita Hanson, an attractive and well grounded member of his news team who resists his clumsy advances.

Inexplicably, Phil Connor finds himself in a time loop, waking up every day at 6 AM to “You Got Me, Babe” on the clock radio and a new iteration of February 2. Through innumerable Groundhog Days he pursues pleasure, gives in to despair and fails repeatedly at suicide. He always wakes up to a new Groundhog Day. Eventually he begins to take an interest in the other inhabitants of his everlasting February 2 in Punxsutawney, rescuing some, befriending others, learning from others. Having a precise itinerary of every “new” day, he gains a great power to anticipate, help and please. He even learns the hopes and dreams of Rita, his romantic interest, and begins to win her affection. (Of course it all disappears at the end of the day.) When he finally spends one magic day with Rita, genuinely caring for her, the spell is broken, and he wakes up to the new possibilities of February 3.

This is a secular movie with no explicit religious content. Yet for those with eyes to see there are lessons to be learned, especially when we are stuck in the grim, gray time loop of February. By reducing each day to a precisely limited sphere of possibilities, “Groundhog Day” teaches us that we must be fully present in the very time and place we are. “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

In addition, we must grasp and fulfill – with all our might – this day’s possibilities. When the selfish and dishonest little man named Zacchaeus opened his home and his heart to Jesus and – transformed in his spirit – opened his hands to restore fourfold what he had gained by fraud, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9). What if Zacchaeus, sinner that he was (like all of us), had closed his eyes to the possibilities of that day?

Finally, it wasn’t until Phil Conners was drawn out of (forced out of, really) his pathological self-involvement, and began to appreciate others in their unique individuality and worth, that he was able to break the iron cycle of the time loop. Actually, the time loop was broken for him. “By grace are you saved…” And grace can’t operate on us until our swollen subjectivity is punctured – by failure? by despair? by the realization that reality doesn’t revolve around us? – “through faith…” We can’t have faith if we refuse to look beyond ourselves. God is faithful, and every “worst day of the month” and every “worst month of the year” will pass, and God will do a new thing; will we perceive it (Isaiah 43:19)?

—Dr. David L. Wheeler