the penultimate WORD
Series 2005 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
“I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” from 1 Corinthians 9, The Message
News of Punxsutawney Phil is coffee-shop chatter as weather prognosticators speculate on the remaining length of winter. As the yawning rodent emerges, all eyes are turned to Pennsylvania like Magi searching the night sky for a sign. Groundhog day establishes our hopes and prepares us for the weeks ahead.
Light will determine the length of Phil’s shadow. And his shadow will tell the tale.
You may be familiar with the exploits of the famous rodent captured in the film “Groundhog Day”. It features Bill Murray as Phil, the WBPH Action News weatherman and Andie MacDowell as Rita, the show’s producer. On the surface it is a silly piece of celluloid. Phil’s fourth season covering the Punxsutawney Festival begins, again and again – dozens of times really – with Sonny and Cher greeting a disinterested, cynical and selfish Phil as the clock-radio turns 6:00 a.m.
The local anchormen ask the gnawing question, “Will Phil – Punxsutawney Phil – come out and see his shadow?” And the answer to that question, we discover, will tell the tale.
The premise of the movie is beguiling. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could repeat a day so filled with failure and negligence, as does Phil in this film? It would provide me with an opportunity to resolve problems without a sense of failure. I could finish a day without having made a mistake.
It doesn’t take long to recognize that Phil Connors’ shadow is missing. He’s predictable and shallow. A two-dimensional character, he lies on a page but has no depth. Phil is a man with no substance. The search for his shadow is the redemptive tale of Everyman – not unlike a morality play – as Phil revisits the day, redirecting his steps, discovering compassion and amending his life. He needs to step into a light.
Choices and goals lead Phil beyond Gobbler’s Knob. Men and women challenge and nurture Phil, drawing him into a light that begins to cast a shadow – a pale shadow that gains in intensity with each fistful of pop corn!
Mary and Joseph knew nothing of Punxsutawney, or of Pennsylvania or of groundhogs for that matter. Regardless, they walked to Jerusalem. For us, the Festival is known as the Presentation – Candlemas. At the Temple, Simeon held their baby in his arms. “With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation,” he said. “A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2: 31f.)
That God-revealing light has touched lives and cast shadows for countless generations. Some have found themselves in the light and have been frightened by it. Some have seen the light and have avoided it. Others have been trapped in a darkness that consumes them. But even in the darkest place the most slender of flames reaches further and illumines more than we might imagine.
Phil discovered that.
The temptation at first is to revisit each day and exploit it for what it’s worth. But self-serving appetites wear thin and anxiety and depression even beset a child captive in a candy store.
“Christianity has been tried, and found difficult,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. Mining each day for what is ethical and right is no easy task. Engaging the life of an other is difficult. Moving beyond myself is difficult. Compassion is best avoided if difficulty is to be minimized. I often fail. The occasion to repeat a failed opportunity would help me navigate out of the shallows into deeper water. You understand.
Paul captures this in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he wrote: “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, non-religious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ – but entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (from 1 Corinthians 9, The Message).
Paul, like Phil Connors and the rodent of Pennsylvania, casts a shadow. The Apostle cast a shadow to the extent that he was in on the Message. Not content with relying on words, he sought to be in on the redemptive story that engaged the lives of others and enabled them to become whole, three-dimensional – “religious, non-religious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever.”
“I didn’t take on their way of life,” added Paul. He became neither religious nor non-religious. He became neither a meticulous moralist nor a loose-living immoralist. He gained his integrity in the God-revealing light of which Simeon spoke. He knew the need for all of us – whoever – to stand in that God-revealed light and to discover the shadow cast: demonstrating our wholeness, our reclamation. He kept his bearing in, as it were, the light of Christ.
At this Festival – in Pennsylvania or of Candlemas, it matters little – the gnawing question will not slip quietly into yesterday. It has an echo in Paul’s succinct answer: “I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”
Copyright © 2005 James T. Irvine
penultimate WORD - Festivals of Light Series