Do you like outer space? I do. I have always especially loved movies about space, from the operatic “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Ridley Scott’s thrilling “Alien.” I haven’t yet seen the Sandra Bullock movie “Gravity,” but I’ve heard it’s great. Let’s try this: I’ll offer a famous line about outer space, and you tell me what it’s from.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. That’s easy, right? “Star Wars.”
How about this one: Space: The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds…to boldly go where no man has gone before. That’s from “Star Trek,” of course.
Try one more: At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. What’s that from? It’s from the Book of Common Prayer, Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer C.
Eucharistic Prayer C, that most ridiculed and reviled of communion settings. In Roanoke I had one parishioner who would not attend church if he knew we were using Prayer C. Mostly, people who dislike the setting simply roll their eyes and refer to it as “the Star Trek prayer.”
For those of you who are confused by all this and are unfamiliar with Prayer C altogether, that may be because it’s a Rite II communion setting and thus only available at 9 a.m., or because this Epiphany season is the first time anyone can recall the Cathedral utilizing the prayer in living memory. So why are we using this different, space opera-like liturgical setting during the Epiphany season? Today is the day I’ll tell you, but first we need to acknowledge something else that’s distinctive about this particular day. Allow me to switch gears…
There are major feasts, and there are minor ones. There are high holy days, and there is ordinary time. Today is a distinctive day. It is Candlemas, the day we commemorate the presentation of the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. But it is also the day we remember Philip. In this case I don’t mean Philip the Apostle, who was one of Jesus’ twelve followers. I also don’t mean Philip the Deacon, who evangelizes the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts. Today I’m talking about Philip of Punxsutawney. Or, as he’s more commonly known, Punxsutawney Phil, the Groundhog. Today is Groundhog Day. For the first time in more than a decade, Groundhog Day falls on a Sunday. And there’s no way a preacher is going to miss that opportunity.
In the fantastic 1993 Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day,” Murray’s character, arrogant Pittsburgh television weatherman Phil Connors, reluctantly finds himself covering the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania along with his hapless cameraman Larry and beautiful producer Rita (played by the always lovely Andie MacDowell). After the festival, a freak blizzard traps the news crew in Punxsutawney overnight. Cranky Phil sleeps at a bed and breakfast, and when his alarm clock awakens him the next morning to the sounds of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe,” it’s still Groundhog Day. The tape has looped. Time has rewound. The events of Groundhog Day play out exactly as they had the previous day, and no one notices except Phil. Phil is forced to live the kitschy, polka-dancing, rodent-centered holiday all over again. Phil is confused but doesn’t worry too much. Until the following morning when Sonny and Cher sing through his alarm clock again. It’s still Groundhog Day. The day repeats again and again and again.
Phil’s life becomes, literally, monotonous. Every action, from the largest to the smallest, recurs. Day after day, Phil meets the same old high school classmate on the same street corner at the same moment. Day after day, he steps in the same icy pothole. He watches Punxsutawney Phil repeatedly see his shadow and predict six more weeks of winter. At first, Phil enjoys the freedom of constant mulligans, of being able to do-over things large and small. But he soon becomes complacent and then despondent. Nothing changes, and he is lulled into believing that nothing can and nothing will.
Of course, the movie is a parable. Phil’s life before his fateful visit to Punxsutawney was already monotonous. He’d been lulled into believing that the way of the world was set, that nothing good ever really happens, certainly nothing wonderful. And that way of living has led him to be the arrogant, apathetic, self-centered character we meet in the first frame of the movie. The weird time warp on Groundhog Day is merely confirmation of the life into which Phil has already lapsed, a life of dreary grays, a life of eyes closed to wonder, a cynical life lacking hope.
Eventually, though, Rita the producer begins to affect Phil. Rita moves through her life aware, with eyes wide open. She encounters wonder in the world about her. She sees and seeks the good in herself and in others. As Phil relives Groundhog Day each day, Rita’s words of hope and beauty along with her graceful presence slowly prod him to imagine the world and his place in it differently. Phil actually begins to interact with the quirky residents of Punxsutawney, seeing them as human beings worthy of his attention and care. He labors to save a homeless man from freezing. He begins to better himself, learning music and poetry. And finally, Phil wakes up one morning and it is February 3. The world is new. Phil is new. He is released from the bondage of that God-awful, endless day. His eyes have been opened.
In the Gospel this morning we meet Simeon and Anna, whose days look to an outsider to be as monotonous as they come. They keep the same routine, day after day. And yet, day after day, Simeon and Anna move through the temple of the Lord in expectation, each day believing that perhaps this day God will do something wonderful. They kneel; they pray; they give thanks. And they believe in a world infused with God’s presence and grace.
And so, on Candlemas, the day Mary and Joseph walk into the temple with their baby child, Simeon and Anna know who it is they see. Simeon cries in wonder, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples! A light of revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory to your people Israel!”
Simeon and Anna never allow complacency to lull them into cynicism or despair. They daily look with bright eyes at God’s world in wonder, and when he comes they see the Lord. Simeon, particularly, is released from the bondage of this world when he sees the Christ.
To bring us back around to where we began this morning, that’s why we are using Eucharistic Prayer C at 9 o’clock during Epiphany. The strange and cosmic language of Prayer C startles us. It jars us from the monotony of even the most holy but oft-repeated words. It reminds us that God not only creates us and the things of this “fragile earth, our island home” but also “galaxies, suns [and] the planets in their courses.”
Most importantly, the phrase at the heart of Prayer C asks of God this: “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
That’s what the Epiphany season is all about! It is about awakening from our complacency. It is about theophany, seeing the wonder of the living, moving, transforming God in unexpected ways and places—including within the walls of the church! Epiphany is about opening our eyes to the presence of God, always unpredictable, always able to move us, and surprise us, and change us into different people. Who knows? We may, like Simeon and Anna, look up even from these pews and discover in wonder that God is here. We may find ourselves released from the everyday to experience the living Christ.
Today is Groundhog Day. When we wake up tomorrow, will the same old song be playing on the alarm clock of our souls, or will it be a new day? Are our eyes open?