Habit, addiction, and OCD

When I woke up this morning, I thought it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A little later, I learned that it was actually Groundhog Day, arriving more than a week later than the calendar promised. What, you may ask, does that have to do with habit or addiction or OCD? Bear with me, and I will arrive at those topics.

My morning routine is fairly set. I wake up to the sound of music. I brush my teeth. I take a shower and dry myself. I comb my hair. I take five pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, one for allergies, and two for anxiety. I always take them in the same order. I put on my clothes in the bathroom. I leave the bathroom, grab a pair of socks and a pair of shoes, and sit down to put them on. (I put on my left sock, my left shoe, my right sock, and my right shoe, always in that order.) I unlock and open the front door to pick up the day’s newspaper. I get myself two granola bars and a glass of cranberry juice and read the paper. I drink a mug of coffee, pack my lunch, grab my badge, and drive to work. Aside from a few uninteresting details, that describes nearly every morning, except that on Sundays I drive to church instead.

When I read the newspaper, I start with the two comics hidden on the second page of the want ads section. Then I start with the front page of the paper and work my way through to the other comics. It appeared that this morning the newspaper had reprinted yesterday’s comics among the want ads, which has happened a few times before. But when I got to the front page, the first two articles seemed strangely familiar. Finally I checked the date of the newspaper, and it said February 11. Sure enough, the delivery person had left a day-old newspaper on my doorstep this morning. (Hence the Groundhog Day reference.)

Clearly I am a creature of habit, following the same routine every single morning. Some people might accuse me of being obsessive/compulsive. My therapist and I agree that I have some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, but we also agree that I do not have a disorder—I am not OCD. My reaction to having the wrong newspaper this morning was humor, not fear or dread. I don’t like it if something throws my routine out of order, but I don’t let it ruin my day. If for some reason I was to put on my right sock before my left sock, I would not expect terrible things to happen the rest of the morning.

Having some obsessive and compulsive tendencies actually helps me through the day. My badge has a magnetic card attached to it that opens certain doors at my workplace, including the room where I do most of my work. When I stand up from my desk to go somewhere else in the building, I always touch my badge before I leave the room. As a result, I have never left my magnetic card behind, locking me out of the room. When driving to work, I check the seat next to me once, or sometimes twice, to make sure that I have not forgotten my badge or my lunch. When I park my car and turn off the engine, I always check to make sure the headlights are off. I always lock the car door, but I always hold my keys in my hand before I close the door.

Some of my OC tendencies are not so useful. Driving to work from home or driving home from work, I observe the other cars, hoping to spot at least one car of each of the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, reddish orange, yellowish orange, yellowish green, bluish green, bluish purple, reddish purple, white, light gray, dark gray, and black. Pink and brown are bonus colors. I do not expect anything good to happen if I see cars of all sixteen colors. I do not expect anything bad to happen if I do not see all sixteen colors. I just have the habit of looking for all sixteen colors, and even when I try not to notice the colors of the other cars, sooner or later I start keeping track of what I have seen.

In my personal library I have a fascinating and useful book, Addiction & Grace, written by Gerald G. May and published in 1989. Dr. May writes about chemical addictions, but his more interesting observations describe behavioral addictions. The difference between a habit and a behavioral addiction is small but important: someone with a behavioral addiction is so attached to that behavior that he or she has symptoms of withdrawal when that behavior is prevented. One of Dr. May’s examples is reading the morning newspaper. If the newspaper is not delivered, an addicted person would be upset, possibly angry, because of the missing newspaper.

Dr. May suggests that people generally have about five addictions, most of which they do not notice. If you can “go with the flow” when your usual behavior is prevented, then you are not addicted to it; but if a change in circumstances makes you badly upset, you probably have an addiction.

Many other interesting things are in the book, but the interesting application today is for me to observe my reaction to receiving the wrong newspaper. I was amused and not angry; I call the newspaper to report the error, and they promised to send a copy of today’s paper. The deliverer was at the house fifteen minutes later with a newspaper and an apology. Meanwhile, I had eaten my breakfast and drank my coffee without a newspaper, and it didn’t bother me at all.

I will continue to follow most of my habits, both those that are useful and those that provide no benefit at all. Having a break in the routine is good for me, though, if only to confirm that I am not OCD or addicted to my morning newspaper. Just don’t try to stand between me and my morning coffee. J.

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The season of Lent

This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.

Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.

Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.

Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.

Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Can you imagine seeing someone you know well suddenly begin to glow like a fluorescent light bulb? Jesus once provided this experience to Peter, James, and John, the inner circle within his twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the time that Jesus took the three of them up on a high hillside in Galilee to pray. Suddenly his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were brilliant white, more white than any bleach could make them. With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, discussing the “departure” of Jesus that he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Today Peter would have taken a selfie with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture, but he still tried to cling to the experience. He suggested putting up three tents so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could stay on the hill. Presumably, Peter expected other people to climb the hill to visit with the three holy men. Instead, a cloud surrounded the hill, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One—Listen to him!”

Liturgical Christians have chosen to close the season of Epiphany by remembering this event. During Epiphany, Christians have remembered the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity through his teaching and his miracles. Glowing with light might be the most impressive way Jesus had to demonstrate his true nature as the Son of God. Christians today want, like Peter, to hold on to the special times when Jesus seems close to them and peace and joy appear to be within reach. Sometimes congregations try to meet this desire with uplifting hymns and praise songs and a “worship experience” that dazzles the eyes and the ears and the brain. Jesus is not near only when his people are dazzled and uplifted. Sometimes his presence is felt most clearly during the dark night of the soul. Mountaintop experiences last a short time, but the reminder to “listen to him!” continues ringing long after the light has faded away.

For liturgical Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is somewhat of a holy Mardi Gras, a last blaze of glory before the somber time of Lent arrives. The secular Mardi Gras of the world seems designed only to give people a reason to repent and to regret their sins in coming days. Holy people do not use the excuse of a coming fast to “sin boldly.” They remain focused on Jesus during feasts and during fasts; they draw upon the power of his forgiveness to “go and sin no more.” All God’s people sin every day and need forgiveness every day. Even Moses and Elijah fell short of the glory of God. God’s forgiveness is real every day, and his love and mercy are worth celebrating every day.

Because of his sins, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before he died, he saw it from a distance, but he could not cross the river and set foot in the land. Moses first stood in the land when he stood with Jesus at his Transfiguration. His presence with Jesus in Galilee demonstrates that Jesus was completing the work of Moses. Moses delivered the Law to God’s people, but Jesus fulfilled the Law. Moses acted as a mediator for God’s people, praying for forgiveness when they sinned, but Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice as well as a mediator. Moses led his people through the wilderness but had to stop short at the border of the Promised Land; but Jesus leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death, bringing us safely to the other side where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy of Transfiguration is but an echo of the joy of Easter. The greatest glory of Jesus was not to glow with light: the greatest glory of Jesus was to defeat sin and Satan and death and to offer forgiveness and life to the people he loves. If one rejoices in the blessings God has bestowed, or if one is hoping and waiting for greater blessings, each of us can be certain that the glory of our Savior has made us his forever. To him be the glory! J.

First Friday Fiction–A Story without an End

Actually, this story has four endings. Comment and tell me which one you like the best. J.

More than a year of counseling had failed to prepare Stan for the encounter in his therapist’s waiting room that happened one morning last week.

Stan’s doctor had recommended counseling to help Stan deal with nearly constant anxiety accompanied by occasional bouts of depression. The counselor asked Stan questions about his anxiety and what triggered its symptoms. They spoke about his childhood, his parents and siblings, his experiences at school, and his career. They spoke about obsessions and compulsions, about the feeling of responsibility, and about the feeling of guilt. “What’s one thing that makes you feel guilty?” the counselor asked.

“When my wife is in a bad mood or is quiet, I start asking myself what I did wrong. Whenever she’s having a bad day, I assume that it’s my fault and that she’s angry at me. I’m the same at work—if a co-worker is unhappy, my mind leaps to the conclusion that I’ve done something wrong.”

“You feel that way even if you know that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

“All the time. In my head, I know that people have bad days and it’s usually not my fault, but in my heart I always feel as though I’m to blame for their troubles.”

“I see. What’s another thing that makes you feel guilty?”

“At work, I never feel like I’m working hard enough or getting enough things done. If I take a few minutes to check something on the internet, I feel guilty. Or if I’m behind schedule on a project I feel guilty. I feel like my work is too messy, or too disorganized. What I do never feels good enough.”

“Do your supervisors complain about any of your work?”

“No, they always seem happy with my work. They’ve never complained about what I do. Sometimes they make suggestions to improve what I’ve done, but they do that for everyone. And I know that everyone in the office checks home email and sports scores and things like that on their work computers. No one ever gets in trouble for that, but when I do it, I still feel guilty—like I’m stealing from the company when I’m not working every minute I’m on the clock.”

The counselor nodded and wrote a few notes. “Anything else that makes you feel guilty?”

Stan sighed. “We’ve talked about this before. I still feel guilty about… liking… Mary Sue Hutchinson so much. It seems as though every time she comes to mind, something bad happens to me or my family. My car has a flat tire, or my daughter runs out of gas, or the microwave stops working. It’s as though I’m being punished for thinking about her.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Three years now. Ever since she left the office to take another job.”

“And you still like her?”

“As much as ever. I know that I shouldn’t, and I try not to think about her any more, but somehow I just can’t stop.”

Again, the counselor nodded. “And all this time you’ve been beating yourself up over the fact that you like this woman. Does your wife know? Has this caused problems at home?”

“No, I don’t think my wife knows. And it hasn’t caused any problems between us—just the cars, the microwave, the computer….”

“But you know that those things have nothing to do with…” The counselor checked his notes. “With Mary Sue. You don’t believe God is punishing you for thinking of her.”

Stan shook his head. “I know God doesn’t work that way. I believe in forgiveness; I really do. But it feels as though I’m causing my family and me problems by letting my mind wander back to her so often.”

The counselor closed his notebook. “Stan, I’m afraid that we’re about out of time this morning. I’ll see you again in two weeks. During that time, I want you to think about this: is thinking about Mary Sue any worse than thinking about some singer or actress you find attractive? I mean, you haven’t even seen her for three years…”

“No, I haven’t.”

“And before that, the two of you never did anything wrong—you’ve told me that before.”

“It’s true; we never did anything wrong.”

“Then something else is behind this feeling of guilt. We’ll have to talk about it more next time. Another thing I want you to do—think about what you would say to Mary Sue if you suddenly ran into her again.”

Stan smiled. “I’ve thought about it for months now. If I ran into her again, I’d say something like this: ‘Mary Sue, I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?’”

“Alright. Think about that and work on it—and next time we talk, tell me what you think she would answer if you said those things to her.”

ENDING 1

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She hesitated for a moment, obviously struggling to find the right words to say. Then she smiled weakly at Stan and said, “It’s good to see you too. Sit down and we can talk.” He found a seat. She continued, “You might not believe me after all this time, but I was horribly busy those first few months at my new job. I tried to answer your notes when I could, but I just didn’t have the time. I always appreciated your offer to get together for a cup of coffee, but that was never possible. I’m sorry I treated you as if I didn’t care, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad when you stopped writing, but I never knew what to say to you.” Again she smiled a small smile. “I feel guilty for letting you down. You must really hate me.”

“There’s no way I ever could hate you,” Stan exclaimed. “Even after three years, I still miss you so much that it hurts. Please tell me we can be friends again.”

“Well,” she teased, pretending to have to stop and think. Then she laughed. “Of course we can still be friends. That would make me very happy.” Her words made Stan very happy too.

ENDING 2

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

At first she seemed stunned. Then she smiled a small smile. “Sit down for a minute,” she said. “Let’s talk.”

When Stan had sat, she said, “It was no accident that I stopped answering your emails and refused your invitations to get together over a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel good treating you like that, but it’s something I had to do.”

“But why did you have to do it?” he asked.

“Don’t you see? We were getting too close to each other. It was such a relief when I had the job offer. I’m not saying that I took the other job because of you, but getting away from your staring and from hearing your voice was absolutely necessary for me.”

“I didn’t realize you hated me like that.”

“No, of course I didn’t hate you. I liked you too much, in fact. James was starting to get suspicious that I had a boyfriend. I knew I could trust you never to cross the line, but I wasn’t sure I could trust myself. We are both married, and we need to respect that about ourselves and about each other.”

“I always trusted you, and I always wondered if I could trust myself not to go too far,” Stan admitted. “But it’s been three years. After all this time, is there any way we can both be friends?”

She shook her head. “It means something that we should meet here, of all places. Three years hasn’t been enough time for me to forget about you. Has it been enough time for you to forget about me?” When he shook his head, she continued, “Obviously we both need help, or we wouldn’t be here. Let’s let some more time go by—two or three more years at least. Let’s keep getting stronger on our own, before we worry about having to trust ourselves again. The separation has been good for us; it just hasn’t been long enough yet.”

“I’ve missed you,” Stan told her. “I’m going to hurt twice as much now, missing you, knowing how you feel.”

“It’s all for the better,” she assured him. When he was at the door, and she thought he couldn’t hear her, she whispered, “And I have missed you too.”

ENDING 3

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She looked up at him, startled and a little bit frightened. At first she didn’t seem to know what to say. Finally she invited Stan to take a seat.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you’re getting some help,” she told him. “You’ve needed it for a long time, you know.”

“Yes, I have,” Stan confessed. “I think things are going better now. But it’s such a pleasant surprise to see you again…”

She interrupted him. “Pleasant for you, maybe, but not for me,” she told me. “After three years, I still haven’t stopped feeling angry for the way you treated me. At work I was always professional. Sending me messages on my personal email was way out of line.”

“But you gave that email to all of us on your last day,” he reminded her. “You told us to keep in touch.”

“I didn’t mean it—I was just being nice,” she nearly shouted at him. “You were the only one who didn’t know that. I tried to be nice to you and let the whole thing die a natural death, but you scared me with your persistence. Why didn’t you know when enough was enough?”

Stan swallowed and said glumly, “I thought we were friends.”

“Friends are people I choose to see when I’m not at work. Look, you’re a good accountant, and you’re very helpful to the clients, or at least that was the case three years ago. I never minded complimenting you when you were doing your job, especially those times when you went above and beyond the call of duty. But please don’t think I ever felt anything more for you than respect. I’m a married woman, and my heart belongs to my husband. You had no right to interfere.”

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Stan started again.

“Stop,” she said. “You have hurt me. I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to tell you this, but you frightened me with your intensity. You don’t hide your feelings very well, you know. You made a fool of yourself time and time again, and you made a fool of me too. People were laughing behind our backs. Please, now, just go.”

“Can’t we ever be friends?” he asked.

“We never were friends,” she said, “and we never will be friends. Let that be my last word to you.”

“I’m sorry,” Stan said as he stood, ready to walk to the door. “I’m so, so sorry.” She looked away, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for him to leave. Stan hunted for some fitting last words to say to her, but nothing came to mind. Wordlessly, he finally turned and walked to the door. Even as his hands touched the handle, he could think of nothing more to say to her. Stan went outside and walked to his car.

ENDING 4

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She waited a few seconds with no expression on her face. “What was your name again?” she finally asked.

Stan told her his name, but she shook her head. “Where was it that we met, and when?” she asked.

“We worked together for four years at the investment firm,” I exclaimed. “We were part of a team that did great things together. Surely you can’t have forgotten everything about your time at Linton’s!”

“I remember working at Linton’s investment firm,” she allowed, “but you can’t expect me to remember everyone else who worked there.” As he stood there, stunned, she continued, “Look, whoever you are: ever since I was in high school I’ve had boys and men following me around like little puppy dogs. You can’t expect me to keep track of all of you. Obviously you weren’t the worst, or I would have remembered you, but you’re not married to me either. You have no business asking me if we can be friends.”

“I thought you really cared,” Stan said quietly.

“I always tried to be professional,” she told him. “I always did my best to help everyone else to do their job as well as they could. But you can’t make that more than it was. If I was nice to you at work, remember that I was nice to everyone else too. At the end of the day, I forgot all of you on the drive home, and I didn’t remember you again until I got back to work the next day. That’s the only way I can survive, with every man and his brother thinking I owe them something more.”

“I never realized it was like that for you,” Stan admitted.

“Now you know,” she said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment here.” With that, they went their separate ways.

Candlemas

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? Once again, as at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether or not it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.