Today the nation gathers at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania for a uniquely American observance. The event is Groundhog Day, of course, as with bated breath we watch Punxsutawney Phil materialize from his cozy burrow. If he sees his shadow, as the legend goes, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If he emerges shadowless, then it is the harbinger of an early spring.
Given how winters goes, I imagine there will be many more days of cold weather regardless of what Phil experiences on Monday morning. Besides, since 1886 old Phil and his successors have only been correct half the time. That’s about as good as human meteorologists, though, so they all get to keep their jobs I guess, shadows or not.
For me Groundhog Day makes me think, not of plump rodents and top-hat-wearing old men, but of Bill Murray. It was more than twenty years ago that he starred in the now classic comedy film, “Groundhog Day.” He plays weatherman Phil Connors, given the assignment of covering the Gobbler’s Knob festivities. He hates it, and he is hateful; an arrogant, pompous, and spiteful man.
Somehow he gets caught in a time warp and must relive Groundhog Day over and over again. At first, he indulges in all types of fun and debauchery, but eventually he just wants all the repetition to end. He grows so desperate that he attempts to off himself, even kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil in the process, thinking this will stop the agonizing time loop.
Internet nerds, who apparently have more time on their hands than the average person, have watched this movie thousands of times, and painfully parsing all the events and dialogue have calculated that weatherman Phil Connors stays trapped on Groundhog Day for almost forty years. Why? What is the point?
The point seems to be personal transformation. The comic gods decide that Connors must remain where he is until he is a changed man. There is no going forward until that work is done. He has to learn a few lessons, about himself and about life, and only then can he get off the merry-go-round that is the last four decades of his life.
Forty years seems to be the magic number, for that is exactly the amount of time spent by the Children of Israel in the wilderness. You may know the story: Moses is commissioned by God to save his people from Pharaoh’s slavery. Plagues commence. Miracles ensue. Deliverance arrives (this would make a great movie, by the way).
But the former slaves don’t know how to live as a free people. They complain, revolt, start worshipping inanimate objects, commit mutiny against Moses, and foolishly long for the false security of their chains over the constant vigilance of their freedom. They are as trapped as when they were building pyramids in Egypt. And they remain as such, trapped for forty years.
It was a massive, repetitive Groundhog Day, unbroken until the “stiff-necked,” stubborn, and contrary generation had been replaced by those who were ready to be free. The Scriptures say, “These things happened as a warning and example to us.” It’s not a simple retelling of history; it’s an opportunity for us to learn. And the quicker we learn our lessons, the quicker we can be liberated.
If we review the trajectory of our lives we are likely to find a few common denominators in all we have experienced. That’s because there’s probably one or two major lessons that God is trying to teach us, a couple of persistent chains he is attempting to break. God allows life to repeat itself, over and over, until we do the hard, inner work of the soul.
Wandering the desert is a necessity and repeating difficult lessons is required, as there are some things that can only be learned in the hard places. But how long we replay and relive the same day is more or less up to us. There comes a time to get it, and to get on with it.