Groundhog Day enthusiasts will tell you that for decades there has only been one groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, even though groundhogs only live for six years or so. In a similar way, it can feel like there’s always a single distraction in American culture; we just keep switching out the bodies.
Our fresh amusements or outrages are periodically lifted up by the next man with a top hat, making it especially appropriate that the groundhog celebration coincides this year with the pageantry of Super Bowl Sunday. What makes February 2 a strikingly sad illustration of our national propensities is the splendor of what it conceals.
But don’t take my word for it; take Pope Pius IX’s. The definer of papal infallibility and author of the 1864 Syllabus of Errors claimed the Virgin Mary was called “Virgin Priest by the Fathers of the Church.”
The 20th-century priest René Laurentin decided to fact-check this pontifical declaration, just as puzzled readers might do today. Two dissertations later, Laurentin learned the Pope was right—the priesthood of Mary saturates the Christian tradition, and even has biblical basis. Mary is connected, through her kinswoman Elizabeth, to a priestly lineage even higher than Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah (Luke 1:5, 36). Hence church authorities like Theodore the Studite could say regarding Mary, “Hail daughter, young sacrificial priest,” and Tarasios the Patriarch of Constantinople could call her “the greatest among the high priests.”
Such associations are especially clear in art history, where Mary regularly sports vestments reserved for the clergy. This appears even in mainstream illustrations for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, celebrated February 2, but which most people only know as “Groundhog Day.”
In classic Byzantine depictions of the event, Mary approaches the altar and offers Jesus over what look like the royal doors through which—in the Orthodox tradition—the sanctified elements emerge. In accordance with the law (Ex. 13:1–2; Luke 2:22–23), she offers back to God the son she was given as if she were a second Abraham. (In some churches in Cyprus, Mary’s sacrifice and Abraham’s are even depicted in tandem.)
The Feast of the Presentation was celebrated in the West as well, where some say it was used to counteract the annual pagan festivals of Lupercalia or Imbolc. It was also known as Candlemas because it fell in dark winter when artificial light was especially required. Martin Luther, understanding the feast’s biblical basis, suggested Protestants retain it. To those wondering how much longer winter would last, one German folk tradition offered an answer: “If Candlemas is bright and clear, the crops will be damaged, and it will be a bad year.”
Such predictions were also linked to badgers, foxes, or bears in German-speaking Europe; when German settlers came to the United States, specifically to Pennsylvania, this tradition latched on to the groundhog, the sight of whose shadow testified to a “bright and clear” day, and hence a prolonged winter.
We can be sure that neither Mary nor any of the church fathers ever laid eyes on a groundhog, with or without his shadow. A more immediate animal to connect Candlemas to would be the turtledove, which the holy family presented at the temple in place of a lamb because they were poor (Lev. 12:8; Luke 2:24). The terrified doves are highlighted in the center of Lorenzetti’s colorful depiction of the scene. In one haunting Orthodox icon, the offering of Mary’s son and the birds overlap: Jesus’ head is twisted as if he were a sacrificial pigeon, neck snapped for the sin of the world.
Many Americans connect Groundhog Day—via the Bill Murray film of that title—to Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. Meanwhile, Mary’s priestly associations, showcased at Candlemas, have only deepened, as more evidence emerges that escaped Laurentin. A fresh translation of the Life of the Virgin has shown that the ministerial Mary was part of mainstream, not heretical, Christianity. Respected scholars such as Moscow’s Alexei Lidov or Maria Evangelatou offer considerable visual evidence for Marian priesthood in Orthodoxy, often centering on the Feast of the Presentation. Ally Kateusz has unearthed material in this regard available in its entirety to the public.
Anglicans like me might wonder whether Mary’s frequent depiction as a priest was a placeholder—one that anticipated the liturgical participation that women enjoy in some quarters today. Others will take shelter under Laurentin’s follow-up volume that attempted to quarantine this evidence under a soft Marian “priesthood of the laity” as opposed to clerical, male priesthood. But most will limit their consideration of this day to football or a weather-predicting rodent.
Learning only about a groundhog on February 2 affords a snapshot of what it is like to grow up in a country where sacred roots are sealed off by a layer of subterranean plastic garden sheeting. Learning only about the groundhog is like reducing Christmas to a creepy rendition of Baby It’s Cold Outside, or trading the Resurrection for a stale marshmallow Peep.
But instead, with the Feast of the Presentation, February 2 reminds us that the essence of Christianity is not clenched fists but open hands of release. “Surrender is the heart of Christian spirituality,” writes David Benner, “because it is the path of Christ.” By offering her son in the temple, Mary anticipates the Crucifixion, and—as Pope John Paul II insisted—she participates in every Christian Eucharist that has reflected it since.
A culture sequestered from this rich understanding of sacrifice will not forget sacrifice—it will just make other sacrifices, to more menacing ends. Take, for example, the Lenape tribe, who originally inhabited Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—ground zero for Groundhog Day. Perhaps their intuitive understanding of sacrifice is why the Lenape respected, and embraced, the message of evangelical missionaries who announced that the sacrifices of all human cultures had been consummated on Calvary hill.
These Christian Lenape who once called Pennsylvania their home were then caught between American and British forces. As they were pushed westward, in 1782, the Pennsylvania militia met them at their settlement known as Gnadenhütten. Falsely believing these Native Americans had taken part in raids, the militia beat 96 of them to death—women and children included—who sang Christian hymns as they died. It was a tragic and unnecessary sacrifice, one that continues to make America, its soil soaked with the blood of these witnesses, as holy as Pius IX’s martyr-studded Rome.
Americans today appear suspended in a Candlemas moment of sorts, wondering if a deeper winter of division awaits us, with the accompanying demand that we sacrifice our political enemies. Others might find truth in the day’s rodential ritual, realizing winter actually does grow bleaker when our own shadow—our stealth egotism—is spotted at last.
Then there is the exhausted resignation that comes from believing life is a repetitive joke made more tolerable by quirky regional traditions. Anyone anxiously monitoring Super Bowl ads to gauge our national temperature will likely observe these co-mingling moods: resentment, desolation, or the frivolousness born of ennui. An answer to all of them comes from Mary the priest. Hers are among the hands that have raised the final sacrifice—an unexpected winter offering of light.
Matthew J. Milliner (@millinerd) is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.
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