Groundhog Day and the baptism of Jesus?

groundhog_dayNot just a religiously rich, important and awesome movie, Groundhog Day is also a great secular holy day. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow yesterday, meaning six more weeks of winter. Slate took the occasion of running a previously published piece on the origins and meaning of the day, written by Timothy Noah. The piece argues that the holiday goes back to pre-Christian pagan rituals.

The determining factor, then, is whether it's sunny or cloudy on Candlemas Day, an early Christian feast day commemorating the baptism of Jesus that involved a lot of candle-bearing and therefore, inevitably, the casting of many shadows. Like many other Christian festivals, Candlemas co-opted an earlier pagan rite, and nowadays Wiccans are much keener about celebrating it than most Christians.

Um, how many things are wrong with this? It is true that Candlemas falls on February 2. But, Candlemas Day doesn't commemorate the baptism of Jesus. Not even close. The other names for the festival might give you a clue about what is actually marked. In my church, for instance, we call it The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord because, well, it commemorates when Mary went to the temple for purification rites and presented Jesus publicly. Jesus wasn't baptized by John until many decades later.

You get a basic fact like what Candlemas commemorates wrong and it kind of casts doubt on the whole piece. Not to mention that Noah asserts the pagan connection without substantiating the claim elsewhere in the piece. There is literally no explanation -- we are just to take him at his word. That's my biggest beef with the "Christian holy days co-opt pagan festivals" meme that is so popular with the mainstream media. They just run with the story instead of investigating some tangled and complex histories that may not fit into the preferred narrative.

But what's with this purification and presentation stuff? Well, according to the Torah, women who had given birth were considered unclean for a particular period of time. Here's how Leviticus 12 begins:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.

I quote from Leviticus for a point. So often you'll have someone write that, say, Christmas and Easter are arbitrarily chosen days that copy some pagan festival. And while I don't want to wade into that fight and while it's certainly true that there are overlaps in various cultural celebrations, it's interesting to note that the birth of Christ was actually likely marked as occurring 9 months from when early Christians believe he was conceived. And people used to believe (or perhaps still do?) that great prophets were conceived and died on the same day. So if Jesus Christ died around Passover, that meant he was conceived at that time, too. And you add 9 months and voila! you get Dec. 25 (for the presumed year of his birth).

Now if you add 40 days to Dec. 25 you get Feb. 2! So convenient of these co-opters of pagan rituals to have Leviticus to fall back on, eh? In the Western liturgical calendar, this feast is the last festival determined by the date of Christmas and shows that Epiphany is drawing to a close.

Fun Candlemas fact, by the way, is that the Nunc Dimittis was uttered by Simeon on this day. And prophetess Anna was also in the temple and offered prayers and praise to God.

The reader who submitted this story had another complaint. To substantiate his "baptism" claim, Noah links to a site labeled "Belarusian School of Icon Painting," that is riddled with bizarre errors and extra-biblical contentions:

The post also includes a link to a website on tourism in Belarus that - after quoting the wrong chapter of Luke - claims that "on the 40-th day after birth of Christ Joseph and Mary took their child to Jerusalem Cathedral to baptise and made a religious offering - two pigeons."

Cathedral? Baptize? If this was Noah's source, shouldn't he have checked the information somewhere else?

Also, if a news or newsy website is going to link to outside sources, how responsible (if at all) are they for what they link to?

So quite a few questions raised by this piece on Groundhog Day. I'm wondering whether no one brought all these embarrassing problems to Slate's attention five years ago when the story first ran. The beauty of the internet is that you get to fix egregious errors. Hopefully Slate will be able to do that before too long.

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