Q. I’ve been trying to learn the significance of Groundhog Day. I know we celebrate the Purification of the Blessed Mother on Feb. 2 (Candlemas Day), but I’m not sure why. Is there a connection? (New York)
A. Yes, there is an interesting connection between these celebrations. According to the law of Moses in the Old Testament, a mother was ritually unclean for a period of time after giving birth, 40 days after the birth of a boy, 80 days after the birth of a girl.
At the end of that time the mother came to the priest to be "purified" (see Leviticus 12).
Any firstborn male, human or animal, was considered to belong to the Lord. Animals were sacrificed. Human firstborn sons were presented in the Temple if possible, and certain payments were made that changed over time (see Exodus 34:19-20).
Both of these events, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus, are commemorated on the same day. When they began to be celebrated in Rome, perhaps in the fourth or fifth centuries, the date was set on Feb. 2, 40 days after Dec. 25, the day the Roman church celebrated the birth of our Lord.
Eventually candles became major elements in celebrating this feast, thus the tradition of blessing candles on that day.
For some unknown reason, a folk legend arose in the Middle Ages that a sunny Candlemas Day meant a cold spring. As a Scottish saying put it, "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there will be two winters in the year."
In the 19th century, some settlers in the New World gave this tradition a typical American twist. If the woodchuck or groundhog peeps out of his hole on Feb. 2 and the sun is shining so he sees his shadow, he goes back to sleep through the cold days ahead.
A fascinating set of circumstances connects this feast also with a longstanding ancient Roman fertility rite, the Lupercalia, on Feb. 15. But that’s a whole other story.
Q. We read in the Bible (Mt 12:31) that there is one sin the Lord cannot forgive, a sin against the Holy Spirit. I read it again in a novena prayer. What exactly is a sin against the Holy Spirit? (Ohio)
A. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and others believed this is the sin of final unrepentance, the refusal to repent of one’s rejection of God through a serious sin, even at the moment of death.
This remains the most common view. It would mean total rejection of all help the Spirit offers to turn us away from evil and toward God.
As Thomas says, the gift of hope keeps us from despair. The gift of fear of the Lord keeps us from presuming in the wrong way on God’s mercy and love, and so on.
When we refuse to hope, when we refuse to acknowledge the majesty and lordship of God in our lives, we in effect say we do not need the Holy Spirit, which puts us in deep spiritual trouble. When we’re in that frame of mind, there cannot be even enough humility to admit we have sinned and need repentance at all.
Whatever the meaning of that Gospel passage, the one essential truth to remember is that God our Father is always there with open arms to welcome us, and the Holy Spirit is always ready to help us go there.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.