In the movie Groundhog Day, TV weatherman Bill Murray finds himself reliving the same day over and over, with exactly the same cast of characters playing exactly the same roles, for what seems like an eternity. His task, though he does not realize it at first, is to let go of his egoism and learn how to love.
He goes through different phases in his purgatorial visit to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He spends some time indulging his appetites and committing crimes; he briefly concludes that he is a god, because of how intimately he knows the people of this small town; and he occasionally gives in to despair, finding a variety of ways to take his own life. To no avail, however. Each morning he wakes up alive and well to the less-than-dulcet tones of Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe,” and everything that happened the previous “day” gets erased and reset.
This story in some ways serves as a metaphor for the church. Some preachers I know would say, “That’ll preach.” In our lives as individual disciples and in community with one another, we sometimes feel that we are in a rut, a never-ending hamster wheel of dry routine, sporadic joy, and frequent failure. As we go through the motions of worship, prayer, and service, we wonder if we are making any progress at all, or if we will wake up the next morning to the same banal song and the same stale round of activities. When we go to church, we mouth the words to the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, and the hymns without much higher-level brain activity, and we leave to re-enter our workaday lives where nothing ever seems to change.
Ironically, it is often in the midst of that humdrum routine that we find the spark once again. The power of ritual lies in its ritual-ness. It is in the doing, even when the doing has lost all its verve and meaning, that we find meaning again. Nobody can be on fire for God all the time, regardless of how much one might wish to be. And when we inevitably find ourselves going through the motions, it is important that we go through the motions. It does not make you a hypocrite to perform the rituals when they feel lifeless and empty. In fact, I consider it a virtue to push through the desert times tenaciously, stubbornly even, until we arrive at long last at the oasis.
Bill Murray was sure he was stuck in Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney forever. But he kept getting out of bed when the Bonos called to him. If he had stayed under the covers and just given up, for one thing it would have made for a lousy movie, but more importantly he never would have learned the lessons he needed to learn. When he woke up to find that the calendar had finally flipped to February 3, he had become a better person and had found someone to love and be loved by, all because he kept pushing through.
Let us go and do likewise.