That’s right, woodchuck chuckers. It’s Groundhog Day! I have a tradition of watching Groundhog Day every year around February 2. Which is convenient, since television stations tend to play the film this time of year. Repeated viewings are also a fitting homage, given the movie’s plot, which has weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) reliving Groundhog Day over and over and over again for what seems like eternity. Each time I watch Groundhog Day I discover new things, and this year, while keeping an eye on what it might say about human nature, the theme of sanctification (that is, the process of becoming holy) also reared its head.
Those of us influenced by the Protestant Reformers are often said to be “weak on sanctification.” We regard Christians as being not terribly different from non-Christians, that our flawed human nature persists, despite our religious faith and baptism. This, of course, flies in the face of prevailing notions that Christians are/should be inherently nicer and holier people. In this respect, Groundhog Day serves as a good analogy for how sanctification works (or any kind of real personal growth for that matter), that it is not necessarily something we can achieve by our own will and strength. When Phil tries to live up to the standards of perfection held by his love interest Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, he falls endlessly short. Consider the following clips. Here Rita describes her vision of the “perfect guy”:
Phil says, “I am really close on this one,” but we know from the beginning of the film that he is egocentric and embittered, essentially the opposite of what Rita desires. Yet he is too smitten not to try to live up to her ideals, to embody Rita’s vision of the perfect guy:
The problem is that Phil is motivated by all the wrong factors, and somehow Rita tacitly picks up on his manipulative inauthenticity. She smells the rat! In fact, even Phil himself doesn’t like who he is becoming by pretending to be perfect—it’s all one big lie. He burns himself out trying to live up to Rita’s unachievable and oppressive standards, becoming somewhat maniacal in the process.The film depicts Phil’s desperation and worsening state, showing him being met with her wrath of literal slaps in the face every new Groundhog Day:
Thank goodness Phil finally acquiesces to his plight of reliving the same day over and over again and to the futility of trying to become Rita’s perfect guy. One Groundhog Day he stops the act and vulnerably opens up to Rita, telling her the whole truth about his situation and opening up about his emotions. Surprisingly, despite his crazy story, she shows him some compassion, saying “Maybe I should spend the day with you as an objective witness, just to see what happens.” On this day Phil repents of his old ways and admits his genuine love for Rita while she is asleep. While in previous scenes Phil attempts to commit suicide to stop the endless cycle of Groundhog Days, in this scene we witness a more powerful death—a death of the old self-centered, sleazy, and bitter Phil with his ulterior motives:
Phil has something of a conversion experience here after hitting rock bottom, and you might even say that he is resurrected to new life. This is the film’s turning point, the point where transformation finally begins, and it happens not because he tries so hard to become the holy vision of Rita’s perfect guy. Rather, he gives up, resigning himself to the endless cycle of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. He takes up piano and ice sculpting because he actually becomes interested in learning them. He tries to save a homeless old man’s life over and over again because he begins to genuinely care. He becomes altruistic, daily saving the same boy falling from a tree and fixing flat tires for little old ladies. He has died to his old self and his desire to win Rita over. Interestingly, it is only at this point, when his detachment becomes complete, that Rita actually falls for Phil, and the unseen forces at work end his twilight zone of Groundhog Day:
There has been some discussion of how much time elapses for Phil in his time loop. Harold Ramis, the director of the film, states in the DVD commentary that he believes 10 years pass, but he has been quoted elsewhere explaining that it could be 30 or 40 years or maybe even 10,000 years. As Phil says in one scene when he is reporting on Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who predicts how long winter will last, “You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life”:
Sanctification is similar, is it not? A long, drawn out, frustrating, and humbling process—and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life! It only seems to finally come about when we acquiesce to our imperfection and inability to live up to anybody’s (including God’s) standards of the perfect guy or gal, dying to our selfish desires for glory and accepting that we remain sinners in and of ourselves, in God’s sight we are accepted as if we were not flawed because of Jesus Christ. It is at these points in our lives that God’s grace can begin to bear fruit, just as it does with Phil when he finally surrenders himself to the realities of Groundhog Day.
For now, happy Groundhog Day today … and tomorrow and the next day.