My high school was founded by a Jewish philanthropist, originally exclusively for Jewish orphans; nearly half of my graduating class of 96 were Jewish. It therefore embarrasses me to admit that while I pretty well understand Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Passover, I never quite bothered to pay attention to what Hanukkah was all about. I knew my classmates lit candles, and that sometimes Hanukkah fell more near to Christmas Day than others -- but that was about it. Such is the cultural myopia of a Christian focused on his Savior's birth, and on the attendant societal celebrations. My Jewish friends could do what they would do, and I wished them all the joy of the season -- but I should have taken an interest in what they were commemorating, both out of respect for them and because I probably needed the edification. That which is no threat to one's own culture or faith should be embraced for its contributions to cultural richness.
As for my own faith, the longer I moved into adulthood, the more I felt more spiritually energized and enlightened by Advent than by Christmas itself (although, in a way that counter-intuitively rejoiced in its Jewishness, I clearly love Christmas as well). Advent's promise of a profound change in our very covenant with our Lord somehow appeals to me more (maybe because of what might be an over-intellectualized conceit of mine) than does an idyllic baby in a manger, helpless and majestic at one and the same time. This babe, our Lord made flesh, is almost too perfectly symbolic of new life -- so obvious in its symbolic meaning as to be too easily grasped, too little requiring us to stretch ourselves, to struggle for understanding, and through that struggle to grow. God's gift of self and Son is so perfect, so simple, that we weak humans too easily take it for granted.
Advent, on the other hand, is not so much joyous as it is challengingly hopeful. Advent is less the time of Christ than of John. "In those days came John the Baptist," reads the King James Version of Matthew, "preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Repent. Advent, from its very start, requires something of us, something difficult. "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost," promised John, "and with fire."
And in Luke's account, Zacharias prophesied about his newborn son John, saying that he would prepare the way of the Lord, "to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." Or as explained in the Gospel of John, the Baptist came "to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world."
Even that light, though, was a threshing fire, as John repeatedly made clear. Before we can celebrate, said John (back to quoting Matthew), "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance." Only after repentance, indeed only after martyrdom, would the fruits be available, the light fully unveiled, the promise everlastingly fulfilled. Without that corrective advance warning from Advent, Christmas becomes too much a celebration unmerited, a Gift received too facilely, a joy too devoid (on our end, not the Christ child's) of conscious purpose.
These thoughts, in form recognizable but far too vague (because I hadn't bothered with the discipline yet of writing them down), were swirling in the recesses of my mind in the days since church last Sunday, when an odd and serendipitous thing happened. In the course of my near-random daily Internet surfing, looking for whatever news might be of interest, I saw a mention that Thursday marked Hanukkah's end this year. And, for once, I felt enough embarrassed by my cultural cluelessness to take the time to find out what this Jewish celebration is all about.
And, lo and behold, I found it eerily similar to Advent. From the website www.Chabad.org, the page called "Chanukah in a Nutshell," the first sentence: "Chanukah… celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration." And, as in Zacharias' account, it is a light offered "in the shadow of death": A wicked king (Antiochus) from a foreign land "enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews." Thousands were put to death for the audacity of insisting, despite the threat of death, on abiding by the ordinances of their faith and honoring their G-d. When Antiochus saw the Jews still unbowed, he raised a mighty army against their vastly inferior numbers… yet the Jews repelled the army. A second and a third time he sent ever larger armies against the Jews; but at great cost, the Jews prevailed. But the greatest miracle was not the victory in battle; no, the greatest miracle was far quieter, and it was a miracle of light in the darkness.
The Jews "reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G-d. When they sought to light the Temple's menorah (the seven branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity." In words that Christians could easily interpret as presaging the Sermon on the Mount, the Jews at Hanukah thank G-d for "delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous."
It's a great story, and a greater message. Hope amidst despair, sacrifice for one's Lord, miraculous light in darkness, life from death, rebirth in all its glory.
None of this should surprise us, of course. Christianity grew out of Judaism. Its ethical codes flow from the same root. Its faith is in the same Lord, the Lord of Moses. It should be no wonder that the themes of some of its holy observances are the same.
For Christians, by definition, the Lord of Moses is newly revealed, and His covenant updated, in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. In Advent, though, in these weeks before Christ's Mass, we know not exactly what is in store for us; we merely know that it requires our repentance even unto sacrifice, our faith against the odds, our willingness ourselves to shine miraculous light in times and places cursed by darkness.
Of Zacharias, Luke tells us "his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord." Burn oil or burn incense, the flame will create more than it destroys. The son of a Jewish priest will "turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." The Lord is in Advent; the Lord is coming. As we await, in all solemnity, His promised arrival, may we take time also to honor the abundantly holy people of the ancient faith from whence He comes.
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