Jewish Christmas and Christian Hanukkah

By Tim Kelleher

At the age of eight, all I knew of Judaism was that Jesus was Jewish, and that my dusky, curly-haired girlfriend, Ivy, was too.

As the holiday approached -- with snow descending and chestnuts roasting -- a vertical row in the candy store filled once more with images of Menorahs on the Hanukkah cards I assumed were part of, "Jewish Christmas."

I admit, this assumption extended, unchallenged, well past childhood. In my neighborhood of New York City, coming to terms with Italians, Puerto Ricans, and the Blacks of early adolescent friendships, was the pressing social priority.

I knew nothing of any temples in Jerusalem, let alone that there had been two in long-ago history. Nor did I know the temple served as the physical and mythical touchstone of identity for Jews everywhere. And, I certainly had no clue that the Jerusalem temple was not only a lead character in the Hanukkah drama, but the very theater in which it was staged.

The Hanukkah story is about light -- extinguished by enemies who shrewdly recognized the power of its symbol, and rekindled by those to whom that symbol had been given.

As a consequence of the latter's rebellion, a foreign yoke was cast off, and the temple restored to its purpose. Indeed, Josephus, the great historian of Jewish antiquity, refers to it as the Festival of Lights, yet never mentions the "miracle of the Menorah oil" component of the story. For him, it is clearly liberation and restoration that are of central, enduring significance.

Ivy's family had a Menorah -- the image most associated with the holiday. Unfortunately, I only ever saw it from the street -- in their window. Blue electric bulbs would pop on as darkness fell, and we kids ran for home inventing excuses for being late.

In time, I learned that Menorah candles are lit over the course of eight days, in an exercise of deep anamnesis, entrusted to ritual since the destruction of that second temple, in the year 70, C.E.

When done old-school style, wicks that are rooted in oil prepared expressly for the occasion, are ignited to host flames whose symbolism is of even more ancient provenance.

"...Et erat lux," the Latin renders it -- the impossible, incomprehensible moment depicted in the Book of Genesis, when the creative act planted a luminous seed in the womb of the void -- "...And there was light."

Light is likewise key in Exodus 3:14 -- the scene in which Moses encounters a bush burning without being consumed, and the name of God is disclosed in the inexhaustible self-identification of theTetragrammaton.

The Prologue of the Gospel of John is commonly understood to be a reiteration of the opening of Genesis. The theme of light shining in darkness is central, as is the shocking claim that the Word of the transcendent God became flesh, "and dwelt among us."

Christianity understandably appropriated the temple lamp, reverencing the original symbolism of Divine Presence and the startling procession of the Incarnation from it.

Like its temple predecessor, the Christian sanctuary lamp, is meant to burn ceaselessly -- except for the brief period from Good Friday, when "Darkness fell over the Earth," to the radiant triumph of Easter morning.

Of course, the two most important feasts in Christian life are Nativity and Easter. Neither stands alone. They exist co-axially. But it is Easter that illuminates the significance of the Nativity. Without the light of the Resurrection, the Nativity is simply another birth -- one that would have been forgotten ages ago -- swallowed by the darkness of a humiliating death.

This year has found me thinking about Hanukkah more than ever before. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has to do with the darkness of the ongoing Israel/Palestine agony which has erupted so shamefully in recent weeks.

Yet, the very first thought of Hanukkah prompted the memory of something witnessed years ago when I had the privilege to cut the teeth of my early twenties in the Jesuit novitiate of the Maryland Province.

One night, I sat alone in the rarified darkness of the great Domestic Chapel there. No doubt caught up in the melodrama of some crisis of my own making, I hadn't noticed that the enormous sanctuary lamp that hangs suspended from the ceiling had gone out.

It was only the entrance of Brother Andy that alerted me to it.

Andy was small man in his sixties, with more than his share of physical challenges. They included a hunchback that left him with a pronounced limp, and a sinus condition that labored his breathing and caused him to speak as though through a snorkel. Yet for all his hardships, he went about his many "menial" duties with steady regularity and genuine humility.

There was Andy, slowly lowering the great lamp by its chain to floor level. When it reached him, he began the task of replacing the candle. The reverent care with which he worked, then lighted the wick, literally caught my breath. The prayer of it was palpable.

His work complete, he began to hoist the lamp, even more slowly, back to its place high above -- where it once again illuminated the tabernacle, the chapel, and our lives, with the flame sprung from that burning bush of Mount Horeb. The flame rekindled on Hanukkah in the temple long ago, reconfigured now in resurrectional glory.

People fight today, over whether we concede something important by greeting each other with, "Happy Holidays" rather "Merry Christmas." I believe there is a foolish cultural war being waged, and that this is one of its casualties.

But, the truth is, in this part of the world there are but two holidays in this season. They are Hanukkah and Christmas. And they share a precious common light.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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