There is, I have been
told, though it could just be a rumor I suppose, or maybe a fantasy of
some twisted mind, I do not know—nevertheless, it has been reported to
me that there is going on this very day, or night, all around us, a
“war on Christmas”. Has
anyone else heard about this?
Lots of folk are
getting all worked up about this issue, for and against, so I thought it
would be better not to say anything about it, just play it safe.
That delusional thought lasted about two seconds.
So here’s my take. Call
me an utopian fool, as long as you call me a fool for God, but I think
if you are serious about putting Christ back into Christmas, than maybe
we ought to start by asking, what have we done to house the homeless in
the name of the one born in the stable; what have we done to feed the
hungry in the name of the one who fed 5,000 on a couple of loaves and
fish; what have we done to provide health care to the uninsured in the
name of the one who healed the sick; what have we done to end war in the
name of the one called Prince of Peace? When we get serious about those things, then I will know that
we are serious about putting Christ back into Christmas.
OK, so what about
those stores and businesses which have adopted “Happy Holidays” as
their seasonal greeting instead of “Merry Christmas”?
What do we do about that?
Let me tell you a
story, a very old story, older than the Christmas story in fact by about
165 years. Most of you are
aware that Jews celebrate Chanukah in December, the exact date varies
from year to year. You are probably vaguely aware that it involves 8
candles to symbolize a single day’s supply of lamp oil which
miraculously lasted 8 days when Jews reclaimed the temple from their
Syrian rulers. That is the
“Sunday School” version, or should I say “Shabbat school”
version, of the story. But
since this is the late service, I’d like to share with you the adult
version as recalled by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine.
the Great introduced the Jews to Hellenistic Greek culture—its
philosophy, its literature, and its impressive technology and power.
Forcibly dragged into the larger Mediterranean world, many Jews could
see that “the real world” was dominated by wealth and power. …
It was apparent to these Jews that their tribal religion would
have little meaning to those who had conquered the world. The religion
of their fathers seemed irrelevant in a world reshaped by the
“modern” realities of science; they were drawn by the allure of a
society that worshiped the body and saw reality in terms of what could
be tasted, touched, and directly experienced by the senses.
These Jewish Hellenizers saw no point in resisting Greek rule. Their
goal was to live in peace with the powers that ran the world. …
the other hand, the vast majority of the Jewish people were small,
independent farmers, who lived on the land and brought its produce to
Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate their hard-won freedom
from slavery. … These Jews resented foreign rule and detested the
city-dwelling elites who seemed to be culling favor with the
Hellenistic conquerors, imitating their ways, abandoning the religion
of the past, and becoming worshippers at the shrine of political and
plight worsened considerably in the early part of the second century
with the ascendance to the throne of the Antiochus IV. … who
attempted to impose Hellenistic culture by force. He ordered the
Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Greek gods and forbade the
practice of circumcision, kashrut, and observance of the Sabbath.
To the already assimilated elites of the city, the new rules
were insensitive, but did not constitute a major crisis. … Yet many
of the people in the countryside, burdened by taxes that expropriated
more of their wealth, found the Hellenists’ narcissistic fascination
with their own power repugnant. The essence of their now-banned
religion was its insistence that there was a single God governing the
universe who made possible freedom from oppression. It was in the name
of that God that they joined a rebellion against Antiochus under the
leadership of a country … and his five sons, known as the Maccabees.
fight against superior military force was totally illogical and
unrealistic from the Hellenizers’ standpoint. But the Maccabees
[represented a] people who could not submit to the rule of the
imperialist, and whose religion taught them that they need not,
because the central Power of the universe was a power that rejected
the reality of oppression. Their Torah told the tale of their origins
in a slave rebellion against another imperialist power thought to be
invincible—Egypt of the Pharaohs.
Armed with these stories, the Maccabees and their followers
used guerrilla tactics to win the first national liberation struggle
in recorded history. In 165 bce they retook Jerusalem, purified and
rededicated the Temple (chanukah means dedication), and rekindled the
eternal light that was to glow therein. …
people intuitively recognized that something miraculous had happened.
The miracle was this: a critical mass of people had come to recognize
that there was a Force in the world that made possible the
transformation of what is to what ought to be (the Force that we call
God). That recognition, when it takes hold of large numbers of people,
becomes a manifestation of God’s presence, and in that presence
“the power of the people,” suffused with divine energy, becomes
greater than all the technology and manipulations of the most
sophisticated forms of oppression.”
goes the adult version of Chanukah.
Thus Chanukah is about the miracle of a lamp burning eight days
just as Christmas is about the miracle of a Virgin Birth—that is only
one small part of a much larger story.
In the case of Chanukah, the larger story is about the refusal to
sell out to the interests of secular power, wealth and empire.
Chanukah is the celebration that insists upon a different power
as the basis of world order, human dignity and peaceful living.
celebrate this night the birth of a particular Jewish child as Savior of
the world so please give serious thought to the significance of that
Jewish heritage in light of this older holiday story, for this year, the
first time in nearly 30 years, Chanukah begins on the night of
Christ’s birth. Think about that story we know so well, the birth of Jesus in
a manger to common peasants, the flight from King Herod—the symbol of
worldly power—to Egypt, home of the ancient pharaohs and symbol of the
oppression out of which the Jewish nation was born, the significance of
the traveling magi and local
shepherds bowing before this peasant king, and
the angels’ proclamation of “peace on earth and goodwill to
suggest to you that the birth of Jesus, the reason for the season, is no
less than the rebirth of Chanukah, the continuation of God’s work to
make the Good News present in our world.
Could it be that a company’s decision today to say “Happy
Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”
is not taking Christ out of Christmas, but rather the simple common
courtesy of acknowledging that the rich and beautiful tradition we
celebrate here tonight is not the only tradition in this time with
truth, beauty and light for our sometimes dark and ugly world?
conclude with Rabbi Lerner’s own reflection on the meaning of the
convergence of these two religious celebrations on this one national
is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has
universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the
light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is
beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage
homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would
give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and
its local surrogate Herod. … To celebrate that vulnerable child as a
symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of
the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong
analogies to our Jewish Chanukah celebration which also celebrates the
victory of the weak over the powerful.”
so we celebrate this night not only the birth of Christ as our Lord and
Savior, but with our Jewish brothers and sisters as well as those of
many other faiths, we celebrate the victory of light over dark, hope
over despair, love over hate, peace over war.
For this is what putting Christ into Christmas is all about, the
victory of God over the evil of our world.
Give glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace and
goodwill to all!