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No More War On Christmas

Christmas Eve Homily – 12/24/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

 

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.

Alexander 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. …

“On 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 cultural “reality”. 

”Judea’s 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. 

To 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. …

”Jewish 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.”

So 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. 

We 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 all”. 

I 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?

I conclude with Rabbi Lerner’s own reflection on the meaning of the convergence of these two religious celebrations on this one national holiday:

“There 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.”

And 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!   

 


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