Christmas Eve 122416 – Time to Hit the Streets
They call it the December dilemma — interfaith households faced with celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah. Tonight as we gather to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, our Jewish friends are lighting the first candle on their menorahs.
Our celebrations have this much in common. In this Northern Hemisphere, they both take place during wintertime, when nights are long, temperatures are cold and nature appears barren. Both these holidays use symbols of light. Both festivals have roots in a miracle.
Chanukah celebrates the victory of a Jewish rebellion against the powerful Syrians. The Israelites then reclaimed Jerusalem and wanted to purify and re-dedicate their Temple. But they only had enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted eight days. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Those events took place about 600 years after Isaiah had hopes of restoring the City of Jerusalem.
The original meaning of the first reading, taken from Isaiah, is very different from our present understanding of that passage today. Every time a new descendent of David became king, the Israelites hoped that that person would be the ideal savior. And they waited and waited.
We Christians reinterpreted the dreams of prophets like Isaiah. We have come to believe the birth of Jesus ushered in a time of deliverance from all evil on this planet. We believe Jesus was that ideal king although he never claimed to be so.
The infancy narrative in tonight’s gospel from Luke is symbolic and biblical. It reveals to us the mystery of a God becoming human and modeling for us a way of living. It is a tale of deliverance similar to the story of the Maccabean’s revolt against their oppressors. Rabbi Howard Berman wrote, both [the festivals of Chanukah and Christmas] ultimately affirm the miracle of liberation and salvation … of God’s love … and of the deliverance of humanity.
The birth of Jesus was only the beginning of the Christmas story. The rest of the chapters depend on us, our constant attention to peace on earth and to that end, our belief in miracles. We yearn for peace and harmony like people have for generations before us.
According to St. Augustine (354-430 CE) “The purpose of miracles is to teach us to see the miraculous everywhere.” We are miracles for one one another. We keep the candles burning on our trees of life, we allow the radiance of the light of Christ to burn brightly in a time when fears arise everywhere.
A phrase from a Chanukah song reminds us, “we have come this far always believing that justice will somehow prevail.” A familiar Christmas carol echoes the same expectation, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Our Jewish friends light candles to recall how their ancestors set aside their fears of tyranny. Angels in the bible told Mary, Joseph and the shepherds not to be afraid.
As we celebrate Christmas we, too, decide again and again, amidst our fears, to walk and speak with courage at home, where we work, at school and in the public arena. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, described the birth of Jesus in this way — “God hit the streets.”
Like our ancestors in faith we have been waiting for a savior for a long time. The author Alice Walker reminds us, however, like other poets and sages have, that we are the ones we have been waiting for. In her words, “With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.”
Christmas is the creation of something new where God – who is always with us – is essential to what we are to become. God has hit the streets after all and will continue to do so whenever we do.