All I Really Want for Christmas: Hope

“All I Really Want for Christmas: Hope”
Isaiah 9: 2, 5-7
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
December 2, 2018

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Today, also, is the first day of Hanukkah. I think it is significant that this year of all years these two religious observances land on the same day. They both speak of how hope delivers light. In the midst of torrential rains, horrific fires, hurricanes, devasting violence wrought by humans – including increased anti-Semitic acts, we have needed hope now more than ever. As we light the first candle on our Advent wreath, the Jewish community lights the first candle of the menorah, we celebrate the much needed gift of hope. A gift that has been celebrated for centuries. As Isaiah proclaims, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Are you familiar with Hanukah and the lighting of the menorah? Although Hanukkah is considered a “minor” Jewish festival, it ranks as one of the most beloved Jewish holidays, full of light and family celebration. Hanukkah (known as the Festival of Lights) is not mentioned in the Bible. The historical events upon which the celebration is based are recorded in Maccabees I and II, two books contained within a later collection of writings known as the Apocrypha.

In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian King desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem, the holiest place for Jews at that time. The King also abolished Judaism and Jews were offered two options: conversion or death. The Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus. A Jewish resistance movement – led by a priestly family known as the Maccabees – developed against the cruelty of the King. Although they were outnumbered, the Maccabee family and fighters miraculous won two major battles. For the Jews, Hanukkah evokes stirring images of Jewish courage against overwhelming odds.

After the battles, the Jews rededicated the Jewish temple. It is said that the victorious Jews could find only very little pure olive oil that could light the Menorah only for a day. But miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. The miracle started a tradition of lighting the 8 candles of the menorah, one each day.

Yes, it is fitting that the first day of Advent is the first day of Hanukkah, at least for this year, for we need hope now more than ever before. And with the increased anti-Semitic incidences, it is imperative we remember that the one whose birth we are preparing to celebrate was a Jew. Jesus was born a Jew. Jesus lived as a Jew. Jesus died as a Jew.  He was circumcised on the 8th day and presented in the temple on the 40th day of his life.  At age 12, he journeyed to Jerusalem – possibly for a bar mitzvah-type ceremony.  Jesus went to the synagogue.  He was called rabbi and prophet. He preached from Jewish texts. He celebrated Jewish festivals. We see a Jesus who was a devout Jew, deeply engaged in the worship tradition of his people.  In addition, the twelve disciples were Jews.  His parents, Joseph and Mary, were Jews.  The Gospel writers were Jews. The Gospel writer, Luke, was born a gentile, but he converted to Judaism.  Other Christian leaders, like Paul and Mary Magdalene, were Jews. The gospels have no sense that Jesus was anything other than a Jew. The gospels don’t even have a sense that he came to create a new religion. That idea was completely foreign and did not even develop until much later. Jesus was a Jew.

All of this leads us to ask a significant question, a difficult question, but ask it we must: would there have been and would there be such anti-Semitism, would there have been an Auschwitz or the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, if every Christian church and every Christian home understood that Jesus was a devout Jew? This one whom Christians have called through the centuries – the Messiah, Lord and Savior, Son of God and son of David – this one was a Jew. Born a Jew, raised a Jew, died a Jew.

I am moved by a story entitled “Not In My Town.” The story goes like this: In Billings, Montana in 1995, a series of hate crimes took place against minority groups in the city. Graves were overturned in a Jewish cemetery. Offensive words and a swastika were scrawled on the house of an indigenous woman. People worshipping at a black church were intimidated. A brick was heaved through the window of a Jewish child who innocently displayed a menorah there.  And the citizens of Billings had an answer for them. An alliance quickly emerged, spearheaded by churches, the media and hundreds of local citizens.

The results were dramatic. Attendance at the black church rose steadily. People of different ethnic backgrounds and faith began to attend services there. The message was clear: “We may be all different, but we are one also. Threaten any of us and you threaten us all.”

A similar spirit propelled volunteers to come together and repaint the house of Dawn Fast Horse, the indigenous woman. This happened at amazing speed. Dawn had awoken one morning to see that her house had been defaced. By the evening, after two hundred people showed up to help, the house had been repainted.

When it came to the incident of the brick being thrown through the widow of the Jewish child, an interfaith group quickly had a creative idea. Everyone pitched in, including the local newspaper, which printed a Hanukkah page, including a full-color representation of a menorah. Thousands of Billings residents cut the paper menorah out and displayed it in their window. Nearly ten thousand people were displaying those paper menorahs in their windows, and the menorahs remained in place throughout the eight days of Hanukkah. It was a brilliant answer to the hate-mongers: A town that had a few Jews were saying with one collective voice, “We are all Jews now.” The story of what happened in Billings quickly spread, inspiring a national movement called “Not in Our Town” (Canfield and Hansen, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith, “We Are All Jews Now”).

That story gives me hope and we need to hear this story now for unfortunately, in the last couple of years, anti-Semitism has been on the rise. The number of anti-Semitic incidents across the US as a whole rose 57% in 2017, according to an audit by the Anti-Defamation League. The hate in the United States came into full view last year as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., with lines of men carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” And then, just weeks ago, the deadliest assault on Jews in US history. Eleven people gunned down as they attended their local synagogue on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. Synagogues across the country locked their doors and an icy fear spread through Jewish communities.

How did Redlands respond to such an attack? Within 24 hours notice from our local synagogue, faith communities gathered together at Congregation Emanu El to an overflowing sanctuary to stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors to declare, “Not in Our Town.” Last Tuesday, I gathered with my women clergy colleagues for coffee at Stells as I do every month. Rabbi Lindy is part of our clergy group. She spoke of an idea she had –  What if the various faith groups gathered together at Ed Hales Park on State St., next to the Christmas tree, holding menorahs, on the last night of Hanukkah to stand in unity against anti-Semitism? Of course, we, her colleagues, wholeheartedly affirmed her wonderful idea. Next Sunday, I will be at Ed Hales Park, for the 5 p.m. lighting of the menorah. I encourage you to be there, too.

In so doing, we keep the hope of Advent and the light of Hanukkah alive in our town.