Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Miracle of Light

Today the Church commemorates Saint Lucy (283-304), martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, and patroness of winter light-festivals. By sheer coincidence, this is also the first full day of Chanukah, which was probably the first Jewish holiday of which I was aware as a child. In the fall of 1953, I started in our local public school, P.S. 91. We learned manners and how to behave respectfully towards our elders and those in authority, had regular fire drills, and had monthly birthday parties. And in December we "lit" chalk Channukah candles on the blackboard.

A historically minor holiday, Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with nightly menorah lighting and eating  fried food. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the year 164 BC after its desecration by the Gentiles. Chanukah was the festival Jesus was in Jerusalem for when he gave his famous "Good Shepherd discourse" in John 10. At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter (John 10:22).

According to the familiar story recounted in the Old Testament books of Maccabees, in the second century BC, Israel was ruled by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Hellenistic culture and abandon Jewish religious practices. A small band of faithful Jews, led by the priestly family of the Maccabees, defeated the Hellenizers and successfully rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the GentilesBut, when they sought to light the Temple's menorah (candelabrum), they found only a once-day supply of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, that one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

So, at the heart of the festival is the nightly lighting of the menorah in order to commemorate and publicize this marvelous miracle. On the first night of Chanukah (last night), one candle is lit. By the eighth night, all eight lights are kindled. Since the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is also customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the familiar potato latke (pancake) garnished with applesauce or sour cream, while an Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganya (doughnut). There was also a tradition of Chanukah gelt, small gifts of money, to children, which has helped popularize Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas - not just as a winter light festival but also as a great gift-giving occasion.

With the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state in the land of the covenant in 1948 and the recovery of the Temple Mount in 1967, Chanukah has fittingly taken on added significance as a celebration of the renewed presence of God's People in the Holy Land. 

But the centerpiece of the festival always remains the lighted menorah, a reminder of an ancient miracle, itself an expression of God's miraculous divine light and so a symbol of how God's light overcomes every form of darkness in our dangerous and threatening world.

(PhotoPresident Harry S Truman in the White House Oval Office, receiving a Chanukah Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and the Israeil Ambassador to the U.S.,  Abba Eban.) 

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