For only the fourth time since 1900, Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, fall on the same day. Tonight, we have the unique opportunity to acknowledge our ancestors in faith as well as to celebrate the nativity of Jesus. The eight-day Festival of Lights begins at the same time as the 12 days of Christmas.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Hanukkah story, let me give you a very brief summary. During the second century before the Common Era, Syrian-Greeks ruled the Holy Land and tried to force the Jewish people to accept Greek culture and beliefs. Against tremendous odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the occupying army, drove out the Greeks, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God. When it was time to light the Temple’s Menorah, they found only a single day’s supply of oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks.
Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. The Festival of Hanukkah was initiated to commemorate and publicize the miracles of victory over a more powerful enemy and of the power of light over darkness. Each night, candles are lit, one for each night of the celebration, and prayers are offered.
In addition to lighting candles, we have other ways of pushing back against the darkness. We surround our homes, outside as well as inside, with colorful lights. We decorate trees with ornaments that sparkle and shine and, of course, with colorful lights.
While the days may be getting shorter as we lose sunlight, we make up for it by creating our own light. Then, on about the 25th of December or so, the days start getting a little longer. By Epiphany, we have five minutes more daylight than we did on Christmas Day. And it goes on.
Tonight, we celebrate the lifting of another darkness, a spiritual darkness that can trouble the soul. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed,
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9.2).
He goes on to say that the child has been born for us shall be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The story of Jesus’ nativity is well known. It is told in churches, to be sure, but also in school plays, in concert performances and on playlists and on the radio. Christmas music is the backdrop of most commercial activity from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We hear so much of it we can become deaf to the story.
And, sometimes, in the retelling, a story gets sanitized and glamorized and we lose touch with just how gritty the situation was. Earlier this week, I drove by the homeless encampment that is under the 980 freeway in Oakland. As I took in the scene –it is quite large, very rough looking, producing a noticeable odor—I wondered if the nativity story were written today, would this be where Mary and Joseph would find a place to stay? Would their journey be the result, not of a royal edict for a census, but of an eviction from housing they could no longer afford?
The conditions in which Mary gave birth to Jesus were as rough as that homeless encampment. A stable with straw covering a dirt floor is about as basic as it gets. Yet, that it was in this primitive place that God came to us. Not in a palace or a home or even a hotel room. He was born in a barn, in the company of farm animals, not royalty.
His earthly family was not from the priestly or royal class. They were ordinary human beings, a Jewish couple. The circumstances of the birth could not have been more difficult. They were travelers during the last and probably most difficult stage of Mary’s pregnancy. They had no safe place to stay, no place to call home.
The birth of Jesus was first announced not to the nobility or ruling class but, as we heard in tonight’s Gospel, to humble people doing the boring but dangerous work of protecting livestock.
Life for Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and other ordinary Jews in the first century was harsh. It was a world occupied once again by outsiders, this time by the Romans. The Jewish people were, essentially, servants to a mighty imperial power.
It is into this environment that God takes human form. He came to be the light of the world.
This is a difficult year for many people. There is a sense of alienation and disconnectedness throughout the country. We see the swastika, a symbol of hatred and anti-Semitism, painted on buildings and displayed on flags. Many people are concerned about the state of affairs in the world. How will the country change during the next four years? And, more perhaps more honestly, how will this affect me, personally?
No one can know what the future will bring, so many of us imagine the worst. Then we worry, become more alienated and disconnected, more frustrated, less hopeful. We are in darkness.
But, tonight, there is good news as we turn to the light. We recognize and celebrate that hope came to us in a stable far from here. That light came into the world to drive out the darkness.
God came to us in the humility of ordinary life and is with us every day.
Hear the words of the angel of the Lord: do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Rejoice. God is with us.
© Rev. Deacon Pam J. Jester