The Truth Between Us #6 – For this special “Chrismukkah” post of The Truth, Dr. Murray Watson offers his thoughts on Christmas and Hanukkah falling on the same date, lessons for Christians from the Hanukkah story, and what the overlap may symbolize for Jewish-Christian relations.
Murray Watson: Many of us Christians (and many Jews too, I suspect) grew up thinking of Judaism and Christianity as two distinct and parallel religious traditions—“parallel,” in the sense of two lines that coexist at an equal distance from each other without ever crossing. And yet, over and over again, I continue to be amazed at how wrong that conception of our relationship is: as contemporary scholars are showing, “Christianity” and “Judaism” are not (and never have been) two hermetically sealed religious systems, entirely independent of each other, and we have never stopped intersecting with each other over the centuries (for better or for worse). Especially for us as Christians, Judaism has never stopped being a dynamic conversation-partner, even when our leaders actively discouraged those interactions and sometimes tried to de-Judaize Christianity. It was always an effort bound to ultimately fail.
This year, Christmas and Hanukkah overlap to a rare degree. The first of Hanukkah’s eight nights in 2016 is also Christmas Eve, the night when most of the world’s Christians begin their celebrations of Jesus’ birth (this has apparently only happened 8 times since the year 1900). Since Christmas is traditionally considered to last for 12 days, this year Hanukkah falls entirely within the Christmas season, which is making many Christians pay more attention to it than usual.
They are discovering that Hanukkah is something very different from a “Christmas, but without Jesus”. And no doubt the overlap is a challenge for Jewish parents and community leaders, who go to great lengths to emphasize that Hanukkah is quite a minor, post-Biblical holiday, which should not be dressed up to look or sound like Christmas. It has its own particular history, beauty, music and traditions, and has nothing to do with what Christians will be celebrating, starting on the evening of December 24. There is no competition between the two.
And yet there are fortuitous intersections for many of us Christians. The story of the courage of the Jews during the “enlightened” Syrian-Greek crackdown on their religion is not told in Jewish Bibles—but it is in Catholic Bibles, which contain two books (First and Second Maccabees) that recount the larger story of that period, the horrific sufferings of many devout Jews because of their unshakable adherence to their faith, and the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple. The story of the martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother, told in 2 Maccabees 7, has loomed large in Catholic preaching, as an example of what real faith should look like, especially under the worst of persecution.
The words of the seven young martyrs, addressed to the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes, have never ceased to inspire Christians: “You accursed wretch! You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws … I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses … I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he is alone is God.”
Especially for those of us who know the history of the Shoah, and the often-heroic witness given by Jews during the most horrific indignities and tortures, the story of that period sounds strikingly modern—and it has terrible echoes in even more recent events, where Christians in some countries are daily suffering brutality, abuse and death because they will not renounce their faith. The hope of resurrection so central to these stories—hope that extends beyond the horrors of this world—has inspired both of our traditions for centuries. The story of Hanukkah has much to say to us Christians today, especially in situations of oppression, violence and threats. It is no surprise that the members of the Maccabee family are regarded as saints in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and venerated on August 1.
And the particular significance of December 24 this year is, on another level as well, a reminder to Christians of their deep rootedness in Judaism. The Roman Martyrology (the officially-compiled list of those acknowledged as saints by Catholicism) lists, as its commemoration on December 24: “All the holy ancestors of Jesus Christ (son of David, son of Abraham, son of Adam), who were pleasing to God and became righteous and died in keeping with their faith”.
Two of the New Testament Gospels (Matthew and Luke) include extensive genealogies which are intended to show Jesus’ innate connectedness with the long history of his people—tracing him back to Abraham and (in Luke’s case) all the way back to Adam. As Father Raymond Brown, a prominent Catholic Biblical scholar, once wrote, the genealogies “build up from Abraham to the high point of David the king … [and] … the gloriously reigning Judean kings of the house of David”. But they also include “an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels”.
Jesus’ own family tree, highlighted on December 24, is both a reminder of the holiness of the “good olive tree” (St. Paul’s term) into which Christians are grafted, but also of the messiness of human (and sacred) history. Those genealogies, and the acknowledgement of centuries of ancestors of Jesus “who were pleasing to God and became righteous and died in keeping with their faith,” reminds Christians that their own sacred story makes no sense apart from the story of the people of Israel, ancient and modern. Despite our frailties, stupidity and mistakes, God remains sovereignly capable of guiding human history in radically unexpected directions (and is not the modern friendship between Jews and Christians one of those?)
And on some level, both Hanukkah and Christmas remind us that it is so often God’s way to work in and through human means to accomplish God’s intentions. Whether that is understood as God’s Incarnation (as we Christians believe), or whether it is our active participation in the creative, redemptive work of God through our efforts here on earth (as Jews believe, and as Hanukkah demonstrates)—in both cases, we say that God has a profound respect for our humanity, and desires to partner with it. In what we try do, we do not act alone … and that, I think, is both reassuring and slightly terrifying.
To all my Jewish friends, neighbours and colleagues, I wish a joyous celebration of the Eight Nights, and I pray that, together, we will work to bring more and more light into our world, which seems so often to be swallowed up in much darkness, and needs what, together, we have to offer.
Lazar, I’d be interested to hear your take as an Orthodox Jew on this season. What message do you think Christians ought to take from the celebration of Hanukkah?
Lazar: Well, Murray, I certainly don’t insist that Christians take lessons from Jewish holidays. With that said, for those Christians who do find it meaningful to explore Jewish practices, I think there are some powerful ideas in the Hanukkah story.
First and foremost, the simple and surprisingly profound fact that without Hanukkah, there is no Christmas. A minute of reflection on that reality causes something of a paradox to surface – Without the willingness of a small group of Jews to employ war and violence in defense of the Jewish faith, the Christmas message of universal salvation and peace would not be possible. And I want to be entirely clear that I do not mean to present Judaism as a religion of war and Christianity as one of peace. But today, when some churches seem incapable of understanding any use of force by the Jewish state to defend itself, it is important to recall that evil is sometimes defeated through violence, and the defeat of evil allows society and individuals to turn their efforts toward pursuits like peace, faith, and charity.
Ironically, many Jews today have also forgotten the historical story of Hanukkah and the message that lies therein. The sages chose to focus on the miracle of the oil, and not on the military triumph over the Seleucid Greek forces. In contrast, Maimonides, (who served Saladin, the sultan who embarked on successful jihad against the Crusaders), sees the miracle as only the military victory. As my father points out, even when Maimonides is talking about the oil lasting for eight days, he doesn’t say it was the result of a miracle. It may be that Maimonides’ focus on the war comes from him being intimately involved with a successful holy war during his life.
It is also important – especially around events such as the recent UN Security Council vote that casts Jewish sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall, and the ancestral Jewish heartland as “flagrant violation” of international law with “no legal validity” – that Christians understand what Hanukkah means to Jews. We see it as an affirmation of our connection with the land, especially the Temple Mount. We see it as a model of attachment to faith in the face of violent pressure to assimilate, a pattern that has repeated itself in every generation. Matityahu’s (Mattathias) declaration in 1 Maccabees – “I do not care if every Gentile in this empire has obeyed the king and yielded to the command to abandon the religion of his ancestors. My children, my relatives, and I will continue to keep the covenant that God made with our ancestors.” – is a powerful model for those Jews who have lived in times and places that featured intense pressures to shed their Jewishness.
And as Christians today face violence and persecution in the Middle East because of their faith, they might find new meaning in that story.
Murray: Are there messages or ideas that you personally, as a religious Jew, appreciate about the traditional celebration of Christmas?
Lazar: It’s hard not to appreciate – even savor? – the whimsical and joyous atmosphere and the mood leading up to the Christmas in the United States and other majority-Christian countries. Christmas markets in Europe are absolutely magical.
But here in the Middle East, Christmas celebrations have become bellwethers for the tolerance of the society around them, while taking on an undertone of determination, even defiance. That, of course, is to be admired on a much deeper level.
Murray: Do you share the concerns recently expressed by some Israeli rabbis that Christmas celebrations are inappropriately encroaching on public life in Israel?
Lazar: This ties in to my earlier bellwether observation. A society that can’t entertain the idea of Christmas trees in hotels can hardly be considered an especially tolerant one. I can understand some discomfort with the pervasiveness of Christmas in societies in which Jews are a minority. But where Jews are the majority?
If Christians are indeed protected in Israel, and are part of the fabric of society- as Israel likes to claim – then their celebrations cannot be forced from the public space. If we don’t want Christmas to be celebrated in our public spaces, then we don’t Christians in our public spaces.
In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.