Monday, December 22, 2008

Festival of Lights: Thoughts on Hanukkah

Last night the sun's setting marked the beginning of Hanukkah. Since there is some confusion about the holiday in Christian circles, I thought I would try to shed some light (pardon the shamelessly cheesy pun!) on the festival from my limited knowledge and experience.

When I talk with Christian friends about Jewish culture, many want to know, "Is Hanukkah a Biblical holiday?" The answer is no, the festival did not originate with the Biblical cannon; its origins were recorded in the apocrypha in the Book of the Maccabees during what is called the inter-testimental period (meaning it occurred during the roughly 200 year lapse between the Old and New Testaments). Even so, for the Jews it is an important celebration of God's enduring faithfulness to His people. And as such, it can provide some helpful wisdom and encouragement for the Church.

The eight-day festival commemorates God's deliverance of his people from the hand of the Seleucids, the Syrian-Greek army that controlled much of the known world in the second century, B.C.E. ( or A.D.). Antiocus IV Epiphanes was the Seleucids' leader, and he sought to Hellenize the world and to make Palestine a model Greek community. He overtook the temple, turning it into a site of pagan worship, and made all Jewish activity punishable by death.

In 167 B.C.E., a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to worship the pagan gods and killed the man who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice in his place. He fled to the wilderness with his five sons, and in 168, his son Judah Maccabee led a revolt against the Seleucid army. Miraculously, they prevailed. When the Maccabean army went into the Temple, they found only enough ritually pure oil to light the Temple's menorah for one night. But the oil burned for eight nights, long enough for new oil to be cleansed.

Each day of the Hanukkah observance, Jews offer thanks for God's provision in these miracles by reciting the Hallel, a prayer comprising Psalms 113-117. The Hebrew word Hallel comes from the phrase hallelujah, or, "praise ye Yahweh." Hallel simply means "praise," so the five Psalms collectively known as the Hallel are exclamations of adoration. Jews recite the Hallel on Hanukkah and at Passover--both festivals of freedom--to thank God for His past kindness and to praise Him with confidence for future blessings. In other words, it is a joyful expression of His hesed or "covenant faithfulness."

The joyful words "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory because of your love and your faithfulness" resonate from within the walls of Jewish homes and synagogues on the eight days of Hanukkah, which occurs during winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. Jews today used the servant candle in the middle of the menorah to light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on until all of the candles are lit on the eighth night. The lighting of the menorah symbolizes the darkness that was dispelled by the two miracles of Hanukkah.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us rejoice that the darkness has been bathed in light once and for all in the greatest of God's miracles--the Incarnation of His very Son!

"I have come into the world as light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."
John 12:46

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Seeing Past the Empty Living Room

Last night Matt and I attended a Christmas dinner at the local prison. Matt's been thinking about getting involved in a mentoring ministry there, and he was invited to attend the annual Christmas party in order to check things out. I was the plus one.

We went through security and a guard escorted us to the gymnasium, where all the men of the Jericho Project (a community of inmates within the prison) were waiting for us. These men live by a covenant of love for Christ and respect for one another in units separate from the rest of the facility. They choose to be a part of the Jericho Project because they want to see their lives transformed, both while they are incarcerated and thereafter.

Matt and I were seated at a table with a Vanderbilt law professor and three inmates, twenty-year-old Spencer, 30-something Andrew, and middle-aged Kenneth. While we ate our Cracker Barrel catered dinner (a real treat for them, they confessed), we chatted about their daily Bible studies and about Men of Valor, the group of mentors that provides them with individual spiritual counsel. They told me about their professions before being incarcerated, and Spencer admitted that he's never had a full-time job. Upon his release, he hopes to get into real estate in Southern California, where his sister lives. Kenneth and Andrew talked about their kids. I have no idea how these men ended up in jail, but I know that in the few months they've been involved with the Jericho Project, walls have indeed come down. Jesus Christ has torn down the stony walls of their hearts (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), evidenced by their very real joy and kindness.

After we ate, a group of the men sang and several inmates and mentors shared briefly. Finally, Mr. Lee, a member of the Men of Valor board gave a Christmas message. He talked openly about his wife's death several years prior, and how his four young children had dealt with the trauma. One of his twin sons, both of whom were with him at the dinner last night, had expressed uncertainty about Heaven. The then nine-year-old was perplexed by how Heaven could be a happy place if his mother was, as everyone told him, watching him from above. (I won't go into how obviously wrong this is theologically speaking--in Heaven we will be worshiping the Almighty God, not concerning ourselves with the foolish things of this present realm!)

Mr. Lee gave his son a beautiful illustration that day, which he shared last night. He told his young boy to picture Christmas morning at their house. His brother and two sisters receive everything they wanted, the living room is overflowing with gifts. But at the boy's place, there is nothing. He searches the room for even one gift belonging to him, but to no avail. Then, through tears he peers into the doorway leading into the kitchen and sees his mother, a smile creasing her face as she tries not to laugh because she knows this will be the best Christmas he's ever had. In the hallway behind her is the go-cart he's been pining after for months!

Mr. Lee likened this illustration to our own desperate longings. Our focus on the here-and-now sometimes keeps us from seeing past the living room of our circumstances. But if we would only look to the kitchen door, to see what marvelous things our King is planning for us, we would be encouraged and delighted!

As I sat at that table surrounded by inmates who have been changed by the scandalous grace of a Savior who took their sin upon Himself, I felt such kinship with them (and not only because I am also in desperate need of grace). Surely their days are filled with longing for something other than the empty living room of prison life. This transitional season of my own life can feel a little empty in a different-than-I-expected sort of way. But hope is being sure that what God has promised us will be accomplished (Luke 1:45), that the kitchen will hold new surprises in our life here on earth and ultimately in the life that is to come.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us...For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:18

Monday, December 8, 2008

As the Romans Do

This may sound a little cliche--and I just hate to sound cliche--but Rome is my favorite city in Europe (Paris is a close second...oh I am cliche aren't I?!). But truly, there is something so breathtaking about walking through a modern city--with cars whizzing by and people rushing off to work--and then suddenly seeing the Colosseum or Palentine Hill. I just love the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.

When I lived in Italy, Rome was my hub for travel every
weekend, since it was just two hours south of my quaint little Perugia by train. Of course I adored Papa Mio, the darling Italian man whose ristorante I frequented when passing through town, and the sights: the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps (where great writers like Keats and Shelley sat and wrote when they came to escape the cold of London), the Vatican, and the Colosseo. But it was a trip with my history of early Christianity class--and my professor, Alessandro, who looked like a Greek god and lived in a studio on the river with his gorgeous wife--that caused me to fall in love with the tension between old and new.

We traipsed around the city with Alessandro for hours as he pointed out all of the landmarks, showed us the sites of current archaeological excavation (it is amazing how much is still being uncovered all over the city!), and told us about the architectural significance of several centuries-old basilicas. Finally, we approached the Colosseum and saw where archaeologists are digging up the gladiators' barracks. And then, from a tiny side street tucked behind the Colosseum, we entered a little twelfth century basilica called San Clemente (St. Clement's in English). The preservation of the basilica is exquisite, but what's even more amazing are the treasures that lie beneath it.

First, you make your way down a long stone staircase that leads to a house church where early believers worshiped. The Collegio San Clemente has deemed it a fourth century place of worship, but because it is connected to a large house that is still under excavation, Alessandro told us that it could date back to before the time of Constantine, when Christians worshiped in the houses of wealthier church members. I get chills thinking of early believers fearlessly worshiping the one God just steps away from the Colosseum, where they would be executed if they were discovered!

Below the middle level lies a first century house and the hall of a mysteric cult devoted to the worship of Mithra, the Roman sun god. Worship of Mithra was widespread in ancient Rome, but the mysteric cults associated with Mithra were just that--mysterious. There are few writings about practice, as the religious rites were passed to only a few initiated members. As we walked down the tiny staircase, Alessandro pointed out the cave-like room where cultists would have been baptized into the following by the blood of a bull, which was sacrificed in the room above.

All of that sounds pretty gross, but once we were back out in the crisp October air and lounging by the Tiber, Alessandro explained the significance of San Clemente's three tiers. Apparently, the ancient city is subject to reverse erosion. Instead of the earth being washed away little by little, as is the case in some cities, the sediment from the Tiber has built up over time so that the city gets a little higher each year. To preserve the city, its patrons must rebuild their homes, businesses, and places of worship every few centuries. (You can watch a brief tour of the basilica's three levels here. It takes a few minutes to load, so be patient.)

But what's truly compelling about this story is that early Christians were intent on replacing the old, pagan places with new, Christian places. They understood that at the center of the Gospel is God's constant working to make all things new. They understood that the Kingdom being ushered in was meant to replace the old earthly kingdom (2 Peter 3:13). The Roman believers represented this principle very visibly as they transformed the old into new in their city, even as they themselves were being made new by the covenant blood of Jesus.

As we prepare to celebrate our Lord's birth, some are disturbed by the many pagan roots of the holiday we call Christmas. Indeed, December 25 was chosen for the observance not because of its historical accuracy, but because that date coincides with the Roman festival to Mithra, the very same god whose worship site lies buried beneath San Clemente.

The connection is disturbing, as it shows how easily we Christians fall prey to the trappings of this world. I would argue, however, that this connection can also be a source of joy for us as we dwell on the lesson of the Roman Christians, who were eager to portray God's work in the world by physically exchanging the old for the new. To be sure, there are still many secular manifestations of the Christmas holiday. But just as it is our Jesus (and not Mithra) who is worshiped in a little basilica down the street from the Colloseum, so is He the One whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

Let us rejoice that He is gloriously at work in the world, securing for us a "city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:13-15)!

He who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making everything new!"
Revelation 21:5