Archive for Saturday, December 20, 2008

Faith Forum: What can people of all faiths learn from Christmas and Hanukkah?

December 20, 2008


The Rev. Ira DeSpain, campus minister, Baker University:

Because the question is about “all faiths,” it is confusing. I don’t know what Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or others can learn from holidays that are Jewish and Christian. The question as asked does illustrate an important point: For all of our talk about diversity and tolerance, we may not be as open to differences as we think we are. If you mean “Christian and Jewish,” we are excluding a great many faithful people.

Now to the question itself: Both Christmas and Hanukkah use images of light in darkness. For Christians, the light is symbolized in the star of Bethlehem, and the candles lit on Christmas Eve, for example. These symbols remind Christians that Jesus came as “the light shining in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). For Jews, the lights of Hanukkah relate to a miracle. The Jews reclaimed the temple from foreign invaders who had defiled the oil used to burn in the menorah. One day’s supply of oil was pure. It would take eight days to purify more. God provided — the one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days, ensuring that darkness did not overcome light.

So the common theme of Christmas and Hanukkah: God provides! God provides light in darkness, and darkness never wins. It is a message of promise: regardless of war, sin or economic disaster, God provides what we need. These seasons of light are the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. I wonder what it’s like to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah south of the equator, as holidays in the lightest days of the year.

— Send e-mail to Ira DeSpain at

Rabbi Linda Steigman, Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive:

I would hope that the December holidays would inspire both Jews and Christians to be true to the teachings of their respective faiths. As Jews, we can follow in the footsteps of the ancient Maccabees by strengthening our identity as Jews, and by not imitating the majority culture.

The story of Hanukkah took place in the years 164 to 160 BCE. (Before the Common Era, equal to BC; and CE — Common Era — is equal to AD.) Jews were assimilating into the Syrian-Greek culture of the rulers of ancient Israel. To speed this process, the king Antiochus Epiphanes forbade Jews to practice their religion, stripped the ancient Temple of its valuables and rededicated it to the Greek god Zeus. A small band of Jews — the Macabees — revolted, and eventually, after years of a guerrilla war, retook the Temple, cleaned it up, and rededicated it to God. By doing this they stemmed the tide of assimilation of the Jews into the Hellenistic culture.

Every minority faith is faced with the challenge of being part of the majority culture, yet retaining its own uniqueness. This time of year can be especially difficult with the bombardment of the commercialism that surrounds the holidays. What we can learn from the Hanukkah story is to be proud of who we are, to learn how to respect the faith of others without being consumed by that faith, and by remembering what God truly desires: “To let the oppressed go free ... to share your bread with the hungry ... when you see the naked, to clothe him.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

— Send e-mail to Linda Steigman at


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