Compex ideas at this time of the year

Last night was the final night of Hanukkah, one of the minor Jewish holidays. Some have called Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas,” primarily because it falls in December, but such a name is inaccurate. The two holidays are very different. Hanukkah commemorates a revolt against Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had forbidden Jewish religious practices. After a period of relative religious tolerance, the new ruler attempted to force the Jews to abandon their religion. The temple at Jerusalem was desecrated with Hellenistic religious symbols and observance of Jewish festivals and traditions was forced underground. In 167 BCE Jewish priests led a revolution against Antiochus that resulted in the liberation of the temple. When the temple was finally liberated there was only enough oil to kindle the temple lamp for a single day. Seven days were required for a full dedication of the temple. The oil miraculously lasted for not just seven, but eight days. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil. Fried foods such ad donuts and potato pancakes are eaten in celebration of the gift of oil.

The celebration, like many events in Jewish life, reflects a very complex and sometimes conflicted memory of the historical events. The uprising, while temporarily successful, did not accomplish all of its goals. Eventually the uprising was quelled. The temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Jews were once again and remain scattered throughout the world.

Long before the time of the Maccabees and the revolt, the people of Israel were not of one mind about the meaning of the restoration of Israel. Some prophets, like Isaiah painted a picture of the entire world coming to Jerusalem to worship God. A world with a single religion and religious agreement was described in eloquent poetry. Others, like the prophet Micah, while describing a vision of religious peace didn’t necessarily see all people having a common religion. Rather there would be multiple religions, but the ability to live in peace with those who think and believe differently.

Both visions remain in the future. We humans haven’t learned how to share this planet in peace, whether by all embracing the same religion or by learning to respect and tolerate our differences.

The prophetic vision of world peace is reflected in Christian celebrations at Christmas. The Christ child, who for Christians is the fulfillment of the prophets’ vision, is celebrated as the Prince of Peace. The coming of the messiah was foretold as ushering in a time of world peace when conflict would cease and nations would not rise up against nations any more.

Like our Jewish sisters and brothers, our understanding of the world is complex. Although we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophetic vision, we have to admit that the result was not a cessation of warfare between nations. The incredible violence of 20th Century wars and the unending nature of 21st century warfare clearly illustrate that world peace is not yet accomplished. The human capacity for violence and cruelty seems to be limitless.

Our annual observances have become a challenge of reconciliation of the powerful vision and the harsh reality. We can imagine a world that is better than the one in which we now live. We can imagine relationships that are better than our current ones. And our ability to imagine leads us to hope for a brighter, more peaceful and less conflicted future. That hope can inspire action that decreases violence and increases understanding. Much good has come out of people who care share a hopeful vision with others.

It is our desire to hear the hopeful vision that inspires us to continue to read the words of the prophets. Prophetic poetry is part of all of our Advent and Christmas celebrations. We want to think of a world at peace. We want to envision the ability to lay down arms and to work together for justice for all. That vision can serve to be a commentary on our leaders and upon ourselves. We have failed to live up to the vision.

The cycle of our worship life brings us around to the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany every year. Each year we remind ourselves of the glorious vision of the prophets and of our inability to fulfill those visions.Each year we celebrate God’s gift of the Prince of Peace while at the same time acknowledging that we have not yet fully achieved peace on earth, good will towards all.

We sometimes describe this process as “the not yet already is.” We are actively taking part in the realm of God, but that realm has not yet reached its full expression. Theologians, who are partial to jargon, sometimes call this “inaugurated eschatology,” or sometimes “realized eschatology.” The concept is that the coming future of God beaker through into the present in ways that allow believers to experience God’s glory that is yet to come. God’s realm is both present and future. The concept challenges our notion of time. Present and future are somehow merged, but our perspective prevents us from fully comprehending this reality. The idea continues to inspire intense debate and discussion among theologians.

Layered upon the theological complexities of the season are many different levels of tradition and expectations that come from a win variety of sources. This season of the year has become connected to consumerism and retail sales. Businesses depend on increased spending and purchasing of more items as an expectation of our Christmas celebrations. Children become confused about whether the focus of the holiday is giving and receiving gifts or the religious observances. Individuals are torn by all of the holiday additions to their schedules: office parties, special concerts, school presentations. Extra obligations abound. Sometimes the beliefs that are at the base of the holiday are forgotten in the all of the rush and hectic over scheduling.

We can barely think about world peace because we can’t even find a peaceful moment for reflection in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Our ideas are complex because we are complex. It is clear that we still have much to learn.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!