The symbolism of light triumphing over darkness

As you are reading this column Bishop Dennis Sullivan will have visited the Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill yesterday and had an opportunity to meet with the local Jewish leadership and representatives of the Board of Rabbis. All this just one week before Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. This is the first time that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have been on the same day since 1888 and, according to one calculation, won’t happen again for another 77,798 years from now.
Next Thursday, Nov. 28, Jews throughout the world will be celebrating the first night of Hanukkah, a festival which commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus during the revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the second century B.C.
Three years before the revolt Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Syrian king, defiled the Temple by erecting an altar to “Baal Shamen” (Zeus) and sacrificing, of all things repugnant to Jews, a pig on that altar. He also enacted a law that the Torah could no longer be read and studied; outlawed circumcision and prohibited the keeping of the Sabbath.
A great spiritual and cultural struggle took place between the observant Jews who wanted to stay true to the Covenant and the Hellenized Jews who wanted to assimilate into the Greek culture and abandoned certain aspects of the faith.
The defilement or abomination in the Temple took place on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. Exactly three years later, the altar and Temple were cleansed. While they were rededicating the Temple, they lit the Temple menorah with one day’s supply of oil and it miraculously lasted for eight days. Thus Hanukkah is also called the Miracle of the Lights. Jews commemorate these events at Hanukkah by lighting a candle each night on the menorah for eight days.
As we Catholics move closer to the Season of Advent and our new Liturgical Year, we hear at Mass the story of faithfulness from the Book of Maccabees. We read that shortly before his trials and sufferings, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). We read in the Gospel of St. John, “And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of Dedication and it was winter.” We read in other chapters of St. John’s Gospel of Jesus as “Light.” “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but he will have the light of life…as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world…. If any man walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world….Then Jesus said to them, for a little while the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you.”
We Christians will soon also light our candles during the Season of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the Miracle of the Incarnation. Both Hanukkah and Advent are imbued with the theme of light. Christians will light candles in the Advent wreaths to prepare spiritually for the celebration of the birth of Christ and Jews light the Hanukkah menorah to celebrate God’s “triumph over oppression.”
The symbolism of light triumphing over darkness is ancient, archetypal and filled with deep meaning for Jews and Christians. As we celebrate our separate and distinct festivals of light and we light the candles in our menorahs and Advent wreathes, let us pray for one another and for one another’s deepening of faith. Our lighting rituals should remind us of how God has acted on our behalf in human history. Jews and Christians are called and challenged by our respective Sacred Scripture to be a light to the nations and to the world. May this season of light and miracles be a blessing for us all as we marvel in the mysterious love of God. Let us be the light in the darkness of the world.
May the lights of Hanukkah and Advent warm our hearts and deepen our faith. To my Jewish friends – may you have a happy Hanukkah. And to my fellow Christian pilgrims – may your faith be deepened during the blessed Season of Advent.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.

Categories: That All May Be One

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