We don't celebrate Hanukkah every year. But this year, my gentile husband and I both agreed, almost without discussion, that we would. We keep it simple. After we light the candles on the advent wreath, and pray and sing, we borrow the flame and light the shamash candle and then the rest of the candles for the rest of the days of Hanukkah. The wreath on the table burns, and the menorah burns on the windowsill, their light doubled and tripled in the insulating glass.
How strange it is to stand for a minute between these two lights, the light of Advent steadily growing as we look forward to Christmas, and forward to the Second Coming -- but unmistakably, there is an older part to this story, and we keep those lights burning, too. The flames in the menorah don't illuminate the path forward; they are a different kind of light, a commemoration, and a call to courage.
Hanukkah is a peculiar holiday, and only became really popular when American Jews, raising their families while surrounded by Christians with their presents and lights, felt the need to sort of push back with their own celebration. And so a relatively minor holiday was elevated to a major celebration, mainly because it happens to fall near Christmas on the calendar.
I'm glad it did, because I feel that need this year -- the need to push back. It's not that Christmas or Advent is lacking! But maybe my own observance of them has just been lacking, skimming the surface. Maybe I've been a little to content to sleep in heavenly peace, without taking a good clear look at the struggle that precedes that peace. In past years, it's been easy to feel the sweetness of the hope of the coming Messiah. In past years, the analogies that I taught the kids seemed apt enough for me, too: just like when we prepare for a party by cleaning the house, we prepare for Christmas by cleaning out our hearts. We make a soft bed for Baby Jesus by adding to his little wooden manger with soft bits of yarn, which we earn by doing good deeds.
This year, I can't think about cleaning and preparing (even as I do, in fact, literally clean and prepare for Christmas day). These domestic little analogies have no resonance. This year, I can't stop thinking about strength and courage. I can't stop thinking about fighting.
Every time the Catholic Church is in the news, I'm a fool and I read the comments. I'm hoping for something illuminating, something new that I can grab onto and say, "Aha! This gives me some insight into the minds of people who are so angry at the Church. Here's a real idea, which I can sympathize with, even as I refute it. I see that we have some common ground after all." I look, but I never find it. What I find is that they want to sacrifice pigs on our altars. They want to spill out our precious jars of holy oil. They want to wipe us out.
Antiochus is alive and well, and we Maccabees, we are so few.
Four candles of Advent, the simple pillars holding up the foundations of our world -- and in between those foundations, the many flames of the Hanukkah candles, doubled and tripled as they burn. They are a little army, reminding me of how the world will be, as long as it lasts: if we want peace and freedom, someone's going to have to take up a sword.