Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Homily: "Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa: by Richard Vosko

Graphic: Anne Klein


The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa celebrations converge at this time of year in an annual relational dance. Each one is a festival of light and first fruits. A deeper examination of the biblical texts for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, also reveals more about who we are and what is our purpose.

Kwanzaa, originally thought to be a Black alternative to a “White Christmas,” has developed as a celebration of the first fruits of African American culture, history, art, and music. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa after the 1960s Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. He wrote: “The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose and direction.” Today we might add to his explanation — this is why “Black Lives Matter.”

The larger context for the fantastic miracle story of Hanukkah, which, is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, is also about culture and identity. Simon Shama called it the Hasmonean liberation festival.” It commemorated breaking away from the tyrannical clutch of the Seleucids, a Macedonian Greek [Hellenist] oligarchy.

The Hasmoneans, the ruling and ruthless dynasty of Judea up to 64 BCE, saw themselves as both a religious and military power. They were known for colonizing every nation they conquered. (Think of how many Christian missionaries later in history repressed indigenous cultures even while teaching them about Jesus Christ.) 

According to Shama, the Hasmoneans saw themselves as the “appointed guardians of Torah Judaism against Hellenistic contaminations … [and] invented Hanukkah” presumably as a festival to keep the story of victory over enemies in the collective memories of Jews.  [1]

According to free-lance author Bari Weiss, “Contained in this story [of Hanukkah] are the themes that have run through Jewish history. The tension between universalism and particularism. The battle between assimilation and self-assertion.” Weiss’s commentary could be applied to tensions currently experienced in Christianity as well as in other religious institutions and nation states. 

The Hanukkah story, John the Baptizer’s announcement of the Coming One in today’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6), and the eventual emergence of Christianity — are linked. The Christmas festival (the 25th of December is also without a biblical backup), is truly a celebration of light and first fruits. 

We recall that the 4th century date of the nativity was established to counter secular celebrations during the winter solstice. That year (336 CE) officially marked the birthing of the promised One into history, a commemoration that continues to stimulate the religious imagination, the stringing of lights, as well as the secular holiday industry. 

Luke wrote this gospel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, long before Jesus’ assigned birthday. Luke’s purpose was to depict John the Baptizer as the precursor not only of the Coming One but also of a new way of amalgamating differing cultural groups.

Some scholarship suggests Luke was sympathetic to Jews before he became a Christian. He urged his Greek speaking readers of today’s gospel to adhere to Jewish customs. Remember the Hasmoneans aimed to protect Jewish culture from the Greeks. Luke’s vision was for a “pluralistic community of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and non-romans in the common people of God.” [2] 

In the mid-50s CE, and much earlier than Luke’s writings, Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (3:26-28) “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays wrote that this letter to the Galatians reflects a critical moment in defining the identity and purpose of the Christian movement.

This biblical quote is not so much a call to a singular Christian culture or global religious practice but a summons to all people of different creeds, races, and ethnic groups to learn to work within a common ground. The three holiday festivals mentioned here remind us how all humans want to maintain a purpose in life that reinforces their identities, teachings, values. 

The Hasmoneans wanted to guard Jewish identity against other super powers. Christians sought to strengthen an emerging Jesus cult against heretical movements. Blacks and people of color want to retain their unique identities and not be subjugated to White power and privilege.

While he was in prison Paul urged the Philippians (1:4-6, 8-11) to focus on things that really matter especially in the face of personal and communal setbacks. He summoned his audience to become partners with God in achieving peace on earth. He believed that the gospel message would advance against all odds. 

Christians can heed this advice by striving to advance values shared by different cultures to counter the tensions that Bari Weiss described in her commentary on the origins of Hanukkah as “the pull between fundamentalism and secularism.” Weiss is raising “the complicated question of how far the bonds of peoplehood can strain before they break.”

During the season of Advent Christians frequently see John the Baptizer as an unusual desert-dweller who calls us to repent from evil ways. Make crooked roads straight. Level the insurmountable hills. Fill in the potholes. Was he preaching to corrupt leaders or the peasants who were victims of corruption? To “repent” means having a change of heart — an inner transformation that will bear fruit and cast light on others. 

Urging diverse groups to share a vision for justice and peace seems to be an unlikely objective in a world ruptured by cultural clashes and societal problems. Will those of us who come from different classes, myriad religious traditions, and varying political postures be willing to have a change of heart, to eliminate unwavering and divisive agendas?

The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa festivals of light and first fruits are three celebrations that remind us we can do just that if we are willing to take some risks.  

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