If the Jews are waiting for the Messiah, and the Christians are waiting for him to come again… we might as well wait together.
I heard a local rabbi express this a few months ago—he was paraphrasing a well-known Jewish philosopher—and it came to mind while I was reflecting on the season of Advent. A large number of my neighbors are Jewish, and the condo building where we live very tastefully decorates for both Chanukah and Christmas.
Chanukah recalls the re-dedication of the Temple after its profanation during the oppression under Antiochus IV and the Seleucids. We find the story of the defeat of Antiochus by Judah and his brothers in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. There you will find thrilling stories of courage in the face of persecution. You will find heroic men and women, children and old men, willing to die for their Jewish faith as they rose up against the tyranny of the Syrians. The story of the rededication of the Temple is found both in 1 Maccabees 4 and 2 Maccabees 10, where we have descriptions of the purification of the holy place on twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev and the eight-day celebration that followed. Later Jewish writings, the Talmud, describe the miracle of the oil, which never ran out during the celebrations. From that, we have the festival of Chanukah.
Do not forget that we share this history with our Jewish brothers and sisters. After all, the story is found in Maccabees, which is in the Catholic canon of Scripture (but not the Protestant nor the Hebrew canon). We must never forget what we owe to our elder brothers and sisters in faith. The Second Vatican Council reminds us, “the Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles making both one in Himself” (Nostra Aetate n.4).
While not making light of our differences, we should still celebrate what we share, and we wait for the time we can worship together. Nostra Aetate continues, “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zephaniah. 3:9).”
While Chanukah is a minor holiday for the Jewish people, and its popularity is due in part to its proximity to the Christmas season, it’s a beautiful time of year to remind ourselves of what we have in common. In a sense, Advent is four weeks of placing ourselves in the Old Testament. For these four weeks, we place ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors under the Old Covenant, who were waiting for the Messiah.
These people were trying to live good, holy lives. They were trying to obey the Law and live according to the Covenant. But there was an understanding that they needed something more. Nothing they could do could repair the wound in the relationship between God and his people. They could sacrifice all the goats and sheep they had, and there would still be this darkness, this wound, this hurt.
All they could do was wait. The prophets foretold a Savior, a Messiah who would free them from this emptiness. But all they could do was wait in hope. All they could do was cling to the hope. It’s like sitting in the darkness, in the middle of the night, and watching intently to see the first sign of the sunrise. You stare in the darkness, squint towards the horizon, and wait.
The first reading for Midnight Mass opens with: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone…”
After four weeks of waiting—if we have really waited well—these words that greet us during the Church’s liturgy on Christmas night might bring joyful tears to our eyes. That is the purpose of Advent—to stir up in our hearts the anticipation for our Savior, to feel the emptiness that the Christ child has come to fill, to yearn for an answer to our inadequacies, to get some glimpse of what the Jewish people longed for centuries—and what they still long for.
This year, Chanukah begins on December 24. As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the Festival of Lights and wait for the Messiah, we celebrate the light of Christ and wait for His second coming. Perhaps we can celebrate the light and wait together.