A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

New York City Reflection #2: A Profound Surprise

Planning for our recent trip to New York City to attend the World Baseball Classic Qualifier last week drove me crazy! Having not really been to New York before (I explain the “not really” here, I found it very difficult to figure out where to stay, how to get around, etc. You may think I am indeed crazy to learn that I booked four different hotels (is that legal?)! Part of the difficulty is that there really isn’t much choice in the Coney Island area, where the tournament was. We settled on the last of the four, the Best Western Brooklyn Bay. We found through some locals that there is no such thing as “Brooklyn Bay”, but for some reason the hotel didn’t want to use the real name: “Sheepshead Bay.”

As it turned out the location worked well for us. We took the bus to the baseball stadium each day, fully enjoying our walk to the bus stop each way. We arrived at the hotel Thursday afternoon, but didn’t have a chance to check out Sheepshead Bay until Saturday morning. It’s very touristy-looking with its many fishing piers and restaurants. But we didn’t yet know the incredibly moving experience we were soon to have.

A fishing boat at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NY

A fishing boat at the pier Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NY

I had told Robin about this delightful find after my morning walk. And so as I had a rest, she went off on her own to explore the area. Upon returning, she told me she went further than I did and discovered a Holocaust memorial. So we went back out together to take a closer look.

At the west edge of the bay, a small park has been transformed into “Holocaust Memorial Park” and dedicated by New York City mayor Giuliani in 1997. This spot was chosen because of the many Holocaust survivors who settled this area after the Second World War.

We were both intensely struck by the simplicity and significance of the memorial. A symbolic tower, resembling a smokestack, is surrounded by the names of the countries affected by the Holocaust and sits in the center between two grassy areas each filled with granite markers. On most of the markers are a wide variety of inscriptions, honoring individuals and communities who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. There are also relevant quotes, poems, and so on to help visitors reflect.

As I walked among the markers, I was also struck with a sense of being in the right place at the right time. After all the frustration and confusion over figuring out the details of this trip, we knew God had led us here. With the Jewish High Holidays approaching, it was fitting that we pay our respects to those among our people who fell victim to this great tragedy.

After sitting silently for a time, we recited the Mourner’s Kaddish together. The Mourner’s Kaddish is an ancient prayer recited in Aramaic, the language of Yeshua, not as a prayer for the dead, but an expression of honor to God, who in the midst of chaos and suffering remains in control and worthy of honor and worship. Here is an English translation (from http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/text-of-the-mourners-kaddish/):

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

I hope the following photo gallery captures some of the impact of what we experienced. You should be able to read the inscriptions.

Holocaust Memorial Park Signage

Main signage. For a closer look at the text see next image.

Explanation of Holocaust Memorial Park

Closer look at the text.

Tower (smokestack) of remembrance - centerpiece of the memorial.

Tower (smokestack) of remembrance – centerpiece of the memorial.

Robin walking among the pillars to the one side of the tower.

Robin walking among the markers to the one side of the tower.

Famous saying by Rev. Martin Niemöller

Famous saying by Rev. Martin Niemöller

A sampling of granite markers

A sampling of granite markers (an enlargement of the one in the right-bottom corner follows)

A summary of the life of Anne Frank, whose diary survived the Holocaust

A summary of the life of Anne Frank, whose diary survived the Holocaust

In memory of the Jewish communities of Belarus and Moldova

One of the markers in memory of countries significantly effected by the Nazi horrors. As far as I know all our grandparents came from either Belarus or neighboring Lithuania. Robin’s father and his family left Lithuania in the nick of time in 1936. Many of their extended family were killed.

In memory of the Jehovah Witnesses

I was extremely touched that the memorial was not exclusively Jewish, but also included other communities that were targeted by Nazi terror, including the Jehovah Witnesses, the disabled, and homosexuals.

An urgent plea to not forget the Holocaust from Elie Wiesel.

An urgent plea to not forget the Holocaust from recently deceased Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel.

"Are you my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9-10)

“Are you my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9-10)

For more information about this Holocaust memorial, visit the Holocaust Memorial Committee web site.