Essay

Pirsumei nisa

Yesterday evening marked the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Many of you are no doubt aware that it commemorates two miracles at once: the Maccabees’ triumph over their Greek oppressors as well as the discovery of oil that seemed sufficient for only one night, but burned instead for eight. (If you’d like an excellent refresher, check out this charming take).

This week at church, the minister acknowledged that this had been a hard year, a dark year for many. We’re looking for illumination, and while acknowledging that this holiday must have its own integrity for Jews celebrating the holiday, it feels like thinking about Hanukkah might be instructive for Christians. Here’s just a few ways:

  1. Freedom

Though Hanukkah is not one of the major Jewish holidays, I find it fascinating that scholars often discuss a connection between Passover, Purim, and Hanukkah because each marks the move from bondage to liberty. It’s a theme that runs through the entire Jewish year: God’s demonstrated desire to save his people again and again. In each of the stories, the situation seems hopeless, the government cruel and relentless, the way out obscure. But that’s never the last word. As importantly, this freedom comes through people raised up—Moses, Esther, the Maccabees— who were willing to act, usually at their peril, to bring about this justice. It’s no wonder, then, that Mary in her Magnificat—the moment that signals God’s ultimate rescue—invokes this same powerful theme, recalling this long history of divine emancipation:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)

  1. Abundance

When the Maccabees regained the Temple, they found that it had been largely desecrated. And they could find only one remaining container of oil that had received priestly blessing, which they did not think it would last beyond the day. But just as their small band of rebels had had enough to defeat the colonizing Greeks, so too did the oil parallel God’s lavish provision. We only need to show up to the temple to desire worship—and God will supply the rest. Beyond what we can imagine.

  1. Sanctity

Significantly, the candles that are lit each evening for Hanukkah are not to be used for any other purposes, such as lighting the room. I’m not sure the same can be said metaphorically for our Christmas preparations. Too many pieces have been written about the commercialization of Christmas—but nothing ever changes. Except maybe for the worse—with some folks’ demands for businesses to participate fully in that commercialization. Isn’t it a bit ludicrous that Starbucks has to have just the right cup every year? That “Merry Christmas” must be the salutation when I buy celery. Might it not be nicer to actually have a religious celebration–and not expect the barista or bagger to participate with me at work? To keep the candle, as it were, for only the thing for which it was intended?

  1. Witness

And yet, I’m not arguing for absence or apology for the claims of the holiday. For me, one of the most affecting lessons of Hanukkah is the injunction “pirsumei nisa,” typically rendered as “publicize the miracle.” Historically, the rabbis were very clear that when the candles are lit, they should be visible to everyone who passes by. In fact, they provide specific directions as to things like the time of day or the placement in the window to optimize people’s viewing, so that your neighbors should have no doubt of what you celebrated.

In this season of growing darkness, I wonder how we as Christians choose to publicize the miracle we proclaim. If it’s not leading to greater illumination—to greater Light—we might want to rethink how we’re doing it.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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