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A Season for Candles

November 29, 2010

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts. He struggled toward a faint light in the distance. It grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family who offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man; a chair by the fireplace and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse. A menorah is a candelabra with nine candles used in the celebration of Hanukkah.

The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah always coincide. Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Jewish families mark the days of Hanukkah by lighting candles in a menorah each evening. This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 1,  just four days after the first Sunday of Advent.

The Gospel of John (10:22) records an interesting event from the life of Jesus. “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This passage indicates that Jesus observed Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the temple, and the scrolls of the Torah were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the abomination of desecration.  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to the Jewish faith.

Three years later, under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. They entered the Temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing the presence of God in the Temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, eight days were required to consecrate new oil. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper is the servant candle and is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night all candles are burning.

The Scriptures speak of God as “the light in whom there is no darkness.”  For Christians, the celebration of Christmas includes symbols of that heavenly light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

When our children were young, our family gathered around an Advent wreath in our foyer on each of the four Sundays before Christmas.  This time of family worship helped us prepare for the celebration of Christmas.

We had enjoyed our Advent wreath since the 1970s when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  At the center of the wreath was a ribbon-wrapped dowel that held a paper Moravian star above a nativity scene created out of cornhusk figures.  Cornhusk shepherds, wise men, and the holy family huddled between the candles.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we had already lit three candles.  We sang a Christmas carol and read scripture.  Then, we lit the fourth candle.

During the prayer, Clare saw a great light! A cornhusk shepherd had toppled into a lighted candle. Flames spread quickly to the other figures, engulfing the entire wreath including the paper star on top.

I picked up the flaming Advent wreath. Clare directed, “Take it to the shower!”  I rushed across the hall, threw it into the bathtub, turned on the shower, and extinguished our Advent wreath.

Holy smoke!

The smoke alarm was blasting. Some children were crying, others were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved that the fire was out.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned beyond recognition. A few were charred but still recognizable.  We replaced the wreath and the star but were able to salvage some of the figures.  Several of them still bear the singe marks from the fire. They are a little worse for the wear showing some burns around the edges, but they still remind us of the Christmas that we had an unusual light in our home.

The wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice for this season of light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, be careful with those candles!


Kirk H. Neely
© November 2010




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