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December 1, 2013

This semester I have been teaching an interesting class at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Celtic Religion through the Ages is an upper level religion class. As far as I am aware the course has never before been offered at USC Upstate. I spent much of the summer preparing to teach a group of students who were as fascinated with the subject as I was. Our study has taken us through an examination of ancient Celtic religion followed by a transition to early Celtic Christianity.
Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has come through two academic disciplines. One is European archaeology. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, c.800–450 BCE.
The second discipline is the study of classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who had knowledge of the Celtic tribes. These early testaments describe the Celts as feared warriors. Men and women fought together. The men often went into battle wearing only blue body paint and a neck ring. They carried a shield and a short sword. Julius Caesar gives a detailed description of these people and their culture. Clearly, he had much respect for them.
Though generally regarded as uncivilized barbarians who practiced pagan religion, the Celts lived in an organized society. The Druids were their religious leaders. They served as priest and prophets, as judges and as philosophers. Religious practices centered on the solar-lunar rhythm of the universe. Summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinox, were observed with important religious rituals sometimes involving human sacrifice.
As the winter solstice approached, the Druids were fearful that the light of the sun was receding from the earth. The diminishing light meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return.
The practice of bringing light into the homes of the Celts became the root of two of our most important religious observances of this season.
The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah almost 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 began at sundown on the day before Thanksgiving, four days before 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.

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. They 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.
The wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice for this season. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
This is the season of light, a time to light a candle as an expression of faith and hope.




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