Thursday, December 18, 2003

Advent Insights

In the midst of the rush to the malls or the websites, it is good to remember the two great traditions of the Holiday Season. A valiant band of freedom fighters resisted tyranny in 164 BC and celebrated the Hanukkah miracle. A small town called Bethlehem can only provide a barn for a baby who would split history in two and continue to inspire billions.

In 167 BC Emperor Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" made it his aim to destroy Jewish culture and faith, slaughtering a pig on an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies - the "abomination of desolation" that the books of Daniel and First and Second Maccabees record in gruesome detail. Peaceful protests and prayer vigils were met by massacres and Antiochus ended years of Jewish autonomy and enforced his hellenization program.

Fortunately, a brave band of reluctant but faithful warriors arose, lead by Judas "The Hammer" Maccabeus. By 164 BC the Temple had been reconsecrated and Antiochus was in retreat. It took a few determined and devout people to change history.

The birth of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was not the saccharine event noted by such ditties as "Away in the Manger". Joseph and Mary were caught in the "census traffic" and the only lodging was in a cave-like barn, with a feeding trough for their baby's bed. The circumstances of Mary's pregnancy, though supernatural to the couple and the watchful shepherds, were undoubtedly suspect to the village gossips.

An audience of shepherds is an ignominious beginning - they were not the elite of Palestinian social life. When the Magi arrived more than a year later, it was a cause for political unrest and the massacre of scores of infants and toddlers. The psychopathic King Herod would tolerate no rival - especially one revered by foreigners!

So Jesus went into exile - just like his ancestors in Babylon and his bretheren after the tragedy of Roman destruction in AD 70.

Judaism and Christianity at their core are not religions of power and wealth. Yes, the Kingdom of David and Solomon had its brief day in the sun and the Church (every branch) has often been corrupted by money, power and sexual scandal. The message of Hannukah and Christmas is hope through humility and a thirst for holiness. It is a message that one person with the favor of God can change the world.

Let's go "back to the future" this Advent and recover the determination of the Maccabees, the devotion of Mary and the delight of the humble shepherds. Herein lies our present and future salvation.

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