Growing up, my Jewish friends and I would invariably get into the annual “Who’s got the Better Holiday” competition between Hanukkah and Christmas around this time.  They would share extraordinary stories of how, during the second century BC, a group of Jews, known as the Maccabees, led a fierce revolt against foreign invaders, after which they rededicated the temple.  The Maccabees only had enough oil to light the unique candle holder called the menorah for one day.  Yet, that small supply miraculously burned for as many as eight days.  As a result, my lucky Jewish friends would get gifts for eight nights.  While we Christians would get our gifts only on Christmas day (or Christmas Eve and Day).  Thankfully, we observed that by day 6 or 7, as their gifts usually included socks or underwear, we felt we had it better.  In hindsight, our families deprived neither my Jewish friends nor my Christian friends (myself included).  Anyway, apart from that and learning the song “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” in Elementary school, for the most part, that summed up my understanding of Hanukkah.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT – December 17, 2023.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

But this past week, as Jews worldwide celebrated Hannukah, a Rabbi friend shared this striking photo of the menorah, I remembered first seeing just a few years ago.  Initially, what caught my attention was that it was in black and white.  These days, we’re so accustomed to colorful photos, videos, and GIFs that the sheer simplicity of it made you want to stop your thumb from scrolling and pause.  But then, when you began focusing on the picture, you could see the Nazi flag in the background.  As told by the New York Times in 2017, the story explained how this picture came from the home of Rabbi Akiva Posner and his wife, Rachel.  The Posners witness was compelling in explaining how the holiday and, equally importantly – this display – was more important than my friends may have led me to believe growing up.

Since this glorious miracle first took place all those centuries ago, God had directed His Chosen People to publicize it by sharing the menorah to ensure people could see it clearly across marketplaces or through the windows of their homes.  The menorah was another clear sign of God’s relationship with His people.  However, in times of danger and persecution – which, sadly, the Jewish people have not been alien to (and somewhat dumbfounding to us living in these oh-so-progressive and enlightened times and places again in 2023 right here in the United States are experiencing once again which should be of great shame, concern and movement to action for all of us) – – the Jewish people were told by their leaders that in times of persecution that they could light the candles in private.

The Posners would forgo that loophole as the rise of Nazism ended up having a firm grip on their homeland.  On the eve of the Germans’ attempt to exterminate the Jews in the Shoah (which many refer to as The Holocaust), which resulted in the murder of a staggering 6 million Jews (which is equivalent to two-thirds of the entire Jewish population), they had the courage of conviction to proudly exhibit their menorah in public for the world to see as this picture captured.  Rachel Posner had taken this photograph as she scribbled on the back:

“‘Death to Judah’ so the flag says,

‘Judah will live forever, so the light answers.”

What gave the Posner’s the supernatural faith – the elusive conviction – that they dared to remain defiant in the face of an overbearing evil that threatened to consume them all?  We get some idea of what nourishes that kind of faith in our first reading today:

Isaiah represents one of the most important prophets to Jews and Christians alike.   In this passage, he’s speaking to his fellow Jews who are struggling on multiple counts.  They’re struggling because God had given them ten commandments – commands meant to safeguard their happiness, commands meant to specify how to be in an appropriate relationship with God and one another.  The Jews back then (just like you and I today) often found it difficult to follow these commandments with sincerity.  As a result, they struggle to deal with the ramifications of their bad choices (all actions have consequences, whether we like them or not).

They were also struggling with the fact that they had lost their homes, they had been enslaved; they had also suffered brutalities, abuses, and humiliations.  And now, when they had finally broken free from the shackles of pain and suffering and were excited about their homecoming, they found their home in utter ruins.  In that moment of trial, they once again had to have doubts, questions, or fears, asking Where are you, God?

To that understandable cry, the Lord responds.  God does look after His people.  He never forsakes them, even when it might seem or feel that way.  His people will not be defeated.  And so we heard tonight that it is God who sends Isaiah to “bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners… to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” God will save his people.  To those who experienced all of those sufferings, this reminder that God was with them enabled them to begin that long, complicated rebuilding process.  And the Jews, whom St. Pope John Paul II beautifully referred to as “our elder brothers and sisters in the covenant,” have dared to believe these prophecies;   quite remarkably, they have taken solace in them during times of struggle (and continue to do so even to this day) trusting that God would always remain faithful to their covenant: Judah will live forever, so the light answers…

This Third Sunday of Advent, our ancestors in the faith, and our shared heritage of the prophet Isaiah, calls us as Catholic Christians to recognize the battle between good and evil continues unabated.  There is still plenty of suffering for God’s people as we see and hear on our newsfeeds to this very day where anti-Semitic views, expressions and displays are being treated as reasonable and needing to be respected forms of speech.  There is evidence of evil inflicted on those of us, the children of the New Covenant.  But we also have with us a beacon of unshakable hope and everlasting peace:

Tonight’s Gospel recounts John the Baptist poignantly pointing at the light.  It is the light of good that conquers evil with love; the light of love that overcomes hatred; the shining light of life through which we are eternally led out of the clutches of darkness and death; the light that emboldens us to live forever with our Lord.  Yes, it is that light which fulfills all those beautiful, uplifting words of the prophet Isaiah and breathes life into them as John the Baptist  points to the light being Jesus the Christ (which means “anointed one”)

Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters are mandated to boldly proclaim the miracle of the festival of lights of Hanukkah, John the Baptist has given us specific tasks to perform with utmost conviction: we are to carve a straight road for Christ and transform the parched deserts around us into a bountiful harvest of peace; we are ordained to make the light of His comforting presence through our lives known to all.  As is always the case, that begins most locally, most personally, most intimately in each of our own hearts.  John the Baptist, the greatest and final of all the prophets, the forerunnner to Jesus in the dramatic manner of life he lived and poetic language he used was giving us action items.  Calling for a repentance, a change of heart, a change of life where I seriously confront those mountains of arrogance and pride; the valleys of sin and failure that I have I ignored but are causing me distress, causing me anxiety, have left me feeling isolated from others and perhaps distant from God – and hear this call to start leveling them, filling them in, in order to get my mind and heart straight focused on meeting God, welcoming Jesus Christ, responding to His light.

That’s not just an Advent – Christmas thing; that’s an everyday thing as His disciples.  But in a particular way, this time of year, where physically we experience a more significant amount of darkness each day, which seems to reflect many’s personal experience or view of the world, it’s no coincidence that both the Jews and we Christians are celebrating holidays that incorporate light in our displays and decorations.

That’s not just to dress things up, coverin up things and make them look nicer in a drearier season.  That’s meant to shift our perspective.  With one week and one day to Christmas, as so many of those preparations for so many beautiful traditions seem to distract us, maybe we can let those things be a reminder and a prompt to this spiritual transformation that Advent is calling us to?   Pope Benedict once challenged us beautifully with words that I come back to every Christmas season that capture it so beautifully and perfectly, when he said:    Let us remember in particular, as we look at the streets and squares of the cities decorated with dazzling lights, that these lights refer us to another light, invisible to the eyes but not to the heart.  While we admire them, while we light the candles in churches or the illuminations of the crib and the Christmas tree in our homes, may our souls be open to the true spiritual light brought to all people of good will.  The God-with-us, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, is the Star of our lives!…  May this Star of light that never sets communicate to us the strength to follow always the path of truth, justice and love!

Thanks to everyone who contributed on #GivingTuesday and kicked off our Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University (aka Red Hawk Catholic) Annual Christmas Appeal.  To our goal of $35,000, we’ve just topped $11,000.  We appreciate your considering to support us and our mission of bringing Christ’s light and life to the faculty, staff, administration and especially the students of MSU! To donate online, please click our PayPal Link here .  (If for some reason the link doesn’t work, you can get to the Donate link on REDHAWKCATHOLIC.COM the link is on the top to the right. Checks can be made out and mailed to Newman Catholic; 894 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043.  Thanks so much for your generosity and support!  Father Jim