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An Amazing Convergence of Miracle Holidays — OpEd

Christian theologian Paul de Vries and Jewish leader Howard Teich comment on the rare spiritual mega-convergence of the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas

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Christmas 2016. Darilyn Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

By any measure, "2016 has been incredible." Now, the year is closing under an unusual constellation of twin stars in the religious firmament. This year is one of those rare times that the first evening of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve occur together.

These are two holidays celebrating the Lord's miraculous light and power together.  Both holidays also fuel meaningful hope in our human spirits.  The splendid Hanukkah motto, "A great miracle happened there!"--as described in my Jewish colleague Howard Teich's  essay--certainly applies to both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Because of divergent calendar formulas, this holiday convergence is very rare.  Teich points to an historically special twinning of the holidays during the intensely challenging winter of 1777-1778 when General George Washington and his ill-equipped troops camped out in Valley Forge.  That convergence of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve gave a much needed boost of divine encouragement.

The original Hanukkah happened during the 400 years between the last Hebrew prophet and the beginning of the New Testament. The holiday was established to memorialize the cleansing and rededication of the Second Temple after it had been polluted under pagan control and then recaptured by an outnumbered band of Jewish warriors. During the rededication, one day's supply of lamp oil miraculously lasted eight days.

Jesus evidently celebrated Hanukkah during one of his trips to Jerusalem. The Apostle John recorded in the 10th chapter of his gospel account that Jesus went to Jerusalem and celebrated the feat of “Dedication” as an observant Jew.  Hanukkah means "Dedication" in the Hebrew language.

At that same Second Temple around the time of Hanukkah's 195th anniversary, Jesus taught about the miracle of his divine nature.  When strongly challenged about his claim to be One with God the Father, Jesus reminded his audience at the Temple about the Scripture teaching in Psalm 82:6.  Because we are all "children of the Most High," we are all "gods," Jesus said.  Such an earth-shattering teaching about the highest worth of all people from Jesus on Hanukkah should inspire Christians to embrace this miracle holiday as an act of solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.

The significance of this reminder from Psalm 82 is awesome.  As Jesus said, to be human is to have a divine connection, as we are taught also in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:7.  In our own time, evolutionary narratives may tell a compelling story of humanity's physical roots.  However, these narratives too often ignore the divine gifts of mind and spirit that the Creator breathed into that celebrated shaped dirt. The divine connection to human mind and spirit is still necessary for the telling of even the evolutionary story of human physical development.  God needed to breathe into that shaped dirt for there to be scientists today, whether they know their God-given humanity or not!

In the celebration of Christmas, we lift up Jesus as the ultimate miracle child--virgin born, "Son of the Most High" according to the angel Gabriel, announced by myriads of angels, visited and worshiped by the Magi from the East, and protected from the murderous tyrant Herod.  At a Hanukkah celebration 2000 years ago, Jesus also called upon all people to recognize a divine, miraculous aspect of their own humanity.  As "children of the Most High," and therefore "gods"--taught repeatedly already thousands of years before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures--when we humans diminish Jesus, we diminish themselves.

When we lift up Jesus, he lifts us up.  Miraculously!  Then and now.

Yet, so many people--our relatives, our neighbors, our colleagues--choke on miracles!  What is their problem? Sometimes, the problem is with the bearers of the miraculous messages.

How many times do we hear people exaggerate "miracle" stories?  Some seem to make up stories in s misguided attempt at personal fame or promoting God.  Please friends, stop it!

However, the existence of forgeries does not tarnish real miracles.  Anything worth pretending is worth having for real.

The attraction to miracles is a common, sustained human trait.  We can choose to be drawn all the more to real miracles--such as Hanukkah, Christmas, and the continuing splendid work of the living Lord of Hanukkah and Christmas.

In my doctoral training as a professional philosopher, I had to endure numerous mind-numbing attacks by my unbelieving professors against any openness to miracles.  The rank hostility some people have to God blinds them to the facts on the ground in front of them.

This problem of spiritual blindness is magnified when people have shrunken concepts of God.  I survived my professors' numerous attacks because: (a) I had already experienced transformative miracles; and (b) I had resisted shrinking the living Lord God.

Hanukkah and Christmas are also about resisting some people's efforts to shrink God.

There are three ways that help us to allow the Lord God to be God.

  1. Try common sense.
  2. Resist inappropriate gestures falsely pursued in the name of science.
  3. Protect your understanding of God from religion.

 

First, let God be God by trying common sense.

The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are consistent in their appeals to common sense.  Since the Lord God created life in the first place, why could not the Lord also create a special new life in the womb of Mary without the help of a man?

Since God made oil in the first place, who can stop Creator God from adding to the supply of oil to protect the reopening of a rededicated Temple?

Some people pretend to live in a universe where there is no Being above themselves.  They then define every event in terms of their own limited capacities and capabilities, because if they allowed for a Being greater than themselves, they could not do just as they please.

There are huge moral consequences to recognizing an Almighty God, and too many people are unwilling to take their place in a Divinely run universe.  For those self-absorbed people, even to allow for a miracle is to shatter their egocentric illusions.

Second, let God be God by resisting false pursuits in the name of science.

Historically, the sciences have flourished in cultures shaped by the Bible because the awesome power and dependability of the Creator God frees people to expect to discover regular patterns of causation and interaction within the natural order.  A good understanding of Scripture and true science have never contradicted each other, because our human discoveries of patterns of causation do not limit the Creator from making rare exceptions to those patterns.  Congress can pass laws and also tweak them; Creator can establish natural laws and tweak them--with miracles.

Scientific work requires repeatable phenomena to demonstrate regular patterns, or "natural laws."  The fact that our universe includes some non-repeated phenomena—such as the oil miracle in the rededicated Second Temple, the virgin birth of Jesus, the thousands of angels singing to a few shepherds outside Bethlehem--does not disprove the physical sciences any more than the sciences disprove unique events.  If the grids of the sciences require repeatable phenomena, as they should, they will just miss some events.

Scientific principles are great for scientific enterprises.  However, they also have the seeds of their own limitations.  We are constantly reminded that not all the world of phenomena fit into the physical sciences.   For example, the Principle of the Conservation of Matter and Energy is absolutely essential to the work of chemistry, physics, astronomy, and other physical sciences.  No experimentation or theoretical work will be honored unless it assumes that the totality of matter and energy remains constant throughout the experiments or phenomena studied.

Nevertheless, the "Big Bang" that is universally assumed in the physical sciences as the founding phenomenon of the physical universe--and the founding event that sets the very parameters of even the conservation of matter and energy--itself directly and blatantly violates that very Principle of Conservation!   Scientifically, the "Big Bang" brings us from zero matter and zero energy to the whole, huge universe of matter and energy.  No conservation there!  If the foundational "Big Bang" does not need to conform to the Principle of the Conservation of Matter and Energy, neither do other miracles.  Of course, the "Big Bang" is a unique event--and a miracle!

Third, to let God be God. We need to protect God from religion, that is, from the misunderstandings generated by religions.

The Bible teaches us about having a relationship with God, not with religion [www.religionvsgod.com].  The Bible records the living Lord God's remarkable works and self-revelation, without defining or limiting the Infinite, Almighty God in any way.  This is totally unlike the world religions outside of Judaism and Christianity.

No wonder the Lord God is called the "Most High" three times in the Christmas narrative in Luke--twice by Gabriel speaking with Mary and once by the thousands of angels singing to the small band of Bethlehem shepherds.  The Lord is truly the Most High, because the gods of the religions cannot compare with the Almighty God of the Bible.

Thankfully, these three tools--common sense, good science, and freedom from the false notions of religions--help liberate us to experience miracles: the miracles of Hanukkah, the miracles of Christmas, the miracles of 2016, and the miracles of 2017, and other miracles going forward.

Like General Washington and the revolutionary army in December 1777, we can gain priceless courage, wisdom and hope from Hanukkah and Christmas to love one another as miracles of God.

 

Paul de Vries is a theologian and founder of the New York Divinity School.  www.pauldevries.com

 

Also read Howard Teich's OpEd -- Modern Miracles. On Hanukkah, let’s celebrate the light God gives us now

 

 

Sam Kestenbaum's signature collection of sketches of Black Jews in Crown Heights @The Journey Store

 

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