By any measure, "2016 has been incredible" is a huge understatement. And now as we are about to move swiftly into 2017, there is at least one more incredible moment: the rare convergence of the first evening of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve.
These are two awesome Biblical holidays celebrating the Lord's miracle light and power together. Both holidays also fuel meaningful hope into our human spirits.
The splendid Hanukkah motto, "A great miracle happened there!" — as also profoundly described in my Jewish colleague Howard Teich's adjoining essay — certainly also applies to Christmas.
Because of divergent calendar formulas, this holiday convergence is very rare. Nevertheless, as Mr. Teich explains thoughtfully at the end of his essay, during the intensely challenging winter of 1777-1778, with General George Washington in Valley Forge and his ill-equipped troops, the first night of Hanukkah was also Christmas Eve. That convergence of Biblical holidays of miracle, light and hope gave the needed measurable divine encouragement and guidance to our American leaders then, 239 years ago. What is needed now?
The historic original Hanukkah does not appear in our Bibles because it occurred during the 400 years between the last Hebrew prophet Malachi and the beginning of the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is clear in the tenth chapter of John's Gospel that Jesus went to Jerusalem, and as an observant Jew celebrated the feast of "Dedication." Hanukkah means "Dedication" in the Hebrew language. In Hanukkah we celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple after it had been polluted under pagan control and then recaptured by an outnumbered band of Jewish warriors led especially by the intensely courageous and skilled Maccabee family. Immediately the Temple was cleansed and rededicated 165 years before Jesus' own miraculous virgin birth. The original Hanukkah also included the miraculous multiplying of lamp oil, so that one day's supply of oil lasted eight days!
Appropriately, in his own teaching at that same Second Temple on perhaps Hanukkah's 195th anniversary, Jesus taught about the miracle of his divine nature. When strongly challenged about his open claim to be One with God the Father, Jesus reminded his Temple audience of the Scripture teaching in Psalm 82:6.
Because we are all "children of the Most High," we are all "gods," Jesus said, quoting Psalm 82. Such an earth-shattering teaching from Jesus on Hanukkah, along with its original purposes, should inspire Christians to embrace this miracle holiday along 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 blindly ignore the divine gifts of mind and spirit that the Creator breathed into that celebrated shaped dirt, ironically thereby empowering some current scientists to tell even the incomplete evolutionary narrative in the first place!
Our divine connection to human mind and spirit is now often denied, although it is still ironically 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 the Lord 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 that recorded Hanukkah celebration 2,000 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 ourselves.
When we lift up Jesus, he lifts us up. Miracles! Then and now.
Miracles in 2016. Miracles in 2017. And yet so many people — our relatives, our neighbors, our colleagues — choke on miracles! What is their problem?
Do some people exaggerate "miracle" stories? Do they make up stories in misguided attempts at personal fame or in polluted attempts to please God? Please tell them to 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. When that attraction is exploited, 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. Elsewhere I described one miracle I experienced as an 11-year-old. Now, please allow me to explore with you the simple step of not shrinking God but letting the awesome living Lord God be God.
Hanukkah and Christmas are 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 Bible, including the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, is consistent. Since the Lord God invented and 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? If to create the first human, God breathed the Spirit into dirt he had especially shaped as Genesis teaches us, how could it be any problem at all for the same Spirit to implant special life into a human egg within the virgin Mary? Since God made oil in the first place, who can stop Creator God from adding to the supply of oil to protect the widow of Zarephath and her son and Elijah, and then hundreds of years later to protect also the reopening of a rededicated Temple?
Some people deny the miracles of Scripture because they deny the Living God of Scripture. Ultimately they 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 and honoring an Almighty God, and too many people are unwilling to take their place in a Divinely run universe. For those self-absorbed, misguided people, even to allow for a miracle is to shatter their egocentric illusions and disturb their moral numbness. The universe of the Bible is vibrant, rich, boundless, engaging, expansive, inspiring, empowering. No wonder the Scriptures have been a primary inspiration for most of the good deeds done in our world. Self-centered disbelief is a dead end.
Second, let God be God by resisting inappropriate gestures falsely pursued 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.
To put it in other words, 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 Elijah's Zarephath, 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 these unique events. If the grids of the sciences require repeatable phenomena, as they should, they will just miss some events. Fine! But if we pay attention we can still experience the unique events, including miracles, around us.
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. Biblical Scripture teaches us about having a relationship with God, not with religion. 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. Consider Islam and Hinduism, which are monotheistic, major religions focusing on one god. Both give major focus on what the divine cannot do!
For example, Islam teaches that Allah cannot become human, cannot live with us as a human model of godliness, cannot exemplify Heaven's truth within a human life, cannot suffer for us, cannot die for our sins, cannot rise again from death. All the joy and hope of the Gospel are prohibited in the very teachings of Islam! Allah did not make the moral and spiritual rules, and so he cannot tweak or regulate those rules. No wonder Muhammad did no miracles during his lifetime, even according to the Quran itself! And Muhammad and the rest of us must pay for our own sins, Muslims teach. In contrast, the Biblical Lord God is full of amazing grace, authority and miracles. The Lord exceeds the limitations of Allah.
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.
Similarly, Hindus also teach that the ultimate physical and moral order of the universe, what they call Rta, cannot be forgiving or even be tweaked by the divine. The Hindu gods like Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, or Brahma — and even the "Brahman," the ultimate spiritual substance that empowers and unites the gods (and also names the highest cast), are all powerless over Rta. Brahman and the gods have no "amazing grace" to add to Rta, let alone a miracle to soften its demands. The best the Hindu deity can do is to instruct us humans how to cope with Rta and to pay for all our own sins with our own good karma. Good luck!
Thankfully, these three tools — common sense, good science, and freedom from the "no-grace" religions — help liberate us to experience miracles: the miracles of Hanukkah, the miracles of Christmas, the miracles of 2016, the miracles of 2017, and other miracles going forward. Miracles give us the needed light, hope, wisdom, and courage.
Miracles help us focus on the living Lord and God's grace for our future. As with General Washington and our revolutionary army in December 1777, may the awesome converging celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas give us the priceless courage, wisdom, hope, and light we urgently need now as people, as families, as congregations, as communities, as nations, and as a world. And may we see God, one another, and our selves through the eyes of miracle.