Hanukkah and Advent are festivals of light and have a focus on candles. The hanukkiah, the candelabra used at Hanukkah, has 9 candles. On each of the eight evenings of the festival a candle is lit from the ninth one which is called a helper or shamash so that by the eighth day of the festival all nine are burning. The tradition is to display these candles at a window to illustrate that the Jewish community can now enjoy religious freedom. Today large hanukkiahs are lit in major cities and public places such as the Scottish Parliament and the White House as an expression of religious freedom and tolerance.
The lighting of the candles commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of a Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes who, in the second century BCE, desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbade Jews to practice their faith. Defeating Antiochus, the Maccabees purified the Temple but found they hadn’t enough oil to light the everlasting lamp. Miraculously the little oil they did have lasted for eight days until replenishments could come. This is the miracle celebrated at Hanukkah with prayers, gifts, family fun and games. It’s a family, happy time to cheer us up on dark winter days – at least in this part of the world.
Advent is also a time for the lighting of candles but it looks forward rather than back. It begins the Christian year and is a time of preparation for Christmas. Some people use the time to do some kind of penance in the sense of a discipline to free them from a habit or even an obsession like giving up social media for four weeks. And there are candles. In some homes but in many churches there will be an Advent wreath – a circle of everlasting greenery to symbolise the infinity of God, purple ribbons as a sign of anticipation and waiting and four candles for each of the four Sundays of Advent. Three of them are purple and one pink for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in which the opening prayer in worship is Rejoice. It’s now become common for a white candle to be put in the middle of the wreath to symbolise the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
What made our party this week so enjoyable was the presence of children. We held the event at the Synagogue just as the pupils from the local Jewish primary school were leaving, having visited the Synagogue to light the Hanukkah candles. Their school is rather a special one as it shares a campus with a local Catholic school. We think it’s the only shared Catholic – Jewish campus in the world and we’re very proud of it. Each school promotes the ethos of their particular faith but the pupils share the playground and are getting to know one another. The Jewish children, though, who told us the story of Hanukkah were not at the school but were two of the home-schooled children of the Rabbi. With great confidence they told us about the Maccabees, the lighting of candles, the gift giving, the eating of doughnuts but what got us all laughing and participating was a game that had us passing little parcels left and right as the words were mentioned in their story – parcels that contained a reward for all of us. And of course we lit four candles for the fourth day of Hanukkah accompanied by the Rabbi’s blessing.
It was the head girl and head boy from the Catholic primary who told us about Advent. Telling us that the Advent Wreath helped Christians take time to think about the real meaning of Christmas and reflect on how they could bring God’s light, joy, peace and love into the world today they explained the four candles - the first one representing hope. which is like a light shining in a dark place: the second candle representing peace and reminding us to try to be peacemakers in our schools and homes; the third representing the joy we feel celebrating the birth of Jesus and the fourth one representing the love we share in Jesus and how we try to show this love in the way we treat those around us, not just friends and families but also those less fortunate than ourselves.
As you can imagine the children were very well received. I found it very moving to see the children from both faiths participate in our celebration. What a contrast to the enmity that existed between our communities for centuries but has thankfully given way to a new reality. The shared campus offers such hope for the future. Already the children from both schools have collaborated on helping the homeless, enjoyed a ceilidh together and are now beginning to learn a little about one another’s faith. As one of the children said “we really do enjoy one another’s company and love finding about one another’s faith. In St Clare’s we are always saying we are making memories to last a lifetime but we also think we are making lifelong friends.” We cannot ask much more than that.