This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on December 30th 2016.
2016 was the first year since 1978 that the 8 days of Hanukkah and the 12 days of Christmas began on the same date…December 24th. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is established in accord with a lunar calendar. This year the liturgical calendars from two related spiritual traditions intersected, which I’ve decided to take as a cosmic Sign of hope for the year to come.
Both Judaism and Christianity have narratives of dispossession. “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous,” says the Tanakh, or, as another translation of this passage from Deuteronomy 26:5 has it, “A Syrian ready to perish was my father; and he went down into Egypt.” How interesting, in a time of unprecedented human displacement, that Abraham, a prophetic figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is identified as a Syrian on a long and trying peregrination.
When I lived in Santa Barbara, my physician was proud of his roots as a Sephardic Jew. He was a descendent of the Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Allowed no gold or silver and required to forfeit their homes, 165,000 Sephardic Jews departed Spain, settling in North Africa, Greece, and Turkey. My physician and friend had in his possession a large house key passed down over the course of 500 years; the key to an ancestral family home and emblematic of the hardship that had shaped his ancestors through decades and centuries.
Those old harsh stories of nomadic Abraham, of all those who followed Moses 40 years around the Sinai desert, those exiled from Judah by Babylonians, and later from Spain by the Inquisition, carry seeds of hope. That terrible history of dispossession seems to have been part of what established a sense of Jewish identity. All those settled, comfortable ancient peoples have crumbled into the sands, while many permutations of Jewish faith and culture endure.
Dispossession is an overt component of my own Faith Tradition. At Christmas Episcopalians, together with other Christians, celebrate the birth of the Christian Savior, not in a five-star hotel, but in a back-lot wattle built for livestock. A vulnerable peasant child far from home is un-hygienically born, his parents soon be hounded by Herod to flee for their lives across borders into Egypt. When that wandering Jew became a man, he said, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Later yet, the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Christian New Testament recalled the memory of Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. They had all lived and died glimpsing only a small part of the realization of God’s promise for humankind. The author tells those to whom he writes that people who become more like those emblematic Hebrews will best exemplify the teachings of the Christ whom they strive to follow.
In his book “Hillbilly Elegy,” author J.D. Vance writes of the cultural and economic dispossession experienced by Americans inhabiting the hillsides and hollows of his Appalachian childhood. These folk aren’t wandering anywhere; they are trapped in desperate lives and in locations resistant to ameliorating change… “There is something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large,” Vance writes.
Spiritual dispossession in the American context, and physical dispossession across the globe, characterize many of the challenges facing us in 2017. That old key to the ancestral home of my Santa Barbara friend is a reminder that dispossession can unlock determination and faith. May the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas portend the finding of old keys to unlock new doors in 2017, that in our ongoing peregrination to forge a better world we might prove as resilient as the faithful fore bearers in all our Traditions.