A Christmas Story: The Candle
A candle is burning.
Way, way back, nearly in the once upon a time era of real-life history, Alexander the Great died and his territory was divided into four sections. A few decades later, Israel ended up under the Selecucid section / control. Now, for the most part, this was a peaceful agreement: the Israelites contributed a tribune — we’ll call it a special tax — and, in return, the Seleucids allowed the Israel to rule itself. There was likely some underlying tension at times but, by and large, it was a symbiotic situation.
Until Antiouchus IV got involved and decided that, no, he’d really like the Jewish people to be Hellenized (more Greek-like). He become more and more controlling, restricting the Jews’ way of life and encroaching on their ability to practice their faith. Judiasm was outlawed; if you owned a Bible, you could be killed. It was the government’s way or your life was going to be hell. Antiochus meant business.
Terrible, awful things were done to the Jewish people. According to the Maccabaeus texts, babies were killed by being hung from their mothers’ necks. Think about the amount of torture that must have been for those women to watch their baby die while literally touching them. Thinking up unusually cruel and abhorrent methods by which to torture the Jews becomes a pattern: centuries later, in the 1940s, there is a true story of Nazi soldiers tossing a baby out of a window so that another Nazi, waiting below, could catch the infant with the edge of a bayonet. Prisoners in Auschwitz working the creamatorium were forced to search the cavities of their dead, and it mattered not if the dead happened to be a loved one.
A Seleucid officer under a priest to kill a pig and eat it. This priest, named Matthias, refused. He would have been killed for the refusal (and he was keenly aware of this), but a fellow Jew stepped up. He was trying to barter peace—but he did it by killing a pig on the altar. The priest, Matthias, became so enraged that he killed the Jew—-and then he killed the officer who ordered it done. And then he ran. About 500 people joined him.
And this is where things start to get really interesting.
I could give you a play-by-play account of each battle fought but, really, the main idea here is that the Jews were massively outnumbered with inferior weaponry and little to no formal battleground training. But they were fighting for more than their lives. They were fighting for freedom. They were defending everything that made them them. Fighting for the lives of their children. Fighting for the right to serve God how they wanted.
Under some pretty exceptional leadership — leadership that was both clever, patient, cunning and inspirational, a guy named Maccabaeus served up one very impressive victory by outsmarting the Seleucid army. This victory encouraged about 10,000 more people to join the Jewish resistance and fight for freedom. More impressive battles to be had including a key one where Maccabeus delivered a inspirational speech to his terrified men who were facing certain death as an army of 24,000 Seleucids were quickly bearing down on 6,000 Jewish fighters.
The Israelite army, though, didn’t give up. Eventually, on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jews the menorah. The important part of this story is that they had enough oil to last one day. Instead of lasting one day, though, the flame stayed continued burning for eight days.
The fight wasn’t over. It would go on for years longer, and the Jewish army suffered: they were almost eradicated, in fact. But a strange thing happened: the Persians, and other areas, started putting pressure on the Seleucids, encouraging them to become more tolerant. Eventually, the Jews declared independence and remained independent for about a hundred years because the Roman Empire came into play.
There are so many things about this history that I could talk about. I could, for instance, point out the crimes against humanity that sparked Matthias’ murders. Anyone who can stand by and subdue a mama bear while her baby is hung from her neck is … evil and I would revolt too, which says a whole lot since I never rebel against anything. I could point out how the Jews have been ostracized and used as scapegoats and murdered since the dawn of time and how their BC fight for independence foreshadowed the Holocaust. All of that is heartbreaking. All of that is mind-boggling. And all of that could be the source of the blog post.
But, what’s weighing on me tonight, this Christmas night, is the similarities to what’s happening between Ukraine and Russia. I watched Zelensky’s address to Congress, his impassioned speech that made me think of Churchill’s addresses. And I grieved for the wrongs that are happening there.
But the next day came and I was swept into the joyful chaos that is Christmastime. You see, I’m not a Jew: I’m a Christian. For me, December is about the birth of my Savior, and He’s not my Savior because I was taught to believe it. He’s my Savior because of the relationship I have with HIm — I know He’s been with me in some of the scariest moments of my life. There’s no way science or fate or coincidence could explain the story of my life and all of the little things that added up to making me safe and whole. The only way to explain it is through God’s miracles.
A candle is burning.
One of the most poignant stories from the Holocaust is the one where some women fashioned a candle and lit it. The prisoners in the barrack were drawn to the memory of what it was to gather, to worship, to remember they were not dead yet and they were not animals. They sang traditional songs for Shabbat. For me, this was so moving because abuse after abuse after abuse left them feeling desensitized and dehumanized. They weren’t people with names, they were bones with numbers tattooed onto their arms. Without hair and without weight, it was said that it was difficult to distinguish the males from the females.
I have been unimaginably blessed: I’ve lived my entire life as a free person, unequivocally privileged in many ways from being born in the United States, to being taught to pray from as young as I can remember, to having a very close knit relationship with my mother and sister which meant that, while I knew sexual abuse, I also believed I was loved. Despite the advantages I’ve had, I’ve also been traumatized by repeated rape. Mind games ran rampant throughout my childhood and teenage years. While I did believe my mother and sister loved me, I also believed I was a terrible person and that, if they knew how awful I was, if they knew the shameful things that happened to me, maybe I’d lose their love. I coped by numbing myself. I cried easily, but that was told that that made things worse, so I hid everything I felt until I didn’t feel anything, really. Happiness, sadness, nothing. I floated through each day on the coattails of writing and on the belief that, at night, while He didn’t stop the rapes from happening, God was with me and He held my hand through it.
The candle was lit.
So, the Jews, the ones who lit that first flame, had no idea that the oil was about to last for 8 days. They had no reason to think it would. They had oil only for one day. On day 4, when it was still lit, I’m sure they wondered will it be gone when I wake up? There was no explanation for why it was still lit on day 4 and no guarantees that it wouldn’t go out the moment they blinked. I imagine by day six, awe and reverence hung a thick silence through the camp. The ground near the menorah likely felt powerful, holy. The whispers that may have started around day 2 or 3 were, by day six, likely a mixture of bewilderment and awe. And there was likely a constant, undeniable, and powerful presence of God surrounding them. When the Holy Spirit is near, it is unmistakable that you’re in the presence of holiness. I’ve been in seasons that were so dark and lonely and so filled with fear that I didn’t know if I wanted to see the next day because I didn’t believe the next day would see the pain ease. But I held on- like the Jews waited with bated breath to see if the candle was still burning the next day.
I love that the candle was lit while they fought for freedom, and I love that, while the specific dates vary year by year, it is usually celebrated in December by the Jewish faith. I’ve enjoyed playing dreidel games and I admire the beautiful menorahs when I see them, but we don’t celebrate Hanukkah. Instead, this is when my family celebrates the birth of Christ. I believe He is the Messiah and, because I believe that, His birth, like the flame burning, symbolizes hope. And freedom. Freedom from what?
This already long blog post could become a novella if I talked about how fear has kept me captive most of my life, or about how generational abuse causes cracks in the mind and in the heart that makes living hard, or about the bondage alcohol and drugs create. Those are all very real prisons that eat away at us: I can promise you that, while I’ve never been in a concentration camp, I do know what it’s like to believe I’m not worth living, and I do know what it feels like to feel less than a human. So all of these things are very real cages.
But the hope that we take a moment to remember every December, and to give thanks for, isn’t just for the freedom from these things. I may die with pieces of my heart unhealed from my childhood. There are many who won’t know healing from physical ailments in this life. I’m talking about freedom from something way bigger.
When you believe — truly, deep down where it matters, believe — that you are not loved, that grace doesn’t apply to you, that you are a mistake, then it can be quite impossible to cling to a glimmer of hope that, even if it exists, you don’t believe anyone would offer YOU. See, salvation—heaven—is glorious, more so that I know, but salvation isn’t just about Heaven. Salvation is about a permanent relationship with God and to have that is to have that feel of worthlessness replaced with a sense of belonging; it’s an unequivocal epiphany that you matter and you are loved. To believe that someone literally knows every thought you’ve ever had, knows every shameful or wrong thing you’ve done, intimately understands all the nuances that disillusioned your belief in a happily ever after—-and loves you anyway is to experience the reverence of watching a candle burn that should have been died days ago.
We gave gifts today.
Every year, we go overboard with gifts. For me, I want everyone to feel spoiled, to feel like a princess, to feel seen and known. It is not about providing material things—-but it’s about sending an unmistakable message that no matter what the year has held, no matter what you feel about yourself, no matter how much darkness seems to envelop us, no matter what, hope is alive. That baby born in a stable embodies it and He is alive. Midway through opening the presents, Breathe joked, “Okay, this is about the point I take a break.” Alissia, my six year old niece, said, “I don’t want to open any more presents, I’m taking a BREAK.” That’s what I want—because when the day is over, when we’re eight months into the new year and life seems to be attacking us, maybe they’ll look back on the pictures and think, wow that was a lot, maybe one day when they are older, their memories of Christmas will include the feeling of being overwhelmed by love. If they can feel overwhelmed by love through one magical day, then maybe they’ll be able to believe that the God’s love overshadows everything — and it is for them.
The Jewish history has been impactful for me. I used to tell myself that what my father was doing to me was nothing because I wasn’t in a concentration camp. Therefore, of course I was fine. It gave me hope because if the victims of the Holocaust — if even one of them survived that —- I could survive, too. I used the stories of what I’d read, the horrible stories that left me traumatized and with nightmares, to put my own pain into perspective. It helped me. The Jewish people have always welcomed me into their synagogues when I’ve needed the comforting, intimate, beautifulness. My Evangelical pastor once told me that he thinks my “prayer language” is Hebrew. What is so inspiring about their history is that, through it all, through literally thousands of years of being persecuted, they haven’t abandoned their faith. It’s because they know of something bigger, something greater, something stronger than the persecution, than the evil.
Tonight, I’m thankful for a peaceful holiday season. While I miss home and have soaked in tidbits from Nashville every day this week, my heart is at rest, safe with the knowledge that the candle is still lit.
Hopefully the candle is burning bright
Thank you! It is. 😉