There was a very poor Christian man living in the countryside of China. When it came time for his prayers, he always wanted to make a sacrificial offering to God so, because food was scarce, he would place a dish of butter on the window sill. One day his cat came along and ate the butter and then went on to develop the habit of eating the butter, the offering to God. To remedy this, before his time of prayer, the man leashed the cat to the bedpost. This man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshipped as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers continued to place an offering of butter on the window sill during their time of prayer and meditation. And, in addition, with no idea why, each one bought a cat and leashed it to the bedpost.
Traditions. Sometimes our traditions make sense and sometimes it seems we’re all just tying the cat to the bedpost. (For the record: The Queen would not appreciate this tradition.) When it comes to the traditions of the Church there are some who see our traditions as an integral part of our worship and others who see them as baggage from a superstitious past. I for one am a firm believer in traditions because worship of our God should involve the entire person and all the senses. G.K. Chesterton writes, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Tradition is not just about what we think ought to be done, but what we as a Christian people collectively throughout the history of the Church believed should be done. Not simply for the sake of doing them—tying the cat to the bedpost—but doing them because they give greater depth and meaning to our faith. Many of our traditions are not only Christian but Jewish as well. From the practice of the Last Supper that evolved out of the Passover Meal, to the celebration of Pentecost, which was originally the feast of Shavuot in Judaism.
Our Gospel reading today provides another example: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” For us, we read that as just one of the many Jewish Feast days, but for the Jewish people it is tradition, and if we look a bit more closely, we discover that it is about our tradition as well.
We know that the Israelites had been taken into captivity on a few occasions and we also know that the land of the Israelites was occupied by various foreign armies. A couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ, the occupying armies were the Greeks. At first, things were at least peaceful. The Jews were allowed to continue their worship of the One True God, but then along came Antiochus Epiphanes who changed everything, which included the profaning of the Temple and trying to force the Israelites to worship the Greek gods. This didn’t go over so well and eventually led to rebellion against the Greeks with the family of Maccabees/Israelites leading the fight. The Maccabees prevailed and afterward, they worked tirelessly to restore and rededicate the Temple and the worship that took place there.
As part of that first Dedication, all the ornaments that God originally prescribed had to be in place, one of which was the Golden Lampstand that we learn about in Exodus, chapter twenty-five: “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold… six branches going out its sides… you shall make seven lamps for it.” And this light was to signify the very presence of God. A bit further on in chapter twenty-seven we are told about the oil for the lamp, “pure beaten olive oil”, which took eight days to prepare. However, this left the Maccabees in a quandary. They wanted to dedicate the Temple as quickly as possible, but they only had enough oil for one day. They could use what they had, but the lamp would go out before the end of the festival or they could use regular oil, which would have worked but would have been against God’s law or they could just wait until the proper oil was ready. We find their decision in the Talmud (the Rabbinic oral tradition) Shabbat 21b: “And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays.” Tradition. The tradition is known as the Festival of Lights or… Hanukkah. Hanukkah means, dedication. As you know, the eight-day festival is celebrated every year in the winter, generally near Christmas and all this places our Gospel reading into context: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”
With that in mind (some may mark this up as a happy coincidence but I’m more in favor of calling it a God-incidence): what did John tell us in the prologue to his Gospel? John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” In the chapters leading up to our Gospel, Jesus has saved the woman whom the Pharisees were going to stone to death for adultery, He has told them that He speaks for the Father and that He speaks the truth, He has told them that before Abraham, “I am” (he was), He gave sight to the man born blind, and declared Himself the Good Shepherd but before all this, what did Jesus say about Himself? Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Now, put that all together…
“At that time the festival of the Dedication—the Festival of Lights—the miracle of light—took place in Jerusalem—the very City of God. It was winter—it was the coldest and darkest time of the year, and Jesus—the Light of the World, the light that the darkness will not overcome has—is walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon—he is walking in the very place where God commanded the Israelites to continuously burn a light to signify His presence.” On the day we are reading about in our Gospel, the True Light of God, Jesus, has entered the Temple, God’s “home” on earth and it is this light, the light of Jesus, that still burns today, but what does that have to do with us and our traditions?
The Golden Lampstand was in the Temple in Jerusalem, but as we know the Temple was eventually destroyed in 70 a.d., so in order to demonstrate the light of God’s presence an eternal lamp/light is hung over the tabernacle (the niche for the Torah scrolls) in every synagogue. This eternal light is known as the Ner Tamid. Its use is based on the exact same texts as those used for the Golden Lampstand. And we continue this tradition with the Sanctuary Lamp that burns above our Tabernacle/Aumbry but our Sanctuary Lamp is not just a cat tied to the bedpost. It signifies to us the very Real Presence of God, of Jesus in this place… but wait, there’s more! That Sanctuary Lamp also reminds us of who we are: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
God gave the Israelites a commandment to have an eternal flame signifying his presence in the world and so they built a lampstand and filled it with oil just as he prescribed. Yet the light that this lampstand emitted was only a sign of God’s presence. At the feast of the Dedication when Jesus arrived at the Temple, the Light of God, the very presence of God was truly there. And now, just as the Israelites were given a commandment, so are you, “Let your light shine” for it is indeed the light of Christ and it is a light that the darkness still seeks to overcome but through your faithfulness and perseverance it will burn ever brighter.
Let us pray:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects us,
The presence of God watches over us,
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.