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River of Lights

by Tim O'Hearn

Every December along the Rio Grande, the Albuquerque Biopark (the zoo/aquarium/botanic park in Albuquerque NM) holds a celebration called the River of Lights. Thousands of lights adorn frameworks in the shapes of animals and objects in a fantastic nighttime display. People come from all over the world to see this event. Imagine what it would be like if they spent all that time and money to create these light displays, and then would not let anyone see them.

Hanukkah begins the evening of December 24 in 2016. One of the requirements of the weeklong celebration is the nightly lighting of the menorah. One does not merely light a menorah in a back room. A part of the requirement is that the light be positioned so that it can be seen from the street.

Even though the tradition of lighting the menorah candles may not have begun in the 1st Century CE, Jesus understood the principle. One of his most famous sayings has to do with the hiding or display of light.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16)

Sometimes it takes courage to shine the light. There was a time in Germany when having a visible menorah became a dangerous requirement, yet many Jewish people continued to let the light shine forth. (And many non-Jews did so, too, in solidarity against hatred.) Actually, there was a time in many countries, including England, when this was a dangerous practice. In New Mexico and Arizona, many Jewish people had to hide their light under penalty of death. Some of these would still light the menorah and let it shine, but in remote places rather than their own homes. In Spain, Maimonides advocated conversion in name but not in practice. He held that martyrdom was only necessary if one was forced to publicly violate the Law of Moses, but one could do more good living than dead.

In like manner, Christians have been persecuted in many places for letting their figurative light shine. Sometimes that persecution has come from others who called themselves by the same name; most famously it has come from unbelievers of various sorts. Like the Crypto-Jews, many shine their light in remote places such as catacombs or private homes. Others shine their light openly and suffer for it. Today in many countries Christians (and Jews) are beaten, expelled, or killed because they expressed their faith, or worse, openly attempted to gain proselytes.

The persecution is not always as open as beatings, or even registration on a list. It doesn’t take being forced to wear a yellow star to be subject to persecution. Sometimes it comes in the guise of extreme patriotism. Sometimes it comes in laws banning certain pieces of clothing. Sometimes the persecution even comes from well-meaning Christians who cross the line and demand that those they consider greater sinners follow God’s will in spite of their unbelief. (This is a form of Christian super-patriotism.) Regardless of the form of persecution, we have a long history of people who quietly continued to let their light shine, regardless of circumstance.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the first full day of Hanukkah is the same day that some Christians celebrate the birth of the Messiah this year. In America we have gone through a contentious presidential election that was characterized more by lies and hatred than in any election cycle in memory. Our current president ran with a campaign slogan of “Hope.” That is what the light of Hanukkah symbolizes, rather than divisiveness. Now is a time when Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and many others must come together and place our symbolic menorot in the windows, so that hope shines out.