Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Festivals and Feasts

"Light in the Darkness"

Comedian Bill Maher is perhaps one of the most well-known and outspoken atheists in America, so I was somewhat taken back by a statement he recently made on one of his shows when he said, "I love the Christmas season, it's my favorite time of the year." 

So why would someone like Bill Maher have such fondness for a festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus? My guess is that, for him, Christmas is far less about Jesus and far more about a celebration of family, kindness, generosity, warmth and hope which the Christmas festival can evoke in any human heart whether you are an atheist or an agnostic, spiritual or religious, a Christian, a Muslim, Jew or a Buddhist. 

Every culture has its own unique festivals and feasts - religious festivals, nature festivals, family festivals, national festivals. In some sense these celebrations are endemic to the human condition. People yearn to be connected with each other, we yearn for transcendence -to be pulled beyond our own individual isolation into community with others. And so throughout time we human beings have gathered together to mark special occasions and celebrate feasts and festivals that feed and nurture our natural yearning to be part of one another's lives.

Today, Jews throughout the world begin the 8-day Festival of Hanukkah. It is a religious celebration commemorating an ancient time when, under siege from an enemy force, faithful Jews huddled together inside their temple. The oil in the temple lights should have run out, leaving them to sit in darkness with the enemy at the gate, but it miraculously kept on burning, unable to be extinguished. 

Like all religious festivals, the Hanukkah celebration goes well beyond commemorating a past historical event. Hanukkah provides an occasion for "huddling together" around a family table and lighting candles in the darkness. And so each night of Hanukkah a candle is lit on the menorah -candles to protect against the darkness, candles that celebrate hope in the midst of despair and the victory of love even when the forces of hate are knocking at the door.

Interestingly enough, the celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as the more contemporary African and African-American festival of Kwanzaa are all "Festivals of Light." At the darkest time of year, during the season when the night is longer than the day, Jews light the candles of the Menorah, Christians light candles on an Advent wreath and place bright lights on evergreen trees, and on each of the 7 days of Kwanzaa, colorful candles are lit as friends and family gather together to share a festive meal. 

Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.

And so throughout the world feasts and festivals are being celebrated at this time of year - festivals of light to drive out the darkness, festivals that join us all together celebrating an eternal truth that we human beings all belong to one another. and that in the end, love will indeed conquer all. 

You don't have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas, you need not be an African America to celebrate Kwanzaa and you don't have to be Jewish to celebrate Hanukkah. All you need is a desire in your heart to drive out the darkness wherever it may be. 

Happy Hanukkah!

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