Arise, shine for your light has come!
With these words from the prophet Isaiah we begin the season of Epiphany, often known as the season of light.
Epiphany (which actually is tomorrow) begins with the light of the star that led the wise men to the infant Jesus. It ends on the Sunday before Lent begins, with Jesus on the mountaintop transformed into a dazzling brightness.
We celebrate the light at a time when darkness surrounds us.
I have been particularly aware the past few weeks of an ancient darkness that once again is rising – one of human history’s oldest, most insidious hatreds — anti Semitism.
Maybe you, like me, are astounded and dismayed that we need to talk about this. I would guess that most of us here have good friends who are Jewish.
We work together, we live in the same neighborhood, our kids go to school and play together, we socialize together.
We know the history of anti Semitism. We know the evils of Germany and the Holocaust. And maybe we thought those evils had been slayed.
But that old evil seems to be finding new life.
In the last month we’ve seen three people killed in an attack on a kosher grocery store in New Jersey.
We’ve seen a Hanukkah celebration turn into a nightmare when a man wielding a machete broke into a New York rabbi’s house, severely injuring many.
In an eight-day period in New York last month:
A Jewish man was punched and kicked by a man screaming anti-Semitic slurs.
An Orthodox woman walking with her three-year-old son was hit in the head by a woman who yelled, “You filthy Jew. Your end is coming.”
Three Orthodox women were slapped in the face and hands by a woman yelling anti-Jewish slurs.
These attacks are part of what authorities say is a sharp increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and incidents in the last three years.
“If you walk down any street in the Orthodox Jewish community you will feel it in the air,” one community leader said. “Children are frightened. Parents are afraid to send their children to school.”
The rise of anti-Semitism is not just in New York, as attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California show.
“This is a national phenomenon that we are seeing and it’s frightening and it’s disturbing,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “If anyone thinks that something poisonous is not going on in this country, then they are in denial.”
And it is not just in this country.
A senior rabbi in Europe calls the resurgence of anti-Semitism across that continent “an existential threat to the Jewish community.”
Andrea Riccardi, a founder of a Catholic charity in Europe who recently received an award from European rabbis for promoting dialogue between Christians and Jews said this in her acceptance speech:
“I think that it needs to be recognized that this is a difficult moment because nationalism is giving rise again to a politics of hatred. And the first chapter, not the only one, but the first chapter of political hatred is anti Semitism.
“This should make us worry, and it should wake us up.”
As Christians we have a special responsibility to wake up because so much of the hatred and persecution of Jewish people have come from those who profess Jesus, a Jewish man, to be our savior.
That hatred is a perversion of Christianity, antithetical to the teachings and life of Jesus.
And yet we’ve seen it time and again throughout history.
Sadly, our Jewish brothers and sisters probably are not shocked by the latest rise in anti Semitism. Their entire history has been a series of fights for their existence.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated last month, is an observance of one such fight. In the second century BCE, Jerusalem was occupied by the Syrians, who tried to outlaw Judaism and desecrated the Temple, erecting in it an altar to Zeus and using the sacred space to slaughter pigs, an animal forbidden to Jews.
A small group of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, revolted. For three years they fought the larger army, and finally they won. One of their first acts after victory was to cleanse and restore the desecrated Temple.
The rededication included lighting the menorah, the seven branched candelabra representing knowledge and creation, which was supposed to be lit each night. There was only enough oil for one night, but the menorah was lit anyway – and stayed lit for eight nights.
The rabbis declared it a miracle and proclaimed there would be a yearly festival of lights to remember it
Many Hanukkah menorahs have nine candles, one for each night of the original miracle, and an extra one called the Shamash, the helper candle used to spread the light from one candle to the next.
It occurred to me this week that we are called to be the Shamash, to help spread the light.
Being the Shamash means speaking up, taking sides, taking action.
It doesn’t have to be dramatic. A New York man was the Shamash this week when he got on the subway and saw the train’s windows were filled with anti-Semitic symbols and slurs.
He pulled out his hand sanitizer and sprayed it on the window next to him, wiping the slurs away.
When he looked up he saw p-erson after person reaching into purses and backpacks, pulling out hand sanitizers, kleenex, wipes. Soon every window was clean.
The Rev. William Barber is telling us to be the Shamash when he encouraged Christians this week to stand with our Jewish siblings:
“We, too, kindle lights,” he said.
“Lights of love for our Jewish siblings whose community is shaken by violence once more.
“Lights of solidarity that cast out the illusion that we are not all children of the same God.
“Lights of justice to weave over our communities to repair the breach.
“Lights that illumine the true threats and aberration to the divine: racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation, and the distorted narratives that would cast us as enemies.
“We yet hold out the light of redemption. We give light so that people can find the way.
“Let us find our way to one another – to justice, to love.”
Be the Shamash.