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DANIEL VAUGHAN: On Christmas We Celebrate the Impossible and Improbable
Christmas is the Christan celebration of a time when history split between ancient and modern, dark and light. The time when God became a man in the form of Jesus Christ, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The birth of the Christian Messiah heralds an impossible plan: Laying down One’s deity to become a man, live a perfect and sinless life, and take away the sin of all mankind.
In the Charlie Brown Christmas television episode, Linus tells an exasperated Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas after Charlie Brown repeatedly asks. Linus quotes the Bible, “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” and describes a great light shining on the shepherds listening to that news. Christmas is the celebration of that light entering the world.
The Jewish Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah, is also celebrated during the Christmas season and gives us a similar reminder of light and hope. The story of Hannukah is the first recorded instances in human history of war for religious freedom. The Jews were the only monotheistic faith in the ancient world when the Greeks began conquering the land. Faced with the choice of bending the knee to Greek gods, the Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees.
Stunningly, the Jews were able to drive the Greeks out of the land and restore and cleanse their temple. However, a problem arose when the time came to light the ceremonial candelabrum. There was only enough oil to keep the candles lit for a day, but miraculously the candles continued burning for eight days, which is the time it takes to make fresh oil. Hannukah commemorates the miracle of light that wouldn’t extinguish.
The Judeo-Christian holiday season of Hanukkah and Christmas commemorates two miracles: the miracle of light entering the world, and the wonder of that light never going dark. No matter what situation faces us, we have a great reminder of hope in these holidays.
As we celebrate the miracle of light in the world, it seems appropriate to recognize America’s founding required its own Christmas miracle. While patriotic people lauded the Declaration of Independence getting signed in 1776, the task of winning a war against the world superpower Great Britain fell to General George Washington. While enthusiasm ran high after Americans accepted the war for independence, victories did not.
Boston and New York got evacuated in the wake of the Declaration signing. Washington’s armies were pushed back by superior British and Hessian mercenary forces. Between the losses and signs that the Continental Congress was struggling to pay soldiers for their war efforts, morale was low and Washington’s army was losing men to desertion in the winter of 1776.
The mood in the country at large was so low, Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, was prompted to write a series of pamphlets called American Crisis. The first booklet was published on December 23, 1776, and Paine’s opening paragraph is one of the most iconic in American history:
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
George Washington found the pamphlet so inspiring he ordered all his men read it and the booklet distributed to everyone. Paine’s timing was even more fortunate because Washington was about to execute his most daring plan yet: crossing the icy Deleware river to launch a surprise attack on Hessian forces in New Jersey.
Washington’s audacious plan succeeded, brought a significant boost of morale to his troops, cemented him as a leader, and entered American lore when painter Emanuel Leutze recreated the event. Without that vital victory, it’s possible Washington’s forces would have lost all hope and disbanded as rival generals vied for power.
One of the earliest notions of American Exceptionalism came from John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” address to his fellow Puritans. The idea was that America could become a different land, a City Upon a Hill, echoing the words of Jesus, which the world as a whole could view as a beacon of light. Presidents throughout American history have repeated that phrase as part of American virtues. But the United States doesn’t get the opportunity to become that city without George Washington’s Christmas miracle.
On Christmas, we celebrate with friends and family all of these miracles. Jews celebrate the festival of lights and the victory of the first war for religious freedom and wonder of light. Christians celebrate the birth of a Savior who brings light and salvation to the world. And Americans memorialize George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware, which helped give a new foundation to a city upon a hill, which represents the light the season symbolizes.
Christmas is for the long-shots, the impossible, the improbable, and the divine. It’s a time when we remember how the ancient shapes the modern. Santa Clause may be a myth, but our faith and history are not.
Merry Christmas to all and Shalom aleichem!
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