My high school was founded by a Jewish philanthropist, originally exclusively for Jewish orphans; nearly half of my graduating class of 96 were Jewish. It therefore embarrasses me to admit that while I pretty well understand Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Passover, I never quite bothered to pay attention to what Hanukkah was all about. I knew my classmates lit candles, and that sometimes Hanukkah fell more near to Christmas Day than others — but that was about it. Such is the cultural myopia of a Christian focused on his Savior’s birth, and on the attendant societal celebrations. My Jewish friends could do what they would do, and I wished them all the joy of the season — but I should have taken an interest in what they were commemorating, both out of respect for them and because I probably needed the edification. That which is no threat to one’s own culture or faith should be embraced for its contributions to cultural richness.
As for my own faith, the longer I moved into adulthood, the more I felt more spiritually energized and enlightened by Advent than by Christmas itself (although, in a way that counter-intuitively rejoiced in its Jewishness, I clearly love Christmas as well). Advent’s promise of a profound change in our very covenant with our Lord somehow appeals to me more (maybe because of what might be an over-intellectualized conceit of mine) than does an idyllic baby in a manger, helpless and majestic at one and the same time. This babe, our Lord made flesh, is almost too perfectly symbolic of new life — so obvious in its symbolic meaning as to be too easily grasped, too little requiring us to stretch ourselves, to struggle for understanding, and through that struggle to grow. God’s gift of self and Son is so perfect, so simple, that we weak humans too easily take it for granted.