A study of the history of every religious system suggests, however, that religion is itself a human creation. Every religious tradition participates in and is shaped by cultural factors, time-bound understandings of the world of nature, and prevailing tribal prejudices.
Nothing illustrates this conclusion better than a look into the origins of both Hanukkah and Christmas and especially at how these religious celebrations were positioned in the calendars of the western world.
Both holidays feature the restoration of light to a darkened world and both reveal that they are the product of people living in the northern hemisphere.
Hanukkah was a late-developing festival, which came into the cycle of Jewish liturgical observances in the second century before the common era. It was designed to mark the time when a military leader named Judas, nicknamed "The Hammer" [or Maccabeas in Hebrew] routed the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes and his army. The Temple in Jerusalem was thus restored to the worship of Yahweh.
To show utter contempt for their Jewish vassal state, the Syrians had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by tearing down the sacred symbols of the Jews and replacing them with pagan symbols. In the Holy of Holies, regarded by the Jews as the very dwelling place of God, the Syrians had placed the head of an unclean pig that the Jews referred to as "the Abomination of Desolation."
The victorious Judas stripped away these offending images and restored the sanctity of the Temple. Then, the tradition states, he lit the eight-branched candelabra called the Menorah to initiate a time of great celebration. These candles burned miraculously to extend the celebration for eight days. In the minds of the Jewish faithful this act not only restored light to darkness, but it also replaced idolatry with true faith.
That was what Hanukkah celebrated.
In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol was a star--bright, radiant and beautiful--that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have the power to guide Magi through the darkness to the birth place of this newborn savior.
In the second account of Jesus' birth, written by Luke sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was a resplendent angel accompanied by a host of angelic beings who cracked the midnight sky with a heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels spoke the words "fear not" and announced the birth of the one who later would be referred to as the "true light" which "came down from heaven."
Historical records from that period are scant, and no one today can date with precision either the defeat of Antiochus by Judas Maccabeas or the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop either tradition, however, from locating their celebrations in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.
As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Indeed it captured them. That is why both celebrations are located in the darkest time of the year.
Modern people have great difficulty imagining either the experience or the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel far from home in darkness by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon sign boards.
The human ability first to capture fire and later to create fire was the first gigantic step in the quest to defeat the always-threatening darkness. Fire is, however, a relatively recent human accomplishment. The vast majority of the human beings who have inhabited this earth lived with unrelieved and unconquered darkness.
When one further embraces the fact that people in the ancient world did not understand the relationship between the heavenly bodies and the earth, it is easy to grasp why magic, miracle and ritual acts were wrapped around these mysterious natural wonders. Modern men and women deal with these realities in a quite secular manner. We manipulate our clocks with various time zones and with something we call daylight savings time. We anticipate and name the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice. We understand that the earth rotates on its axis as it journeys around the sun every 365 1/4 days. We know the months when we are closer to the sun and the months when we are farther away. None of this, however, was known by our forebears.
They only knew that the sun seemed to retreat into darkness as the winter came. They wondered why and they speculated about this observable phenomenon, using a wide variety of religious explanations. They lived with a chronic fear that one year the enveloping darkness that came each winter might finally capture the light forever and thus doom their lives to be lived without light at all.
For this reason in almost every human culture there was a great religious celebration when the sun stopped its relentless retreat and began slowly but steadily to return.
Both Hanukkah and Christmas became expressions in a later form of this celebration. They thus reveal their northern hemisphere human origins.
It is time to recognize that religious truth, like all truth, emerges out of human experience. Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claim to possess divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. Those claims create the mentality that fuels religious imperialism.
That was a major learning out of the tragedy of Sept. 11.
Perhaps the only way for the Christmas promise of peace on earth to be achieved is for every religious system to face its human origins and recognize that worshipers in every religious system are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery and wonder of the God who is beyond anything that the human mind can finally imagine.
That insight represents both a gigantic step into a new sensitivity and a gigantic step away from the negativity that religious systems perpetually dump into the human bloodstream. In our observances of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, that could well be our most important learning.