Their reasoning for the season

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

It was Small Business Saturday in Poplar Park, so Michael Rosenthal had agreed to meet Pastor Walter Mitty at Bernie Rolvaag's History/Herstory bookstore after his neighbor was finished with the weekly men's breakfast a few blocks down the street at the Main Café.

It was a nice day for the end of November, so Pastor Walt enjoyed the walk, but he couldn't stop thinking about what Ash had said a few minutes earlier. The octogenarian had gone off for a long time about how religion is declining in American culture. 

"I remember," he had begun, "how at the Christmas Eve service the church would be packed, standing room only. Now we're lucky if the church is half full.

"And look out the window. You see snowmen and Santas decorating Main Street, but there's not a manger scene in sight. And look how politicians and celebrities are behaving. No respect for marriage ... or telling the truth."

Part of it, thought Mitty as he walked, is that Ash had gotten a little crotchety in his old age, but he had to admit he had the same kind of feelings as the season of Advent approached. In the 30 years since he had been ordained, he felt like the church was slowly being eroded by secular culture, like a glacier receding because of global warming.

When he walked in the door of his friend's bookstore, he found Michael and Bernie deep in a conversation about the meaning of Hanukkah. "Hey, Walt," Bernie greeted his friend with a smile, "Michael was just telling me about how in a couple weeks the members of his temple will be spinning the dreidel, lighting candles on the menorah and eating potato latkes, brisket and noodle kugel."

 Michael interjected, "And I was telling Bernie that lots of my Jewish friends — even some of the members of my temple — keep God pretty much out of the holiday. What many are most concerned about is preserving their cultural traditions and even their identity in a month when they are bombarded with images of snowmen and Santa Claus and with buy, buy, buy."

"Hey," the bookstore's owner broke in with a laugh, "I don't mind the buy, buy part. A fella has to put food on the table and pay the bills. But seriously, Walt, do you know the history of Hanukkah?"

"It's about lighting eight candles, isn't it?"

"That's a good start, Walt," Michael began. "But Hanukkah is really about two miracles. You see, in the second century B.C. the people of Israel were a persecuted minority under the political control of Seleucid rulers who tried to force my forebears to worship Greek gods. The first miracle was that God enabled Judah Maccabee and his vastly outnumbered army to drive the Seleucids out of the Holy Land, and the second miracle was that when they went to rededicate the temple, they found only enough consecrated oil to keep the seven-branched candelabrum lit for just 24 hours. But that small amount of oil lasted for eight days until they could find more."

Michael's history lesson made Mitty think back to what Ash had been lamenting just an hour earlier. 

"Michael," he said, "you know what it's like to be a minority — Jews make up, what, 2 percent of the population in this country? Do you ever wish you lived in Israel where people wouldn't look at you sideways if the fringe on your tallit is showing from under your coat or you wear a yarmulke a public?"

"I do, Walt, I do. Mostly in my imagination, though. But you two can understand this. Sure, part of who I am is my identity as one of the people — the wandering Arameans if you will — whom for some reason God chose to be his people. And it hurts to see my grandchildren get embarrassed when I wear a yarmulke to their school on Grandparents Day. But part of my identity is being an American. I hope it's not the biggest part, but this country — even the materialistic part — has been good to me."

Just then Fr. Bob Sullivan walked in the door. "My, my, you three seem to be deep in conversation. Solving the world's problems again?"

"Hey, Bob. No, nothing so ambitious. Michael was just telling us the history of Hanukkah, how God empowered a religious minority to gain freedom from oppression and that made me think about how through most of their history the Jewish people haven't had that kind of control over their lives and how Christianity in this time seems to be losing its central place in society."

"I hear you," the Franciscan replied. "Mass attendance at St. Mary's has been slipping and there are rumors our parish might be consolidated with another.

"You know — and Michael, maybe you can relate to this — I've always felt like a minority, in both the Catholic Church and in our capitalist society. Imagine what it's like to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and believe you've been called to the mission of living the Gospel and serving the poor. But people often look at me as if I'm some weird alien from another world."

"You know what?" said Bernie after another minute of silence. "What you said, Bob, made me think of Constantine.

"Before he made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Christians were a persecuted minority.  And, by most accounts, the time when Christians were a minority were the best days of the Church in terms of spiritual power and really living what they believed."

"Lately," Fr. Bob added. "I've been telling people that when Christians try to gain political power, they lose Jesus."

Michael nodded his head and said, "You know, I've come to the conclusion that being part of a minority that is discriminated against can cut in two ways. One way is that it can motivate members of the minority to try to assimilate, to abandon their former identity and try to fit in with the group in power. Or it can make you become even stronger in your sense of who you are. When I talked to Ehud, he said the same holds true for Muslims here."

"So maybe we should not be so afraid," Mitty concluded, "of losing privilege and power in the hope that in the losing we might be gaining something more important?

"Hey, Bernie," he added. "Do you have a good book on Constantine?"

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