03 December 2021

‘Not by might, nor by power, but
by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’

Four figures in Murano glass in a shopfront in the Ghetto in Venice … the figure on the left is celebrating Hanukkah with a Hanukkiah or Hanukkah Menorah (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Hanukkah, which began last Sunday night (28 November 2021), continues all this week, and comes to an end on Monday (6 December 2021).

The story of Hanukkah is recalled in I Maccabees:

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt-offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 55 All the people fell on their faces and worshipped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt-offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving-offering. 57 They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. 58 There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.

59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev (I Maccabees 4: 52-59).

The rabbis taught that during the eight days of Hannukah there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. The story is not a story of rebellion or war, violence or victory, but a story of a miracle wrought by God, the triumph of light over darkness, and the victory of liberty against hatred and oppression.

The Talmudic tradition stresses the miracle of the cruse of oil and mentions the Hasmonean struggle only cursorily. While the Talmud contains an entire tractate devoted to Purim, there is no tractate devoted specifically to Hannukah, although the festival is mentioned several times in the Mishnah.

The early authorities sensed that the Hasmonean victories had already lost their lustre by the Mishnaic period. Abudraham claims that while the Hasmoneans were initially pious, they sinned by making themselves the rulers of the Jewish state, an office not to be assumed by a priestly family.

As Kohanim, the Hasmoneans had no right to assume royal authority. The Pharisees turned against the Maccabees and demanded that they give up the high priesthood.

Eventually, Herod, who exterminated virtually all the Hasmoneans who were alive during his reign. Later, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, regarded the Hasmoneans as usurpers since they were not members of the Davidic dynasty.

The Hasmonean dynasty had lost its glory by the time of the Mishnah, and Hanukkah was in danger of being forgotten as a celebration. When the festival was re-established, the emphasis was on the miracles at the rededication of the Temple, particularly the miracle of the cruse of oil.

The message of Hanukkah is expressed in the prophetic words of the Haftarah of the Sabbath of Hanukkah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4: 6).

It is striking that Hanukkah commemorates one event that was incidental to a successful war of independence fought against an oppressive foreign ruler, and that this event was neither a victory on the field of battle nor a political transaction that gave official recognition to a hard-won independence.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, although work is permitted, all signs of sadness are to be avoided, there is no fasting, and eulogies and tziduk hadin are omitted at funerals.

Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights because it is marked by the kindling of lights at home and in the synagogue. The hanukkiah or Hanukkah Menorah should be placed where it can be seen from outside the house in order to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah to all passers-by.

On Friday night, the Hanukkah lights are lit before the Sabbath candles. Traditions differ on whether the Hanukkah candles should be lit before or after Havdalah in the synagogue.

On the Sabbath, two Torah scrolls are taken out, and the Haftarah is Zechariah 2: 14 to 4: 4, chosen because it mentions the Menorah and also because it includes the verse ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4: 6), which has become the motto of Hanukkah.

The festival recalls a great act of faith, commemorating the liberation of the people ‘in those days, at this season.’ Hanukkah symbolises the struggle of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, an eternal struggle for faith and existence. To the world, it proclaims the eternal message of the prophet Zechariah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.’

Shabbas Shalom, Chag Sameach

A Menorah on the Luzzatto family memorial in the Jewish Cemetery on the Lido of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Advent 2021:
6, Saint Francis Xavier

Saint Francis Xavier depicted in the former Jesuit church in the Crescent, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Season of Advent. Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (3 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Today [3 December 2012] is the feast day of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of European missionaries, who is said to have preached to more people than anyone else since Saint Paul. As we journey through Advent with the saints, Saint Francis Xavier is a reminder that this is a time not merely of waiting for but preparing for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom.

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), or Francisco do Yasu y Javier, was was born on 7 April 1506 in his family’s castle at Xavier, near Pamplona in what is now the Basque Country in northern Spain.

He studied at the University of Paris, where he earned his licentiate in 1528. In Paris he also met Ignatius Loyola and they were two of the seven founders of the Society of Jesus of Jesuits at Montmartre in 1534. Together, the seven made the vow of Montmartre on 15 August 1534.

Francis left Paris in 1536 to join Ignatius in Venice. They and their companions hoped to set out from Venice as missionaries to Palestine, but the planned journey never materialised. Instead, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola were ordained in Venice on 24 June 1537.

From Venice, Francis went to Rome in 1538. There in 1540, the Pope formally recognised the Society of Jesus and decided to send Francis Xavier and Father Simon Rodriguez to the Far East as the first Jesuit missionaries. However, King John III of Portugal kept Father Simon in Lisbon.

During a year-long voyage, Francis spent six months in Mozambique, before arriving in Goa, a Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, on 6 May 1542 with two companions, Father Paul of Camerino, an Italian, and Francis Mansihas, from Portugal.

In Goa, Francis began to preach to the local people but also tried to reform his fellow Europeans, He also adopted a lifestyle of living among the local people and adopting their customs on his travels.

He visited prisons and hospitals in Goa, led worship among the lepers, and walked the streets ringing a bell to call the children for religious instruction. His principal method of teaching people was to write verses in their language, setting out the truths of Christianity, and then setting them to music.

He was shocked by the brutal treatment of local people in Goa by the Portuguese settlers and soldiers, and wrote to the King of Portugal, asking: ‘It is possible that when our Lord God calls your highness to his judgment that your highness may hear angry words from him: “Why did you not punish those who were your subjects and owned your authority, and were enemies to me in India?”’

During the next decade, Saint Francis converted tens of thousands of people to Christianity. He visited the Paravas at the tip of India, near Cape Comorin, Tuticorin (1542), Malacca, which was also a Portuguese colony (1545), the Moluccas near New Guinea and Morotai near the Philippines (1546-1547), before arriving in Japan (1549-1551).

In Japan, he learned the language, where he was the first person to preach the Gospel. It is said, he made as many as 2,000 converts in Japan.

Francis set out for China in 1552 and landed on the island of Shangchuan. But he died there on 3 December 1552 without ever reaching the Chinese mainland. He was only 46. His body was brought back to Goa, where he was buried.

The estimates of the number of converts he personally baptised vary, but some put them at six-figures. One biographer says he preached to more people than anyone else since the New Testament period.

He was canonised in 1622 and Pope Pius X later proclaimed him the patron of all foreign missions.

Saint Francis Xavier is also a pre-Reformation saint who can be shared by the universal church – he arrived in Japan even before the first Book of Common Prayer. He is commemorated on this day in the Calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England, in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church in the US, in other Anglican and Lutheran churches, and in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Francis Xavier and the Jesuit saints … a window by Evie Hone in the Jesuit Retreat House at Manresa, Clontarf Road, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 9: 27-31 (NRSVA)

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!’ 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ 29 Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’ 30 And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, ‘See that no one knows of this.’ 31 But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (3 December 2021, International Disabilities Day) invites us to pray:

Let us work towards a more accessible world, with inclusion and diversity at its core.

Yesterday: Saint Mungo

Tomorrow: Nicholas Ferrar

Saint Francis Xavier among the Jesuit saints … a fresco in the former Jesuit church in the Crescent, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org