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God Squad: What I love about Christmas - because it's not my holiday

I recently tried to carefully remember what my former partner, Father Tom Hartman, loved about Hanukkah.

I want to thank so many of you, dear readers, who wrote thanking me for bringing Tommy to life. One grumpy soul was upset about the idea of a priest loving a Jewish holiday more than Christmas. Well, Mr. Grumpy, Tommy did not love Hanukkah more than Christmas. He did not love Judaism more than Christianity. He did not love the Maccabees more than Matthew, but he did love Hanukkah and Judaism and the Maccabees.

He loved them, and this was our secret of the God Squad. We learned to love each other's religions like perfect strangers. He loved my faith and its holidays from the outside, but it was a true stranger's love. We can love as a stranger loves because, as Exodus reminds us, we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We can love as a stranger loves because, as Matthew reminds us, we were once all Jews looking for room at the inn in Bethlehem. Being a stranger is a way of seeing the parts of others that are not strange at all, but actually deeply embedded in our own histories. It is like learning other paths up the same mountain.

There is one bump in the road for Jews and Christians in the task of becoming perfect strangers. Our relationship as spiritual cousins is slightly unbalanced by the history of Judaism and Christianity, and this imbalance must be admitted. It is impossible for Christians to understand themselves fully and deeply and authentically without understanding themselves as people who came from Jews. Christianity is a branch that, according to Paul, is grafted onto the trunk of a Jewish olive tree (Romans 11:17). Jesus was a Jew. Christians worship a Jewish Messiah. The opposite, however, is not true. Jews should understand Christianity; I have benefitted greatly by learning to understand Christianity through Tommy's eyes and heart, but we do not need to understand Christianity to understand our own history and theological journey. Christians need to understand Judaism. Christians need to understand that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Jews just need to understand the Passover Seder. This asymmetry cannot be escaped or denied, but the task of interfaith dialogue is richly rewarding if we just let go of some of our old prejudices.

A story

I remember a Shabbat during Hanukkah that was just before Christmas. The bar mitzvah boy's grandmother (let us call her Blanche), who was much more orthodox than Reform, had given her daughter (let us call her Debbie) a particularly hard time about the organ music in my synagogue. "It makes your shul sound like a church! I will not daven [pray] in a place with an organ!"

Despite all my efforts I could not convince Blanche that there had always been instrumental music accompanying Jewish prayer, all the way back to the Temple in Jerusalem where they used flutes and harps and drums and hand cymbals. She was having none of it and only relented at the end after more complaining. The service began and, by sheer coincidence, Tommy decided to visit me that Shabbat. He would drop into services regularly and just sit up on the elevated platform (Heb: bimah) in the chair next to my chair. Everyone in my synagogue had long ago gotten used to seeing Tommy on the bimah, but not Blanche! When she saw a priest sitting next to the rabbi she almost had a heart attack. Later, Debbie said to me, choking on tears of laughter, "When Mom saw a priest sitting next to you, Rabbi Gellman, she turned to me and said, 'Maybe the organ isn't that bad.' "

That day Tommy got up and said hello to everybody who was not clutching their heart like Blanche.

"I wanted to come by and bless you all and make sure that you are still treating my best friend, Rabbi Gellman, properly. I also came to thank you for Christmas, which I know is not your holiday but is mine, and could not have been mine if it had not been for Judaism and the Jewish hope that there would come a time when goodness would triumph over evil. So thanks for Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. God bless you."

I love Christmas because it enables me to be a perfect stranger. It is a day of hope and light; it is a day of great music and goodwill; it is a day Christians take joy in the birth of a savior in the most modest surroundings. I love Christmas for many reasons, among them the fact that Christmas is the time Tommy helped Blanche accept organ music.

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