In a season when public displays of Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs can become entangled in legal issues of church-state separation, the deeper meaning of those two holidays can arise fortunately in more dire situations.
The Hollywood United Methodist Church, where I am pastor, opens our gymnasium for the homeless during the 60 coldest days of the year. This week, on the third night of the program, a misunderstanding developed and food was not delivered to the church.
About 60 hungry and homeless people waited patiently for us to scavenge around the church kitchen. Volunteers stretched the meager resources we had on hand and finally opened the feeding line.
As people filed past the serving table, the food kept disappearing faster than our line of clients. At the end, about a dozen folks still had meal tickets and empty stomachs. We had plenty of bread but not much more.
We gathered money for someone to buy soup, peanut butter and jelly, but our envoy to the store came back only with soup. There hadn't been enough cash to get more.
A homeless man in line, perhaps in his early 60s, had been watching within earshot. He moved slowly toward us and produced a Ralphs supermarket gift certificate for $10 and gave it to us.
"Buy the peanut butter and jelly with this," he said. "It's good for anything except cigarettes and alcohol."
As I accepted the gift certificate, I noticed that he was wearing a yarmulke. I wanted to talk to him, but my curiosity was overcome by the pressing need to get to the store.
At the supermarket, I decided that the store ought to match the generosity of this homeless person. "I am a pastor who runs a cold weather shelter," I said, beginning my story to the store manager.
The manager was an African-American who identified himself as Bill and as a deacon in his church, Covenant Baptist. "Get what you need and come through my line," Bill said.
I went back to the church with a lot of food. But the symbolism was not lost. It came from the gesture of homeless Jewish man, whose name, I learned, was Yale Harrison, and was multiplied by an African-American Baptist store manager and shared in a large church pastored by someone who migrated from Mexico some 30 years ago.
The Hanukkah story, one of the triumph of human spirit, also tells of a miracle in which the lamp oil that normally would have been used up in one day lasted eight instead. Christmas celebrates the birth of someone who as an adult was supposed to have fed 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish. Both are stories of multiplied resources.
Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs on government property may make for timely news stories. But I'll take the story of a homeless Jewish man who does not forget tikkun allam (the summons to make the world better) amid Christians struggling to do the same in a cold weather shelter.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and hurrah for the winter solstice and all those symbols that inspire people to rise above the darkest moments in their lives and shine brightly.