Three local theologians offer their unique and creative perspectives on what the holiday season means to them and to their faith.
Fr. Greg Meystrik,
St Peter Catholic Church
As nights grow longer, I encourage you to remember the image of a star. Stars are a prominent figure in Christmas and holiday decorations. Christmas trees are often topped with a star. Stars are found on holiday wrapping paper and with Nativity scenes. Christmas lights can serve as little electric images and reminders of stars burning brightly in the midst of darkness and cold. People have researched the Christmas star that guided the Magi, the wise men from the East, to pay homage to Jesus Christ at the time of his birth.
Stars can remind us that light and hope always win and that trust is far more powerful than doubt or fear. Stars are also good reminders to keep hope alive. The light of a star can take thousands of years to hit earth and yet it does. Long after a star’s energy and light have been discharged with its core and energy completely exhausted, its light continues to radiate outwards, which brightens our lives. And let’s not forget that stars are humble forms of matter that have one simple mission: to burn brightly as long as possible. This image of a star is a hopeful reminder to me that the life and light of our ancestors and forbearers still burns brightly. Their lives and their good and kind deeds continue to shine in our lives.
Yes, hope and light continue to shine. People are drawn to the outdoor lights at St. Peter Church, the Christmas lights downtown, at the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion too. Why? I think it’s because they remind us to keep hope alive.
It’s true. There is a warmth of friendship and solidarity in the midst of shortened days and cooler temperatures. There is an ongoing vigor and sense of encouragement that we can draw from our forbearers who built and entrusted to us a great place to live and call home. There is a spirit of gratitude that is alive and well in our community. We can fan the flame of this spirit so that it continues to fill our lives and those of our neighbors. It’s called light and hope. Believing in this hope and promise causes our world to expand. On the other hand, fostering darkness, doubt, fear and greed causes our joy to vanish and the precious bonds of solidarity to wither on the vine.
A SPIRIT OF GENEROSITY
I find it fruitful, especially during this time of year, to remind myself that we live in a world of plenty. God blesses us with more than enough abundance so that we can give thanks and share. Yet all too often, we tend to foster within our minds and hearts a mindset of scarcity. We worry that we don’t or won’t have enough of what we need. But, numerous passages from sacred scripture remind us of God’s generosity and desire to bless us with plenty. (The image of Jesus’ disciples catching a multitude of fish with his reassurance is a favorite of mine.)
I encourage you during this holiday season to turn to your church, synagogue or house of worship to seek and spread mercy and kindness. The needs of those who live in our community are great. In the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, we have begun a special holy year, a jubilee year of mercy. It’s an opportunity to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives and the oppressed and sight to the blind. It is a time to bring hope to all who are suffering.
Here at St. Peter Church, we have the tradition of the Giving Tree, which assists neighbors and friends who seek assistance through the Samaritan Center. Opportunities to extend mercy abound. I invite and encourage you to spread the warmth of light and hope. Proclaim through your words and actions that you choose to believe in and share God’s abundance through your own generosity, forgiveness and mercy. Let us also pray for those in need that God will calm their fears and offer them peace.
I believe strongly that generosity expands our world and offers light, warmth and peace. I encourage each of you to see the bounty in your midst and to invite those in need into your hearts and homes. I wish you, your family, neighbors and co-workers God’s peace and all good.
Fr. Greg Meystrik has been the pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Jefferson City since 2012. He was born in St. Louis, grew up in Jefferson City and attended both West Elementary School and St Joseph Cathedral School. He was ordained a priest in 1990. He and his parents, Jack and Mary, and his brother, Steve, and his family are proud to call Jefferson City their home.
Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson
What is the Festival of Hanukkah?
To help portray this festival, I have written a fictional letter by Judah Maccabee addressed to his constituents. What would he have written in 164 B.C.? Well, the simple answer is we don’t know. That said, I have taken the plunge to write this imaginary piece, based on history through the lens of the holiday season – a season couched in giving thanks.
December 6, 2015
24 Kislev, 5776
Erev/Eve of Hanukkah
City of Jerusalem
Province of Judea
25 Kislev, 3597 (164 B.C.)
For Immediate Release: Office of Judah Maccabee, president and commander-in-chief
My Fellow Countrymen,
I am pleased to announce that we have driven back the forces of evil, the idol worshipers of Greece. We are in the process of cleansing the temple and will have a Hanukkah (a dedication ceremony) tonight. Oil is in short supply. There is only enough oil to light the temple menorah for one night. You are urged to bring any oil that you can spare for the maintenance of the temple.
My cabinet and I have engaged in discussions of what is to be if we do not have a sufficient quantity of oil for the next eight days. That’s when our new shipment is due in from Egypt. Will temple life cease to exist? Will we, as Jews, cease to observe Torah laws and precepts if we don’t have oil for the temple menorah? Oil is important. Nonetheless, it is not the end-all of our existence. We exist, my fellow countrymen, because we have emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust) in the Almighty. How else can one explain the miracle of our small forces defeating the Greeks? Other issues of observance are discussed in my Hanukkah message to you this day.
Sukkot to be Observed
Because we have been engaged in warfare with the Greeks, the Festival of Sukkot (Thanksgiving) did not take place this year. I firmly believe, as does my cabinet, that it is better late than never to celebrate this festival of in-gathering. Do you have a lulav (i.e., a palm branch,) and esrog (i.e., a citrine) lying around? If so, please bring them to the temple so that we can engage in hoda’ah (giving thanks) to the Lord for granting us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this season. And this year, we have much to be thankful for.
Last but not least, as your leader, I want to speak to each and every one of your from my lev (heart). My fellow countrymen, we have entered the winter season. I want to assure you that we at command central are attentive to your needs. We have begun to re-consecrate the temple, but we need your help to engage in meaningful tikkun olam (repair of the world). Tikkun olam begins at home and stretches out into the many communities of our country. Ask not what we can do for you; ask what you can do for your fellowman. Engage your next door neighbor. Lend a helping hand and by working together, we can make it through this winter. Together, my dear countrymen, we can begin anew our joint responsibility, which is our duty to each other, to plant the seeds of repairing the world. This is what tikkun olam is all about. This is what the word Hanukkah means — a dedication of spirit and not just of words.
Tonight we will celebrate a Hanukkah – a rededication of the temple. It is fitting to give praise to Hashem. As we rededicate his temple tonight, let us all come together, rich and poor, scholar and average Avraham, in concert singing with one voice praises to him, who has granted us life, sustained us and has brought us to this season.
Hag H’ Chanukah/Happy Hanukkah,
Judah Maccabee, president and commander-in-chief IDF (Israeli
Defense Forces), High Priest (Kohen Gadol), Rabbi Benson
c: Rabbonim (all rabbis) throughout Judea, Eretz Yisrael
As we know, the oil burned for eight days. Thus, the miracle of Hanukkah.
Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson is a native of University City. He received an A.A.in Liberal Arts at Saint Louis Community College-Forest Park Campus, 1974; A.B. cum laude in English Legal History, American Legal History, Political Science and American National Politics, 1976; A.M. in American Legal History with an emphasis on constitutional law 1977, J.D. 1985, Saint Louis University; Semicha/Rabbinic Ordination 2007 Saint Louis Beis Din/Rabbinical Court. He recently retired as the first Supreme Court Archivist, Supreme Court of Missouri. Rabbi Benson teaches Hebrew to adults in Jefferson City and performs life-cycle events throughout mid-Missouri.
Woodcrest Chapel of Jefferson City
When I was a toddler, one of the first words I learned was “gracias,” and that was because thankfulness and showing appreciation for what little we had was and still is a core value in my family. I am Heber Mena, originally from El Salvador (the smallest country in Central America), and I have now lived in the United States for 17 years. I am so very thankful for what I have been able to achieve through hard work, determination and support from amazingly selfless people. You see, thankfulness is a value that I believe we as people need to bring back to families and society in general. As the dictionary states, “Thankfulness is feeling or expressing gratitude; being appreciative.” When was the last time you simply said, “Thank you,” to someone who helped you?
When asked to write down my thoughts about thankfulness, I realized that I forgot to say thank you for the opportunity. Instead, I got so worked up about whether or not I was going to have enough to say about it, the due date, how many words, etc. After I calmed down, I really started thinking about what I was going to say.
Wanting to gain some perspective, I asked one of my best friends, who also happens to be my wife, what inspires her to be thankful and why. She told me a lot of good stuff, but this is what impacted me the most: “The death of a family member inspires gratitude in me for having a spouse without a chronic illness or disease,” she says. “Be grateful. It will absolutely change your entire perspective on life and bring positive energy to your relationships. I find it impossible to be depressed and grateful simultaneously.”
I appreciated her sharing her thoughts with me. After that, I thought aloud, “I wonder what my friends on Facebook would say?” So I posted the following: Complete the sentence. I am thankful for_______. The responses I got were kitty cats, life, my husband, God’s mercy and love, my wife and Fridays. Quite versatile and transparent perspectives, wouldn’t you agree? I am thankful for the friends that took the time to reply to my question. Also, I read an online article “10 Things Moms are Thankful For” from Moments a Day, and five out of those 10 things stuck in my head: A house to clean is a safe place to live. Laundry is clothes to wear. Crumbs under the table equal family meals. Toilets to clean mean indoor plumbing. Sore and tired in bed reassures you still are alive.
Finally, I want to share with you something that makes me particularly grateful. My church, Woodcrest Chapel, is filled with real people on a real journey. At Woodcrest, we do not wait for a holy day to give thanks; we actually do it twice a month with what we call Community Live. Community Live is a place where you can come to find encouragement and hope, and it’s a place where you can feel comfortable. It’s a place where we learn about life, growth and who we are in Christ. It’s a place where friends and family are welcome, memories are shared and thankfulness is expressed.
So, I asked my best friend, my friends on Facebook and I shared with you about my spiritual community. Who do you need to ask about gratitude? Where can you express thankfulness? Let us bring back the value of gratitude and appreciation. Let us be grateful. It will absolutely change our entire perspective on life and bring positive energy to our relationships.
Pastor Heber Mena is a husband, foster dad, speaker, ordained minister and life coach. He is originally from The Republic of El Salvador and is now a naturalized American citizen. He is married to Kristin Mena, a native Missourian and Spanish teacher. Serving as the campus minister at Woodcrest Chapel located at the Capital Mall, he is also the founder of Live Victorious Coaching, LLC. Pastor Mena and wife Kristin have two foster children, two cats (Marcus & Merlin) and a dog named Manju.