As Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas,
Jews today celebrate a holiday of their own, Hanukkah, the Dedication.
At first glance, Hanukkah would not seem a particularly important holiday. It’s certainly not as important to the Jewish faith as Passover or the High Holy Days. For some Jews, the only reason for making a big deal of Hanukkah is to have an alternative to Christmas. One can send Hanukkah cards instead of Christmas cards and give Hanukkah presents instead of Christmas presents.
Most often, Hanukkah isn’t much more than a fun holiday, a time to eat traditional foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and to play the traditional game with the dreidel, a four-sided top that reminds Jewish children that “a great miracle happened there.”
But what was this great miracle? Well, when the temple was rededicated, there was only one cruse of properly consecrated oil available, enough for only a day. Amazingly, this one-day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days.
My Jewish relatives joke about this: Christians celebrate the virgin birth. We celebrate a lamp that burned for eight days, and call it a great miracle!
But Hanukkah is more than just spinning tops, potato pancakes, and burning lamps. Hanukkah commemorates a significant event in Jewish history, an event well worth remembering for Christians as well as Jews.
In 167 BC, Antiochus IV of Syria decided on a new religious policy for his dominions. In order to unite his rather sizable empire, he decided that all his subjects should give up their traditional religions and adopt a common belief. And as part of this new religion, they had to accept the idea that Antiochus himself was an incarnation of the god Zeus. From then on, Antiochus’ subjects would call him “Epiphanes,” i.e., “the manifestation.”
For most of Antiochus’ subjects, this was no particular problem. For the Jews, however, Antiochus’ decision to declare himself god posed a horrible dilemma.
Failure to obey Antiochus’ decree meant death, and a horrible death at that. Those who refused to eat pork were maimed and killed while their family members were forced to watch. Women who had their sons circumcised were thrown off walls along with their babies.
Antiochus further horrified the Jews by what he did to their temple. He and his followers brought in prostitutes and turned the House of God into a brothel. They set up an image of Antiochus as an object of worship, and sacrificed pigs on the altar. Not surprisingly, these acts of sacrilege provoked a rebellion, a rebellion in which Judah Maccabee and his brothers eventually liberated Judea from the Syrians and gave the temple back to the Jewish people.
Hanukkah commemorates both the victory of the Maccabees and the cleansing and rededication of the once-desecrated temple.
But why is that event particularly worth remembering and celebrating?
At first, it would seem that the Hanukkah story is a powerful reminder that, even against overwhelming odds, God’s people are bound to triumph in the end. Fight for your faith. Fight to the last ounce of your strength.
Well, that’s not quite the message of Hanukkah.
The story of the Maccabees is a bleak one. Under their rule, the Jews became oppressors of the peoples around them, and, in addition, they were constantly at one another’s throats. Division and internal conflicts continued to divide the Jewish people until finally Judea was destroyed and the rededicate temple left without one stone upon another.
The Book of Daniel foretells both the successes and the ultimate failure of the Maccabees. It also suggests that real rededication involves something more than political struggle.
Daniel does not promise political victories to God’s people. What he does promise is this: “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”
Hanukkah should remind believers that fighting for a piece of ground, fighting for a building, and fighting for political domination will never produce anything lasting for the kingdom of God.
Dedicating land and buildings is ok, but what we really ought to be doing is dedicated ourselves to God, to do our best to live lives pleasing to Him.
To do so creates a light that lasts, not just for eight days, but for ever and ever.