NOT Jewish Christmas: Why we celebrate Hanukkah

Hanukkah_menorah from wikimedia commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“But that’s your Christmas,” my neighbor insisted, after I explained to her that the menorah on the table was for Hanukkah.

“No,” I said. “It’s not. It’s Hanukkah.”

“Right. Your Christmas.” She smiled her tolerant smile.

“It’s a different thing…” I started, but she had made up her mind.

***

Sitting next to me on the airplane, the seminary student complained that he didn’t understand Jews.  “Why do they do Hanukkah?” he asked. “It’s not even in the Bible.”

He was visibly surprised when I told him that Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament. The word Hanukkah means “dedication”. It was during the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) that Jesus declared himself to be the promised Messiah, God in the flesh (John 10:22-23).

So, what do you know about Hanukkah? Do you think of it as a Jewish Christmas?  Is it something that “they” do, that has no meaning for you? You may be surprised to find out how relevant the Hanukkah account is to all freedom-loving people!

 

THE BACKGROUND

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
public domain

Over three hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people lived in Israel, which was then called Judea. They lived under the rule of one leader after another. Under these leaders, they were generally free to worship God as they chose. So they lived in peace, loved their families, and had joys and hardships, the same as everybody else. They worshiped the one true God, and offered sacrifices to him in the temple in Jerusalem.

 

An oil lamp stood in the temple. It was called ner tamid, “the fire that never goes out.” God commanded that this light always burn with the clearest oil squeezed from olives (Lev. 24:1-4), because it represented the presence of God.

The Greeks conquered the country of Syria. Together, the armies of Greece and Syria–now called the Selucid Empire–conquered Judea.

Once Antiochus IV took over, things changed for the Jews. Antiochus called himself Epiphanes, which means “god incarnated,” and commanded people to worship him. Greek idols were set up for worship, even in the sacred temple of God. A pig (an unclean animal) was sacrificed to an idol on the altar of God. Hebrew names were changed to Greek names in honor of Greek gods. Young women were assaulted by soldiers before being allowed to marry. If a baby was circumcised, he was killed. All of the people were told they must worship the idols and Antiochus. Men who refused were killed. Women and children were taken as slaves.

Many Judeans went along with the new way, either out of acceptance or fear. Many fled Jerusalem and tried to live peacefully in outlying villages, but the armies of Antiochus followed. From village to village, the armies advanced, demanding all people worship Antiochus and his idols.

THE MACCABEAN REVOLT

maccabean revolt in art from wikimedia commons cropped
Image courtesy of Dr. Avishai Teicher, Pikiwiki Israel

 

In time, the soldiers reached the little town of Modin, where a priest named Mattathias lived with his five sons. In an effort to gain the people’s support, the soldiers offered Mattathias special favor with the king and great wealth, if he would sacrifice a pig to their idol, and eat some of the sacrifice. Mattathias refused. Another Jewish man offered to do it, and Mattathias killed him, knocked over the idol, and shouted, “Whoever is on the LORD’s side, follow me!”

The villagers stormed the soldiers, killed them, and took their weapons. Those on God’s side fled with Mattathias into the mountains. The mountains opened to give the people of God refuge. Armies came with swords, spears, armor, and armored elephants. The forty to fifty peaceful Jews were farmers and housewives and priests. They didn’t have the same weapons or protective armor, but they had God on their side!

Others–both Jews and non-Jews–joined the rebel band in the mountains, and soon there were thousands of rebels, some with weapons. Now they had a small army against many tens of thousands of trained and armed Selucid soldiers.

The armies attacked on the Sabbath. Rather than fight, many of the faithful Jews chose to allow themselves to be killed. Mattathias urged Jews to fight back, even on the Sabbath.

When Mattathias died, his son Judah led the revolt against the armies of Antiochus. Judah was called The Maccabee, which means “the hammer.” His followers were called Maccabees.

During one battle, the Maccabees were sorely outnumbered. The highest commanders of the Greek and Syrian armies personally took charge. They left nothing to chance. Slave traders followed with cages and chains to carry off the beaten Maccabees. They left with none.

With God as their strength, the Maccabees ambushed the powerful armies, killing thousands and sending the rest running. The Maccabees marched into Jerusalem to take back the temple.

When they got there, they were crestfallen. The once beautiful temple had been used as a garbage dump, and was filthy and violated. In mourning, the people tore their clothes, put ashes on their heads, blew the shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet), and cried out to God with their faces toward the ground. Then they got to work cleaning and repairing.

The priests cleaned the temple. They dismantled the altar that had been desecrated, and built a new one. Not wanting to discard the old alter, because it had once been sacred, they buried it under the temple.

THE MIRACLE OF THE OIL

The time came to light the menorah. Only one small jar of consecrated oil was found in the rubble. Only enough for one day’s light. It would take days to prepare more. The people weren’t sure what to do. Should they light the ner tamid, and then let it go out? Or wait until more oil could be prepared?

They lit the menorah on the anniversary of the day that Antiochus had decreed the abolishing of all things Jewish –the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. They rededicated the temple to the One True God, and celebrated with worship and praise, music and dancing. They offered up a clean sacrifice on the newly built altar.

At the end of the day, when the oil was expected to run out, it kept burning. And the next day. And the next. And the next. For eight whole days, until more oil was ready, the ner tamid never went out.

THE FESTIVAL OF HANUKKAH

Chanukah_(8269593560)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Judah the Maccabee declared that from that day forward, every 25th day of Kislev would begin a joyful, eight-day celebration, in remembrance of the deliverance of God’s people and the miracle of the oil.

For eight days, we light candles or oil lamps, and we eat foods cooked in oil. We dance and sing and praise the One True God, the King of the Universe, for his miracles, his deliverances and his wonders.

Non-Messianic Jews prepare their hearts and homes for the coming of Messiah and his kingdom on earth. Messianic (Christian) Jews, and some Gentile Christians, prepare for the return of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom on earth.

So when you hear the word Hanukkah, don’t think of it as something “they” do. Remember the miracles.  Remember the faithful martyrs and overcomers. Remember the One True God, and prepare your heart for his coming.

And please, whatever you do, don’t call it a “Jewish Christmas.”

This post was originally published on the site PreciousHolidays.org.
Copyright 1996, 2009, 2011, 2015. Kathryn A. Frazier


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