This week marks the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, also called the “Festival of Lights.” Dates for the festival shift according to the Jewish calendar, anywhere from late November to late December of our calendar.
The story is this: In the second century before the common era (Christians might say “before Christ”), the Second Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem was sacked by invading and occupying armies. Jewish rituals, including sacrifice and Temple worship, were outlawed. In 167 BCE, in fact, the Emperor Antiochus ordered that an altar to Zeus be erected in the ruins of the Temple. So cruel and cynical was he. Antiochus banned circumcisions and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on that altar, even further desecrating the space. His actions provoked a revolt. The story is recounted in two books, called 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The books are part of the Hebrew, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox bibles. Protestants hold them with less authority, but, use them for teaching.
The story continues that after a couple of years, the Jewish revolt was successful. It was led by Yahuda HaMakabi (Judah the Hammer). Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed and restored. An eight-day festival was called. But there was only one sealed bottle of pure and blessed olive oil left to be found, which was only enough to burn a candle of the Temple menorah for one day of the required eight days. Miraculously, the oil lasted all eight days—long enough for new oil to be pressed and blessed and prepared for continuing worship.
Not unlike Christian celebrations, observance of the Festival of Lights has gone in and out of fashion and has changed over the centuries and in different places. When do you light the candles, and where? How many do you light and in what order? What else do you do? And how important is this holiday for Jewish life? These questions have been answered in different ways through the centuries. But an American way of celebration has settled in, in many ways shaped in response to the ubiquity of Christmas in our culture. Hanukkah has taken on a larger cultural significance in the modern world as a Jewish parallel to Christian Advent and Christmas. The theme of light coming in the winter darkness also parallels Christian celebrations of light during this time of year. And the holiday has taken on a commercial feel here, too, with customary foods on sale, gifts given, traditional games, and songs sung year after year. For a fun example, Temple Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh sponsors its annual “Latkepalooza,” a festival welcoming folks from all around to party, play, and celebrate (latke is a Hanukkah treat, by the way!).
So what is it about Hanukkah that we share as Christians?
Well, first, we share the story and celebrate the memory.
We can also love the themes: God will provide! A little can go further than we ever expect, if applied with faith and hope! Sometimes the miraculous comes for just long enough for us to get a leg up and get to work (eight days being just long enough to press the oil, bless the oil, and prepare it for further observance)! Ask for what you need in a moment, and row your side of the boat! Light a candle in the dark, even if you think it not enough! And never give up trusting God!