Most Christians will let Hanukkah slip past their notice this week. This year, 2020, the holiday begins on the evening of the 10th of December and continues for the next eight days through Friday, December 18th. After all, what does a Jewish holiday have to say to us?
A lot, actually.
Gentiles should become familiar with the basics of all Jewish holidays, if for no other reason than your own well-rounded education. Christians should dig into the details to unearth the gems of wisdom and spiritual values.
Don’t let the spelling of Hanukkah throw you. It’s a transliteration of the Hebrew letters into our alphabet according to the sounds, so spelling variations aren’t necessarily wrong. You’ll see Chanukah, Hannukah, Channuka, and many other forms. We don’t even pronounce it correctly in English since we have difficulty saying the initial, guttural, saliva-soaked “kkhet.”
So, what do you already know about the celebration of Hanukkah? (1) It begins on the 25th of Kislev, in December. (2) Also called “Festival of Lights” (3) Families light a nine-branch candelabra called a chanukia each of the eight nights. (4) The middle candle, called the Shemesh (Shammesh), meaning Servant or Attendant candle, is used to illuminate the other eight lights. (5) Gifts are exchanged on each of the eight nights (6) Families eat fried foods and play games. (7) It’s not one of the appointed times specified by YHWH in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures, since the events happened around 165 B.C.
You can see some vague similarities that Christians syncretized into Christmas celebrations (1) 25th of the month (2) Prolific use of lights as decorations (3) Four weeks of lighting candles on the Advent wreath (4) Jesus, Light of the World came as a servant (5) Gifts galore, but not for eight days (6) food & fun (7) Most of our Christmas traditions aren’t in the Bible.
Since many Christians don’t have an Apocrypha at the back of their Bibles, they may not have read I Maccabees, which tells of the atrocities of the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes against the Jews in the second century B.C. (You can always go to the Internet to find the details.) The Greek/Hellenistic culture overtook Jewish customs in Judah & Galilee attempting to force them to assimilate. Antiochus was ruthless in his persecution of God’s people, because they knew they were called to be set apart from other cultures.
He demanded they begin pagan worship rituals, outlawing their covenantal practices like circumcision and Torah commanded sacrifices. Then he desecrated and plundered the Temple in Jerusalem. Those who would not conform to these changes and new laws were horribly tortured, many dying at the oppressors’ hands. Sadly, many Jews compromised their beliefs to side with the Greeks.
Hanukkah’s story is one of courage of the faithful standing up to oppression with zeal for being true to the Covenant. With the Maccabeus family leading the charge, a small band of determined Israelites fought against incredible odds and won. Over and over, God proves that He fights for Israel.
Their next task was to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That’s where the story comes in about oil for lighting the seven-branched menorah in the Holy Place. One day’s worth of the specially consecrated pure oil was discovered undefiled. Amazingly, it burned in the lampstand for eight days until they could make new oil. “A great miracle happened here.” Spinning the dreidel is a traditional game associated with that phrase. Another designation for Hanukkah is “Feast of Dedication.”
Did you know Jesus celebrated Hanukkah? It’s in the book of John. We don’t have much information, and many of the Jewish traditions observed now may not have been practiced in His day. Here are a few verses referring to this event.
22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jewish leaders gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, –John 10: 22 – 25
Let me tell you a speculative question I have. If the Greek worldview had prevailed, and Antiochus had continued unrestrained, how might that have changed the Jewish people? It is possible that it could have eliminated them as a distinct people if they had fully assimilated or been exterminated? Judah would have disappeared like the “ten lost tribes.”
Other near-miss attempts to obliterate the people of Adonai were: (1) if they had stayed slaves in Egypt (2) continuous enemies surrounding them in the Promised Land (3) Assyrian & Babylonian destruction & captivities (4) Haman’s plot to kill all Jews during the Persian empire (5) Spanish inquisition (6) Hitler’s “final solution” (7) Russian pogroms
I could cite more, but the same story of anti-Semitism goes on in our day. Isn’t it a wonder that the Jews still survive to this day? “A great miracle has happened here.”
The Maccabee’s revolt was in 165 B.C. The Greek empire was waning, and Rome was on the rise. Both world powers were pretty dark. No matter who was ruling, God’s vessel for sending His Son was promised to be through the Jewish people, the tribe of Judah, and the lineage of David.
Antiochus’ atrocities look like another sinister attempt to prevent the Holy Seed from coming to fulfill, among many prophecies, the one in Genesis 3:15 where God says to the serpent:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Herod’s slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem was another attempt at preventing God’s Anointed One from surviving.
God’s purposes will ultimately never be thwarted, but the Evil One doesn’t stop trying. God is not finished with Israel, and He’s not finished with Christians in working toward His final restoration.
If the events that Hanukkah commemorates hadn’t happened, might it have made a difference in Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection? Probably not, but we’ll not know how nearly it succeeded till the other side of glory.
No matter what secular culture the world embraces, Jesus says we are to be the Light of the World because He is The Light of the World. We are to shine in the darkness. We have to be set apart and never fully assimilate.
I tell you all of that, to say this: be ever vigilant. Cultural compromise is so seductive, especially for those who can’t differentiate between the Word of God and the words of the world.
We must live obedient, sanctified lives as shining lights, exemplifying what love and faithfulness look like. That’s one of the lessons of Hanukkah.
Can Christians celebrate Hanukkah? I don’t see why not, unless it is considered an inappropriate “cultural appropriation.”
You can find candle lighting liturgies on the Internet, even Christianized versions. It’s the Jews’ story that becomes our story in the universalized messages it brings. And it was part of Jesus’ story too.