This time of year is one that brings special meaning to me. Being a mischling (half-breed), as the Nazis called those of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish blood, I have always had a special affinity for both Hanukkah and Christmas. While not one to make an elaborate deal out of either holiday, I enjoy, and appreciate the special significance of both.
Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה), or the Festival of Lights, is the Jewish celebration of the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after it was re-conquered by Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer) and his army from Antiochus IV in 165 BCE (BCE=Before the Common Era or BC). Antiochus IV had invaded Jerusalem, slaughtering many of its inhabitants and made the Temple a temple to Zeus. He outlawed the Jewish religion, and defiled the Jewish Temple by slaughtering pigs (a very non-kosher thing to do).
Judah Maccabee defeated the stronger and larger Greek army, and retook control of Jerusalem and the Temple. During the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple it was discovered that, according to tradition, there was only enough oil to light the lamps in the Temple for one day. However, the oil burned for the eight days needed to make more oil for the re-dedication and re-consecration of the Temple. Talk about conservation! If only a gallon of gas would last me eight days of driving.
Since Jews are not ones to celebrate their military victories, unlike some other religions that came out of the Middle-East, they turned a wonderful military victory into a religious ceremony commemorating what God did with the oil, and thus Hanukkah was born. Some times I think that if we Jews had celebrated our military victories more, we wouldn’t be thought of like Canadians are. You know, an affable people that really are not known for being a military might. I mean the Israeli national anthem sounds more like the Canadian national anthem. No rockets red glare, no bombs bursting in air. Just a “[Y]earning deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost: To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
So because of our tendency towards not extolling great military events, Israelis deal with Katyusha rockets being launched from Gaza and southern Lebanon onto hospitals and daycare centers. Even after the varied wars that Israel fought to survive, you didn’t see Israelis in the streets firing guns skyward. I guess they were smart enough to realize that what goes up must come down, sometimes with lethal effects.
Little over a century and a half after Hammer time in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the Roman Empire. As the writer Luke recounts in Luke 2: 1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
An unknown carpenter and his pregnant, teenage fiancée traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. It was there in a stable that a child, who would change the course of world history, was born. He was placed in a feed trough, and a host of angels sang his praise. The lowliest of the lowly were invited to witness the birth of this child who was Immanuel and named Jesus.
Over the course of Jesus’ 30+ years on Earth, he healed the sick, made the lame to walk, took on the political establishment, and irritated the Roman governors. The Romans may have tolerated the unusual religious practices of their Jewish subjects, the one thing they would not tolerate was dissension. Many Jews in the time of Jesus thought him to be the long-awaited Messiah, one that would bring about freedom for the Jewish people, and a restoration of Eretz Yisrael. But, Jesus came not as a conquering Messiah, but as a suffering Messiah, and an atonement for the sins of mankind.
In an illegal (by Jewish law and custom) trial he was handed over to the Romans for punishment. He was brutally beaten, and then crucified. After being placed in a borrowed tomb, he was resurrected from death, thereby defeating an eternal death for all mankind.
The birth of Jesus has been celebrated since the third century of the Common Era (CE or AD). The actual date has been in dispute for centuries, and tradition holds that December 25th was chosen to accommodate the pagan winter solstice celebrations. What ever the date of Jesus’ birth, the one fact remains, he gave to mankind the opportunity to be reconciled with God through his willingness to be the ultimate sacrifice for man’s sins.
Both of these great holidays, while having been corrupted by our post-modern, post Christian thinking, show the power, greatness and love of God. His power to help Judah defeat an overwhelming army; His greatness in keeping the Temple lights burning; His love for mankind to willingly send His son to be the ultimate sacrifice for human sin.
Perhaps that is why I am not one to make a big deal out of this time of year. The commercialization and ostentatious displays that many people put on for the holidays take away from the true meaning of what Hanukkah and Christmas are about. It’s not about gifts or gelt. It’s not about Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes. It’s not about lavish feasts and overindulgence. It is about a God who is so powerful that He can led a rag-tag group of dissidents to defeat a great army and then provide a miracle to keep the lights burning in the Temple. And it is about a God who loves us from where we are, and reached out to us through His son to bring us home to Him.
To my Jewish friends and family, I hope that you are having a happy and blessed Hanukkah. To my Christian friends and family, I wish you a merry and blessed Christmas.