Monday, December 22, 2008

Festival of Lights: Thoughts on Hanukkah

Last night the sun's setting marked the beginning of Hanukkah. Since there is some confusion about the holiday in Christian circles, I thought I would try to shed some light (pardon the shamelessly cheesy pun!) on the festival from my limited knowledge and experience.

When I talk with Christian friends about Jewish culture, many want to know, "Is Hanukkah a Biblical holiday?" The answer is no, the festival did not originate with the Biblical cannon; its origins were recorded in the apocrypha in the Book of the Maccabees during what is called the inter-testimental period (meaning it occurred during the roughly 200 year lapse between the Old and New Testaments). Even so, for the Jews it is an important celebration of God's enduring faithfulness to His people. And as such, it can provide some helpful wisdom and encouragement for the Church.

The eight-day festival commemorates God's deliverance of his people from the hand of the Seleucids, the Syrian-Greek army that controlled much of the known world in the second century, B.C.E. ( or A.D.). Antiocus IV Epiphanes was the Seleucids' leader, and he sought to Hellenize the world and to make Palestine a model Greek community. He overtook the temple, turning it into a site of pagan worship, and made all Jewish activity punishable by death.

In 167 B.C.E., a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to worship the pagan gods and killed the man who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice in his place. He fled to the wilderness with his five sons, and in 168, his son Judah Maccabee led a revolt against the Seleucid army. Miraculously, they prevailed. When the Maccabean army went into the Temple, they found only enough ritually pure oil to light the Temple's menorah for one night. But the oil burned for eight nights, long enough for new oil to be cleansed.

Each day of the Hanukkah observance, Jews offer thanks for God's provision in these miracles by reciting the Hallel, a prayer comprising Psalms 113-117. The Hebrew word Hallel comes from the phrase hallelujah, or, "praise ye Yahweh." Hallel simply means "praise," so the five Psalms collectively known as the Hallel are exclamations of adoration. Jews recite the Hallel on Hanukkah and at Passover--both festivals of freedom--to thank God for His past kindness and to praise Him with confidence for future blessings. In other words, it is a joyful expression of His hesed or "covenant faithfulness."

The joyful words "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory because of your love and your faithfulness" resonate from within the walls of Jewish homes and synagogues on the eight days of Hanukkah, which occurs during winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. Jews today used the servant candle in the middle of the menorah to light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on until all of the candles are lit on the eighth night. The lighting of the menorah symbolizes the darkness that was dispelled by the two miracles of Hanukkah.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us rejoice that the darkness has been bathed in light once and for all in the greatest of God's miracles--the Incarnation of His very Son!

"I have come into the world as light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."
John 12:46

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Interesting, educational and well written. Thank you, Kevin.