by Canon Mark A. Pearson
I’ve read numbers of accounts over the years that said Hanukkah is a minor Jewish festival that became important only because it is celebrated in the same month as Christmas. But is Hanukkah’s importance merely as an event for little Jewish children who need an alternative to Santa Claus? I think there’s more to it than that and I think Hanukkah’s significance is important to us Christians, too.
For centuries the Jewish people had been under foreign domination, first under the Persians (539 to 333 B.C.), then the Greeks (Greece itself, then Syria). The Persians had allowed the Jews to keep their culture and practice their religion undisturbed as long as they paid tribute (taxes) and obeyed imperial laws.
The Syrians, however, looked down on Jewish culture and religion and demanded they adopt Greek ways. In the mid-second century B.C., Syrian leader Antiochus IV was particularly brutal in his treatment of Jews that did not con-form. He surnamed himself “Epiphanes” (the visible God). Whenever his henchmen found books of the Jewish law they burned them and killed those who had possessed them. Mothers who had had their newborn sons circumcised were killed along with their sons. To top it off, Antiochus sacrificed a pig to the Greek God Jupiter on an altar in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
While many Jews went along to avoid trouble or even to gain position in society, many did not. Some fled to the hills and formed guerilla bands. One such band was led by a man named Mattathias and his five sons. Mattathias soon died and was succeeded by his son Judah. He was given the nickname “Maccabee” (hammer) because he was seen as God’s hammer to smash the Syrians and their opposition to God.
After three years of fighting, Judah and his band of fighters had vanquished the Syrians. They set about to purify the temple. The defiled old altar was demolished and a new one built. The temple was rededicated in 165 B.C. Only one vessel of sanctified oil was found, good for one day of fueling candles, yet it miraculously burned for eight days. This eight days of burning is, of course, commemorated by the Menorah, or eight branched candelabrum.
Why Is Hanukkah Important?
What can we Christians learn from this Jewish festival called Hanukkah?
1.Maintain fidelity to the faith in the light of secular / pagan pressure.
Is the religion we profess of but minor significance to us? Is it merely an occasional hobby? Or, is it God’s truth, more important than possessions, reputation, family, even life itself? As I write this I am reflecting on two news stories I just read.
One is about a national chain of stores which has stated it will not use the word “Christmas” in any of its publicity this Fall “because someone might be offended.” Well I am offended at this. I certainly don’t object to their advertisements using the names of holidays of various religions which occur in December, nor do I object to the use of the word “holiday.” What I object to is the banishment of the word “Christmas.”
The second story is about a school district which informed its teachers they will be subject to punishment if they use the word “Christmas” to describe the vacation they’ll be enjoying the end of December. The accepted term is “solstice.” This, by the way, is the same school district that mandated a unit about Islamic customs and holy days.
Being tried in numbers of places is the making of teaching against homosexual practice or of same sex “marriage” a hate crime subject to punishment. Pastors could be jailed for preaching what Scripture says. So far this attempt to regulate what bible verses can be and which cannot be preached on has not gained the force of law. But proponents keep pushing for it.
What do we do? Unlike Antiochus and other tyrants throughout the centuries, the “politically correct” American establishment will not likely sacrifice pigs on Christian altars nor kill people for possessing a bible or having their babies baptized. What they will do is slowly but persistently erode Christian teaching and practice by banning certain words, punishing those who refuse to go along with practices God said are wrong and marginalizing Christians for putting God first.
What we are to do is to fight back. Join the national boycotts of stores that refuse to use the term “Christmas.” Write letters to your political leaders and to the newspapers (be polite but be insistent.) Support ministries which are standing up for the rights of Christians being persecuted. And, if it comes to this, be arrested for speaking God’s word.
2. The other lesson from Hanukkah is that God works supernaturally. Christianity is not just certain philosophical beliefs about a divine power creating the universe, certain moral practices, and certain expressions of sacrificial love — though it includes all these. Christianity celebrates a God Who does supernatural things, in Bible days and right now.
There is much, of course, that we do not know about why God works the way He does. Why is it sometimes He heals supernaturally, other times only through medicine, and still other times not at all? Why is it sometimes God sends a financially needy person an unexpected check from an unknown source, other times He gives people the grace to work hard at a second job they don’t really like, and still other times helps people adjust to a significantly lower standard of living? We do not know. One thing we do know, He does all of these things. He used the hard work of the Maccabees — human effort — and He made the oil last eight days — supernatural intervention.
Many nurtured in Pentecostal churches expect God to work a miracle every time they have a need. This is an imbalanced understanding of how God works. On the other hand, many of us who were nurtured in the historic Christian de-nominations need to be reminded God works supernaturally, miraculously, incredibly, today. Happy Hanukkah! +