Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Put on a Yarmulke

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light. So many cultures celebrate light during the darkest time of year. Gentiles probably know more about Hanukkah than other Jewish holidays for the fact that it is always tacked on to Christmas greetings when holiday parties need to appear ecumenical. But Hanukkah isn’t Jewish Christmas. It celebrates a military victory and the restoration of the temple.

But that doesn’t mean that Christians should ignore it completely. It is, after all, Biblical. The two books of Maccabees chronicle Judas Maccabee fighting off foreign invaders and protecting Israel’s temple. He and his small band of fighters liberate Jerusalem from Syrian-Greek rule and cleanse the temple, which had been profaned during the occupation. Following the dedication of a new altar, Judea celebrated for eight days. Judas and his brothers declare that the festival will be observed annually (1 Macc 4:54-59, 2 Macc 10:6-9).

The Hanukkah story of the oil in the temple lasting eight days (when it wasn’t expected to last that long) isn’t found in these books and is part of the Jewish Talmud, written much later. However, it was customary to light lamps during the celebration of the temple’s dedication. The word Hanukkah means "to dedicate." The lamps, and light, signified the Law. And as with most festivals of light taking place in winter, light represents a victory over the darkness, a liberation from an oppressor.

This victory and dedication meant so much to the Jewish people that they made the celebration an annual festival of light. And almost 200 years later, Jesus celebrates it as well. One winter, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and the temple for the feast of the Dedication (John 10:22-23). Now, just because Jesus celebrated it doesn’t mean Christians are called to celebrate it. We’re not called to celebrate any Jewish holidays, seeing as we’re not Jewish. But since Jesus did come to us in a Jewish context, and because so much of our symbolism and typology rely on Jewish tradition, it is good to understand it.

For all the stories of military battles and conquering in the Old Testament, this is one that seems so easy for Christians to relate to. There’s a dominant culture in charge that many Jews find alluring. Several have left the faith for the novelty of this other faith or for the political convenience of going along with those in power. It shows the dangers of not being true to the faith. And then, once the oppressors are fought and conquered, there are still the scars; the temple has been profaned. It takes time to bring the people back, to build a new alter, to rededicate the temple. Finally, the story ends in victory; light conquers darkness!

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