GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 594 • December 16, 2020
HANUKKAH IS NOT “JEWISH CHRISTMAS”
This year, 2020, Hanukkah was celebrated December 8–16. It actually begins on 25 Kislev, the ninth month of the ancient Hebrew/Jewish calendar. It often occurs in late November to mid-December of the Gregorian calendar which is in common use today. Because of its proximity to the traditional Christmas celebration it is sometimes mistakenly viewed (by non-Jews, but not by Jews) as a Jewish form of Christmas. Incidentally, the same thing happens with Kwanzaa, which is not a “Black Christmas” or “African Christmas.” Neither Hanukkah nor Kwanzaa have anything to do with Christ or Christianity. Kwanzaa is not overtly religious at all but is only a cultural celebration of black (particularly African) history and ethnicity (you will have to research Kwanzaa on your own – this essay is about Hanukkah). Because Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday some assume it has something to do with Judeo-Christian religion and may be a Jewish nod to the birth of Jesus, called the Messiah/Christ. But it is not so.
How does Hanukkah differ from Christmas in God’s estimation and approval? It may surprise you to know that neither Hanukkah nor Christmas were established by God as genuine feast/festival days to be observed in religion – as compared with Passover, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), or even Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year).
Christmas Day was designated late by a very corrupt church on a day arbitrarily chosen (but with distinct pagan connections and overtones) and is practiced in both secular and religious cultures. Since neither was set by God neither is considered “holy” by God. There is Biblical evidence that the Lord accepted and approved, at least did not disapprove, Hanukkah (I will give you the Biblical reference for it later). But no Biblical evidence exists for the confused and confusing celebration called Christmas, a “holy day” set by man, not by God. Special foods (for the Jews it’s latkes, potato pancakes deep fried in olive oil, or sufganiyot, similar to jelly donuts; special activities such as gift-giving; special prayers and songs – all are traditional, not Biblical.
WHAT IS HANUKKAH? HOW DID IT START? WHAT DOES IT CELEBRATE?
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., his empire disintegrated as a power struggle broke out among his generals and lasted for more than century. The Greco-Syrian Seleucid kings would emerge victorious and rule many of Alexander’s former territories, including Judea in what is the present-day nation of Israel. The Seleucids exerted their influence through Hellenization, the spread of Greek art, architecture, culture and religion – in deference to Alexander’s desire for an empire based on culture rather than the imposition of military power. Local communities, especially in Judea, resisted it.
In 175 B.C. the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who designated himself Epiphanes (meaning “manifest god”) came into power and tried to force Judeans to give up Jewish history, language, culture, and religion including their Torah and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, law and teachings) and be assimilated into Greek culture and religion. The Seleucids took possession of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and damaged it and defiled it by sacrificing pigs on the altar of sacrifice and erecting a statue and altar to the Greek god Zeus inside. Antiochus outlawed the Jewish faith and mandated the worship of Greek gods, but his methods were so brutal, inhumane, and sacrilegious that the Jews named him Epimanes, “the insane, the madman.” Horrified by the Temple desecration and cruelty toward the Jewish people, a priest named Mattathias and his sons rose up in rebellion. After Mattathias’s death in 166 B.C., his son Judah (called the “Maccabee,” meaning the “Hammer”) took his father’s place in the fight and led the Jewish people in many bloody victories over the Seleucids. In 164, Judah won back Jerusalem and the Temple, until the “revolt of the Maccabees” finally drove the Seleucids out of Judea in 160.
Immediately Judah the Maccabee set about rebuilding and restoring the Temple, cleansing it and replacing the altar, reestablishing the Hebrew worship and sacrifices according to the Hebrew scriptures. Although the Maccabean revolution is not mentioned in the Bible it is given extensive treatment in I and II Maccabees included in “the Apocrypha” appended by some to the canonical books of the Bible. A “miracle” recorded and generally accepted by Jews concerns the lighting of the menorah, the oil lamp with the flame fueled by specially prepared and holy olive oil that was supposed to remain lit forever in the temple. The Seleucids had left only one vial of oil, enough to burn for one day. The Jews used it and relit the lamp. Unexplainably, unless of course God saw to it, the lamp stayed lit and continued burning for eight days on that one-day supply of oil until they found or produced proper oil to keep the flame burning perpetually.
This relighting of God’s lamp or candlestick – the seven-branched Menorah – gave rise to the “feast of lights” – the return of the light of God to the Temple of God and the people of God. The dedication of the cleansed and rededicated Temple and the reestablishment of temple worship was celebrated as a Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” with the “miracle of light” duly noticed and remembered. A special form of the Menorah, called a hanukkiah, with nine branches – eight of them for the eight days of light and one extra branch called the Shamash, “the servant,” to be lit first and then used to light one more each day for the eight days of Hanukkah. The feast or festival of Hanukkah, also called the feast of lights and the feast of dedication, commemorates the miracle of light that occurred when Judah rededicated the Temple to the Hebrew God and the cleansing and rededication, not only of the temple but collectively of the Hebrew/Jewish nation and its people. In the gospel of John, 10:22-39, the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem and Jesus was in the temple – a hint that the Lord recognized and participated in the Hanukkah of the Jews.
An annual “Independence Day” is observed on July 4th by our nation. Many other nations around the world have a special day set aside for the same purpose, as is appropriate to their own history. The celebration is usually not overtly religious but cultural – in the same way Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are. There is nothing inappropriate about such festivals or days of remembrance. Perhaps a national day of celebration of a national religion would be difficult to justify – some nations have a national religion, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc, but most do not. We, for example, are not designated as a “Christian nation,” certainly not a “Theocracy.”
POSSIBLE LESSONS AND APPLICATION OF HANUKKAH FOR CHRISTIANS
Jesus is called “the Light of men” which the darkness cannot comprehend nor overcome (John 1:4-5). He designated himself the light of the world (John 8:12) who brought and brings the light of God into the world. He referred to his apostles as the light of the world reflecting his light and the light of God into the world (Matthew 5:14-16). Every Christian is able to be and expected to be a light in the Lord as children of Light (Ephesians 5:8), shining for Christ in a dark world by presenting his words (Philippians 2:14-15), walking in the Light as God is Light and as Christ himself is the Light (1 John 1:5-7) – Christians are not to participate or share in the darkness of the world with the enemies of Light. The body of the Christian is a temple of God in which His Holy Spirit dwells and by which one is able to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Christians are to keep the light of the Lord burning, functioning freely and fully as the light(s) of the world by having Christ as the Light of their lives and shining so that the world can see it but not comprehend it, overcome it, or put it out.
But our light is too often dimmed, flickering, or gone out altogether. Our temple bodies are defiled, desecrated, damaged, and made uninhabitable for the Spirit by our failures and sins – by our misrepresentation of Christ and His gospel. We need to have our body temples and our own spirits repaired, refurbished, restored, and rededicated to the service of our Lord. We need to relight our lamps, our hanukkiahs, with a fresh supply of the oil of His Spirit – remove the “bushels” and shades that obscure His light in us – and shine as brightly as He makes possible for us until the dark world cannot ignore us or ignore Him who is in us. Come and stand in the light of Christ and make it manifest that your life is lived in him and your works are worked in and through him (John 3:19-21). It is time to wake up, sleeper; rise from the dead – let the Christ shine on you and in you and through you, and proclaim it to all the world. It is time for a personal Hanukkah.