While we may not be Jewish, Jesus certainly was. And no matter how we look at it, we worship a Jewish Messiah, who never ceased being Jewish simply because he had a habit of rebuking some of the dogmatism practiced by the religious leaders of his day. Fact of the matter is, as a Jew, Jesus most certainly observed the full calendar of Jewish holidays, which also included Hannukah. In fact, the only place in the entire Bible where any mention of this relatively minor feast occurs, is in the New Testament. It doesn’t even appear even once in the Old Testament (Tanakh); the transmission of the Hannukah traditions was done orally.
The feast of Hannukah is traditionally celebrated every year in the winter season, for eight days, from Kislev 25 to Tevet 3, on the Hebrew calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, unlike the Gregorian calendar we use, so every year the dates vary and in 2013, the dates fall between November 27 and December 5. Since the majority of Christians don’t celebrate this holiday, it’s easy to forget that Jesus himself celebrated it, and we even have a verse in the Bible that would indicate that to be the case.
Hannukah is sometimes referred to by several different names. One name is The Feast of Dedication, as that’s what the word “Hannukah” means in Hebrew – dedication. It was established to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and is supposed to represent the victory of faith over secularism, and the awe and wonder of believing in miracles. Another name given to Hannukah, is the Festival of Lights, as every night at sunset, more and more candles are lit, to represent the great oil menorah that was lit in the temple. John 10:22-24 actually describes a scene that happened during this holiday, as Jesus celebrated Hannukah (The Feast of Dedication) with his disciples.
At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
This is significant, not only for the answer that Jesus gave in the verses after, but also for the answer he already gave earlier. Recall, that it wasn’t that long before this took place that Jesus spoke to a large group of people at the Mount of Olives in John 8:12.
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
Do you suppose that the disciples could remember his earlier words about being the Light of the world? It would seem not, but I certainly see, and find joy in the fact that the Light of the World celebrated the Festival of Lights.
Another interesting parallel exists between the tradition of lighting Hannukah lights, and the ministry of Jesus. During Hannukah, the first light to be lit, is called the shamash – which by definition, means attendant or caretaker, and by function, means, a servant. The “shamash” candle, which is always set apart from all the rest in the menorah, is then used to light all the other lights in sequence. The metaphorical imagery here is just as beautiful. Just as the servant candle is used to light many, the light of the Servant King sets us alight, with his own words in Matthew 5:14-16.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Even in the Jewish tradition of Hannukah, the menorah is always placed in a prominent spot in the window, so that it may be seen by the whole world outside. It’s not to be placed where it cannot be seen by anyone.
Isn’t it also wonderful then, how we use the symbol of lights at Advent? So combining both the themes of Advent and Hunnukah, I really can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate The Festival of Lights, than by celebrating THE Light who shines in the darkness – Jesus.
Whether we identify more closely with the Jewish tradition, or the Christian one, the Hannukah lights burn with passion, symbolism and hope. Pope Francis expressed it so well in his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” this year. He wrote: “We cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God.” “God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word.” To this end, he quoted Romans 11:29, which says that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
May God continue to bless us all, this wonderful holiday season, whether through the lights of Hannukah or the candles of Advent. I pray for your peace, joy, and hope. Amen.