John 10: 22-30
So the 25th Day of the month Kislev on the Jewish Calendar begins the ancient holiday of Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. Or more properly, the “Rededication.”
In any case, no dreidels in first century Palestine, nor many of the customs that have accrued over the centuries. But there might have been the lighting of candles or lamps, to commemorate the miracle. I’m not sure when the tradition of the Menorrah began.
The story from the second century before Christ, when the army of Judas Maccabaeus in their rebellion against the Syrian king Antiochus IV Ephipanes captured Jerusalem and came into the precincts of the profaned Temple. A great story, mentioned in First and Second Macabees in the Bible and with much more detail in other ancient Jewish writings. The Hellenist Antiochus, this all in the era following Alexander the Great, immersed in Meditteranean Greek culture, attempts to suppress local religious practices in his kingdom. He does so ruthlessly, and for the Jews this means the death sentence for families that have their sons circumcised, and the great Temple in Jerusalem, which had been rebuilt during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah on the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, was now converted to the worship of Greek Gods and the state cult.
But the Maccabees are successful in a heroic rebellion and guerilla war of insurgency. At least temporarily, as the Romans were right around the corner. But in any case, at this moment of their victory, the story that as the priests came into the Temple to perform the ceremonial purification and rededication, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the Eternal Flame for one day. Miraculously the flame burned for eight full days—the length of time that it took to prepare and consecrate additional oil. Certainly a sign of God’s blessing and favor.
In modern America for many of our Jewish neighbors and friends Hanukkah is a wonderful family holiday, a way to celebrate a distinctive faith and heritage, and at the same time share with their neighbors in the wider celebration of the holiday season of Christmas and New Year in the wider culture. I know some Jewish families even have very modern American customs like the exchanging of holiday gifts and even what is sometimes called a “Hannaukah bush,” though observant Jews especially frown in reaction to this, on making the observance seem too much like Christmas.
But what the day would have meant for the faithful Jews of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day would have been quite different, I imagine. Their time so very much like the time of the Hanukkah story. And those called the “Zealots” of those days really the heirs to the Maccabeans. Under the heel of the Roman oppressor, with daily reminders both large and small that they are occupied people. A time of brutality and degradation. Even the sacred offices of kingship and temple priesthood occupied by cynical collaborators and compromisers.
Hanukkah for them, perhaps a time to remember in their hearts those heroes not so long ago, who overthrew the oppressor, who rejected the collaborationists. Who for a few brief moments established a renewed Israel, independent, faithful to God’s holy covenant. Those eight candles or lamps, those eight days of memory, must have been a powerful sign of hope, of true messianic expectation, and certainly with that an affront to the powers and principalities all around. We might say that Hanukkah spoke a message not of “holiday cheer,” but of true and radically subversive “liberation theology.”
No matter how dark the night, the lamp burning as a sign of God’s promises to Abraham, and to David. Of the Word spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:
“As the lion or the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them, so shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for Mount Zion, and for the hill thereof. As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it, and passing over he will preserve it.”
This feast a sign of confident hope, that God will act, in us and through us and for us, to redeem his people and to fulfill his Word. No matter how overwhelming the odds.
And it was in this Hanukkah, John tells us, that Jesus himself came to the Temple in Jerusalem. Just that, perhaps something of a dramatic and even provocative act, deeply symbolic, which is reflected in the fact that he is questioned immediately about his motives. It might be understood as a kind of political theater. “Are you here because you think you are the Messiah?” What the temple authorities ask. A dangerous question to answer. But of course we know. A direct answer might lead to immediate arrest and execution. But Jesus responds with a poetic image. Nothing they can pin on him directly, though the meaning is clear enough. Certainly is for us, all these years later, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Though few had recognized it at the time, outside of his chosen circle, the answer to the deepest Hannukah prayer, Israel’s hope and consolation. Dear Desire of every Nation, joy of every longing heart. There and then. Here and now. The Good Shepherd, who is to renew and restore God’s people. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.
In the midst of Easter, for us and forever as well, the death and resurrection of Christ, as the fulfillment of the Hannaukah promise. When the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The sign and completion in our lives of forgiveness and restoration and renewal. So Paul, in First Corinthians 3:6: Do you not know that you are God’s temple? You. Us. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
The eight days of the Hanukkah miracle, those eight candles on the Menorrah, are the fullness of God’s seven-day creation, plus one. A future oriented sign of the new heaven and the new earth. The new life we share. The bread of life and cup of salvation at the altar, and the kingdom’s banquet table, and in all our lives as we reflect the new light of our risen Lord day by day, at home, and in and through the church, and in the wide world. That we are ourselves, that we might become more perfectly, the miraculous flame, and the signs of God’s faithful love. All Hanukkah. All Easter.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.