Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hannukkah begins

Today we begin the Jewish Festival of Dedication, also known as the "Festival of Lights” or Hannukkah. It is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, and this year it begins at sunset tonight. It is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays because of its proximity to Christmas and therefore forming part of the "festive season." Hanukkah celebrates events which took place over 2,300 years ago in the land of Judea, which in many ways are linked to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Antiochus IV, the Greek ruler of the Seleucid Empire, oppressed the Jews severely. He placed a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, he massacred the people, he prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrated the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. One of the groups which opposed Antiochus was led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee. This small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian army. Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion, but the Maccabees succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land. According to historical accounts, Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem in December 164 BC. The Holy Temple, the Jewish religious center, was a shambles, defiled and desecrated by foreign soldiers.
The Maccabees cleansed the Temple and rededicated it on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. When it came time to re-light the Menorah, the multi-branched lampstand, they searched the entire Temple but only one small jar of oil bearing the pure seal of the High Priest could be found. Miraculously, the small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought. From then on, Jews everywhere have observed a holiday for eight days in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of the oil. The observance of Hanukkah features the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah with eight branches plus a helper candle, adding a new candle each night.

Does this festival however hold any significance for us? We know from the Gospel of John that Our Lord celebrated this feast in Jerusalem, but we are under no obligation or “law” to celebrate any of the Jewish festivals given to Israel.

The feast however has obvious symbolism: Christ is the true light of the world and the events of Hanukkah are fulfilled in Him. In many ways the story of the Maccabees' success is a foreshadowing of Christ. The destruction and desecration of Israel is like the Fall. The light that restores the proper order in the Temple is brought by a miraculous and pure vessel, just as the immaculately conceived Virgin brought forth the Word Incarnate, who is the True light that will never cease to burn and shine in the world. As Christians, our Hanukkah is not only the re-dedication of the Temple but the re-dedication of creation by Jesus Christ. As we journey through Advent we prepare ourselves for this re-dedication which began when the Word became flesh.