Obviously, I am not Jewish, but because of my love for Scripture (particularly the Old Testament), I am fascinated by Jewish feasts and customs. I actually want to celebrate them… it makes sense to me. It’s a part of Salvation History, and they are feasts that Christ himself would have celebrated as he grew up! Many of them were feasts that were given to them by God to celebrate in memory of something great he had done for them.
Today is the first day of Hanukkah — the festival of lights! While it wasn’t a feast given directly by God, it was — and is — celebrated in memory of something marvelous God did for his people. It’s actually a total “swap” story — God’s strength coming in clutch when his faithful children are lacking in resources.
It all started with the Israelites’ unfaithfulness, which lead to disagreements, which lead to the Kingdom of Israel dividing into the Northern Kingdom (which retained the name Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (which adopted the name Judah). This division made them weaker, and it wasn’t long before they were both conquered by other nations. Israel fell first, Judah, second. Both went into exile; the Northern Kingdom to Assyria and the Southern Kingdom to Babylon.
The Babylonians destroyed the Temple and raided the treasury. When they decided to use the sacred chalices for a party they were having, the finger of God appeared and wrote of the end of the Babylonian reign on the wall in the banquet hall. It wasn’t long after that the Persians conquered Babylon and became the strongest kingdom in the world.
King Cyrus was a good man who allowed any Israelite who desired to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild to do so. He even helped to finance their mission and sent some major figure heads to help out with the process. Thanks to the efforts of all these individuals, the city and God’s Holy Temple were rebuilt — but they were nowhere near as splendid as they had been before.
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great, hot off of conquering Egypt, invaded the Persian empire. It took him about 10 years, but when he was finished, he was the official ruler of the entire (known) world. Sadly, Alexander died young and without an heir and his kingdom was split in three. A nasty man by the name of Antiochus IV became king of the late Persian empire.
Antiochus referred to himself as “Epiphanes,” which means, “God made manifest.” However his subjects, including many of his courtiers and advisers, referred to him as “Epimanes,” which means, “out of his mind.” He was lewd, cruel, and so crazy that nobody dared speak against him for fear of how he might lash out.
Under Persian rule, the Jewish people were permitted to worship as they pleased. This was not the case under Antiochus. The Greek viewpoint was that all local deities were actually just alternate manifestations of their own gods, thus the crazy king converted the Jewish Temple into a house of worship for Zeus. He sold the role of high priest to the highest bidder. Thus the high priesthood was in the hands of rich Hellenists (Jews who had embraced Greek culture and customs), and the younger generation began to fall away from the Law of Moses. Worship at the temple of Zeus was also done in the Greek style… meaning unclean animals were sacrificed and Jewish men were having sex with temple prostitutes within the temple’s sanctuary!
Jews who desired to retain their customs were punished. They couldn’t celebrate the Sabbath or any other Jewish feast. Families were killed for circumcising their sons. Others were put to death for refusing to eat pork. It was a really intense persecution. Thus, many faithful families began to leave Jerusalem. One of the first to go was an old man named Mattathias, who took his family of five sons to the family’s ancestral village of Modein (about 17 miles north of the city). Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the persecutions to follow.
When an official arrived in their village, he recruited Mattathias (an honored village elder) to set a good example for the rest of the people and perform a small sacrifice in the Greek style on the village altar. When Mattathias refused, another elder stepped forward to perform the sacrifice. Outraged, Mattathias rushed forward and killed the man as well as the official from Jerusalem, and tore down the altar. Then Mattithias cried out, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” He and his sons, (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan) immediately fled to the hills leaving everything they owned behind.
They fled north and were soon followed by others. Rather than hiding to protect themselves, they roamed the countryside tearing down altars upon which false sacrifices were being made. They also, “struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their path…” They even forcibly circumcised any uncircumcised Jewish boys they found …ouch.
About a year into their established guerrilla lifestyle, Mattithias died, leaving his third son in command of their revolt. Judas proved to be a genius when it came to guerrilla warfare. He held the loyalty of his men by plunging right into the thick of any battle. His nickname actually became “Maccabeus,” which means, “hammer.”
His army, the Maccabees, had so much respect for their leader that they followed him into battle against professional soldiers sent by Antiochus to annihilate their resistance. Judas was firm and unafraid even though they were greatly outnumbered. To him, numbers did not matter, it was the element of surprise and the favor of God that would grant them victory. He was right, the army was caught so off-guard they could not strike back; 800 men were killed and the rest fled.
Antiochus got wind of this and decided he had had enough. Ordering a viceroy to take half of his entire army and completely overtake the Jewish people (selling ones fit for hard labor into slavery and exterminating the rest), he left to deal with another matter in one of his eastern provinces. The viceroy was unable to complete the task; Judas and the rest of the Maccabees defeated their enemy and took back the city of Jerusalem.
It was then that Judas carried out the greatest act of his career: the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found it in ruins. In the courts, bushes had sprung up in great numbers. The chambers of the priests had been desolated. The Maccabees began by immediately removing statues of the Greek gods and goddesses and built a new altar.
According to the instructions of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Temple had once housed many “lampstands” — or menorahs. Since they were made of gold, the Syrians had stolen them when they sacked the Temple years before. A new menorah was made out of less precious metal (since that was all they had), but when they went to light the lampstand, they discovered they only had enough olive oil for the flame to burn a single day. By a miracle of God, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil was made available. This miracle proved to the rest of the Jewish people that God was with these men, and had never left his unfaithful children. They were able to rededicate the Temple, and Israel was once again an independent nation…that is until the Romans came along, but that’s another story!
Hanukkah is the continued celebration of this miracle. The Maccabees had nothing when they took a stand and started a revolution — they fled from the city without any of their belongings. They were always outnumbered and always had less resources than the armies they faced, yet God protected them, filling them with courage, virtue and zeal which lead to their great victories. Then, though all they had to give to their God was a single day’s worth of “light,” God multiplied their offering… using their weakness to illuminate his glory.
As a lover of God’s glory who also takes immense comfort in knowing my weakness is God’s strength, this story is so uplifting. Feel free to share this story with anyone you know who feels weak or “out-numbered.” His power is made obvious in what we lack!
As a sidenote: does anyone have any ideas for ways in which Catholics can celebrate Hanukkah?