The festival of Hanukkah, which will be celebrated from December 20th to 27th this year, has its origins in the heroic struggle of Judah Maccabee against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC. The story can be found in the two apocryphal books of the Maccabees. It is probable that the references in Hebrews 11 to “others [being] tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection [while] still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment” refer to the martyrs of the Maccabean period.
Hanukkah means “Dedication” and the Talmud contains an account of a miracle that supposedly occurred after Judah Maccabee liberated the temple and rededicated it to the God of Israel. The tractate Shabbat 22b says that the Greeks had desecrated the sanctuary and the oil for the seven-branched Menorah, and that when the temple was rededicated, only one jar of oil remained undefiled – enough to last for just one day. By a miracle, however, the sacred oil lasted eight days, long enough for more oil to be obtained.

That miracle is remembered each year by the lighting of a nine-branched candelabra, the Hanukkia. This is the basic mitzvah, or commandment, of Hanukkah and for eight days Jewish people light the candles, one each day until on the last day of the festival eight candles are lit. The central ninth candle, the shamash, or “servant” light, is the one from which all the other candles are kindled. Because of the candles, the celebration has also come to be known as the Festival of Lights.

Falling, as it does, in December, Hanukkah has in effect become a Jewish substitute for Christmas and it is fascinating to compare the similarities between the two festivals. Some of them are obvious but others are not. Hanukkah recalls the dedication of the temple of God and the miracle of a supernatural light that accompanied the event. The birth of Jesus was the coming into the world of the true Temple of God and the true heavenly Light to shine on those who sat in darkness.

But there is a more challenging lesson we can glean from the feast. The tenth chapter of John’s Gospel records the visit of Jesus to the temple at Hanukkah (v22) an account that occurs at the heart of a section of the Gospel in which Jesus is presented as “the Light of the World” (8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35,46). In chapter 13, Jesus reveals himself as the Servant to his disciples and sets them an example they are to follow.

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus teaches his followers that they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. “As He is, so are we in this world”, John writes in his first letter, and in John 13 the Servant Light sets an example for the other lights to emulate.

The lesson for us, therefore, is that by serving others we truly become the light of the world. Isn’t this what Paul is driving at when he says he wants his Gentile readers in Rome to provoke the Jewish people to jealousy? It is God’s purpose that we Gentile believers serve as his shamash to kindle “such a candle” in Israel “as shall never be put out”.

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the winter 2003 edition of the Herald

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