Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hanukkah Is On Its Way December 20–28

Did you know that the Gospel of John mentions Hanukkah? 

 =Egevneto tovte ta; ejgkaivnia ejn toi:V +IerosoluvmoiV, ceimw;n h\n, kai; periepavtei oJ =Ihsou:V ejn tw/: iJerw/: ejn th/: stoa/: tou: Solomw:noV.

“Now when it was Hanukkah in Jerusalem, it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon” (John 10:22).  

The term ta; ejvgkaivnia (ta engkainia) means “the renewal” (it comes from the verb ejgkainivzei:n [engkainizein], “to renew”)—it is otherwise known as the “festival of rededication” or “Hanukkah.” 

Our Anglicized Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew חֲנֻכָּה (khanukkah), meaning “dedication” (in contemporary Israel, it is usually spelled like this: חנוכה). Hanukkah starts on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Chislev, which this year falls on December 20, and it lasts for eight days. So this year, the feast will last until until December 28. 

So what’s Hanukkah all about? 

Long after Alexander the Great had conquered Judea and the surrounding lands, spreading Greek culture wherever he went in the 300s b.c.e., the area he conquered became split into four major kingdoms—Macedon, Pergamon, and the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms. Eventually, Judea became part of the Seleucid empire (after being under Ptolemaic control) when Antiochus III of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V in Egypt. 

When Antiochus III was ruler over Judea, he was content to allow the Jewish people to live as they pleased according to their ancestral traditions, but his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took the temple in Jerusalem, ordered a statue of Zeus to be built inside, banned circumcision, and sacrificed a pig on the altar!

The Jewish people would not stand for this persecution against their religion, so a Jewish revolt was launched against the evil Antiochus, and it was successful by 165 b.c.e. under “Judah the Makabi,” meaning “Judah the Hammer.” (This is where we get the name “Maccabees.” If you’ve never read 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha—the literature in between the Old and New Testaments—I highly recommend it.)

Jewish tradition has it that when Judah retook and “rededicated” the temple (replacing the unclean altar with a new one), they had to use some oil to keep the lamp (menorah) in the temple burning every night. 

Unfortunately, there was only enough for one night. Nevertheless, that oil was miraculously sufficient to allow the menorah to burn for eight days straight, which is the traditional reason behind the eight-day celebration.

So in light of that background, what’s the significance surrounding the context of Jesus in John 10:22 walking in the temple at the time of Hanukkah? 

Hanukkah, a time celebrating the renewal of the temple, is also known as the “Festival of Lights.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5), and he is said to have “tabernacled” (ejskhvnwsen, eskēnōsen) among us (John 1:14). The temple, functioning in Jesus’ day as the tabernacle did in the time of Moses, housed the very presence of God. Jesus, literally God come down to earth as a human, was right there in the temple, yet his opponents who came to question him in John 10 did not recognize his true identity, instead perturbed that he was not plainly telling them that he was the Messiah. 

Hanukkah took place over a hundred years before Jesus was walking around the temple. The victory there was a military one. But Jesus’ victory was much more powerful—his mission resulted in the redemption of all who put their faith in him. As God, he gives true victory and real life. The miracle of the Incarnation outshines the miracle of the menorah on Hanukkah. God himself became man so that we might have life and freedom from the bondage and destructive power of sin.

The miracle of Jesus renews all creation (Romans 8). That is a renewal worth celebrating. Something to reflect upon as Hanukkah and Christmas both draw near.