Hanukkah: Celebrating the Light of the World
This evening at sunset begins Hanukkah (also called the Festival of Lights). Why would a deeply believing Christian like me, who grew up Catholic, bother to celebrate Hanukkah? How is this festive time relevant to me, since it celebrates the rededication (Hanukkah means rededication) of the temple during the second century? Simply answered: because Hanukkah remembers a stunning miracle, and is full of symbolism that points my eyes and my heart to God, and his Son, Jesus.
Let’s start with the miracle: What’s the Story?
The year is 168 B.C., and Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, rules the Land of Israel (Judea). His father before him, Antiochus III, allowed the Jews to practice their faith. Antiochus IV, however, outlawed the observance of Shabbat and the Festivals, as well as circumcision. He ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods giving them one of two options: convert or die.
His soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people. They desecrated the Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs. In addition, the soldiers would go from town to town, and make the people of the town publicly renounce their faith and sacrifice to the Greek gods. They would started with the priest of the town.
Mattathias Maccabee Resists Assimilation
In one such town, an elderly priest by the name of Mattathias Maccabee was facing this choice. Rather than submit, he and his sons killed the guards and started a revolt. Mattathias died almost two years into the revolt. His son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), led in his stead. Within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, utilizing guerilla warfare tactics.
The size and magnificence of the Syrian army, versus the small rebel Jewish army, makes this a great war story. For so few to defeat such a great army reminds me of Gideon. In both instances, God wanted Gideon and the rebels to know that the outcome of battle belonged to Him. All He asked is that they believe and passionately obey Him. The Apocrypha has the Book of Maccabees. In addition, the story can be found in online sources. The ancient historian Josephus also records the events. A great read that is well worth the time.
The miracle continues when Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah. The gold candelabrum was supposed to be kept burning every night. The Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, records that there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah candles burning for a single day. It would take them a week to prepare oil for the Menorah. As they prepared the oil, the flame continued flickering night after night, for eight nights. God gave them the time they needed to prepare a fresh supply.
The Menorah Speaks
The Hanukkah menorah is also known as the Hanukkiah. A Menorah has seven branches, whereas the Hanukkiah has nine branches. One of the nine branches on the Hanukkiah are out of alignment. It may be higher than the other eight branches, or it may be the same height, but jutting back from the row. This branch that stands out, holds the servant candle.
On the first evening of Hanukkah, at sunset, the servant candle is lit. The servant candle is then used to light the first candle. The first candle sits at the far right of the row. Just as Hebrew is read from right to left, so too are the candles lit from right to left. On the second evening, the servant candle is used to again light the first candle and then the second candle. And so on through the week, are the candles lit. In other words, all candles stay lit, and an additional candle is added each night, until on the eighth night, all are lit. The light from the menorah grows each night. By the eighth night, the light from the menorah is at full strength.
There are two powerful symbols inherent to the Hanukkiah that strike me. The first, is the role of the servant candle. The second is the role of the Menorah to commemorate the miracle and point us to The Light of the World.
The Servant Candle
The servant candle immediately makes me thing of Jesus. He calls himself a servant, and calls us as his followers to be a servant. Mark 10:42-45
42 Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
It is also important to me that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22). He tells me that as His disciple, I am to do what He does. This is one of the ways I serve Him, by doing what He does.
The Light of the Hanukkiah
There are many fun traditions associated with Hanukkah, but the lighting of the Hanukkiah is to me the most special. In the temple, God gave Israel explicit directions (Exodus 25:31-40) as to what the menorah (golden lampstands) was to look like. The constantly lit (Leviticus 24: 1-4) menorah represents God’s eternal presence and His everlasting light. To Jews world-wide, it is the symbol of their faith.
The Hanukkiah is a reflection of the Menorah. Just as the Menorah speaks of God’s eternal presence amongst us, the Hanukkiah speaks about The Light of the World amongst us. What is stunning, is that this Old Testament story points us to someone Christians know very well. John revealed who the Light of the World was, in John 1:6-9. He said,
“6There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light. 9There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.
Jesus, The Light of the World
Jesus (Yeshua is his Hebrew name, the name His mother and father would have called Him.) was even more specific than John as to who is the Light of the World. He declared Himself the Light of the World (John 8:12, 9:5, 12:46).
John 8:12 “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
John 9:5 “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”
John 12:44-46 “44And Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me. 46I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.”
For eight evenings in a row, as I light the Hanukkiah, and as the light grows brighter, I celebrate and rejoice over the Miracle-worker. I think about Him as the Light of the World. I think about how He says He came to bring us to the One who sent Him. Israel as a nation, the Tabernacle and all its furniture – including the golden lampstands, were intended to reveal the Father to the world. The mission has not changed from the very beginning: Yeshua (Jesus) as the Light of the World, brings us to the One who sent Him.
Peace and Light to you and all whom you love. Happy Hanukkah!
Susan Skommesa is a freelance writer and editor with The Northeast Texan. Her many interests include studying Biblical and Paleo-Hebrew, renovating houses, all things health and nutrition, knitting, homesteading, and teaching and writing on topics of faith, gardening, pets, chickens, and human interest.