It’s can be a little confusing to people that Hannukah and Christmas fall around the same time of year. Growing up in Canada I was often asked some variation on “that’s your Christmas, right?” In the Diaspora it always felt like Hannukah was a kind of “consolation prize” for Jewish kids who didn’t get Christmas. And while it has no obvious connection to Christmas, Hannukah is a deep holiday and a profound place of connection for Jews and Christians.
The events of Hannukah are described in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are not part of the Jewish canon. Not only are 1 and 2 Maccabees part of many Christian Bibles, we also know that Jesus himself marked Hannukah, as recounted in the Gospel of John 10:22-23. So, paradoxically, Hannukah is a holiday that’s not biblical for Jews, and is biblical for Christians. Yet Jews celebrate Hannukah, and Christians do not.
This year Hannukah begins on the first Sunday of Advent. As Jews gather together to light one small candle, so too do Christians, preparing for the birth of the Saviour. What does it mean for us in today’s world?
The basic Hannukah story is this: In 175 BCE Judea was invaded by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV. He outlawed fundamental Jewish practices and violated the Temple with statue of Zeus and the sacrifice of impure animals on the altar. The Maccabees arose in response, and this group of Jewish guerilla warriors undertook an uprising, lead by Mattityahu and his 5 sons. That revolt was successful, and by 165 BCE the Temple had been recaptured and cleaned, with a new altar dedicated, fit for sacrifices to the God of Israel.
One problem remained – according to Exodus 27:21 lamps were to burn all night, every night, lit from pure, consecrated olive oil. And only one such jar of oil was found - enough for one day. Yet that oil lasted eight days, the length of time it took to bring more pure oil to Jerusalem.
In short then, Hannukah is a celebration of two things – a military victory and a spiritual victory.
A people’s triumph over the bad guys and a people’s quest for holiness. Nice.
As everyone knows, Jews light an additional candle each night until a full blaze of eight candles lights up the darkness.
But there’s no necessary reason for this.
In fact the two most important rabbinic schools of thought disagreed about how to light Hannukah lights. In contrast to what we might take for granted, Beit Shammai insisted that we begin the holiday with eight candles and light one less each night! His argument was one based on a model that sought to fill in sacrifices missed during the war. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, championed the format that we are familiar with today – starting with a single light and increasing each night. The argument of Beit Hillel was based on a completely different way of seeing, an orientation not backward to a historical event of military conquest, as was Beit Shammai but rather toward something not caught in history, toward something extra-historical, supra-historical: Holiness.
Shammai is focused on the defeat of the enemy, and like all historical events its impact – like the candles - diminished over time. Hillel is focused instead on the holiness that resulted from this military victory, and that just as holiness increased with the rededication of the altar, so should the lighting reflect an increase in holiness. According to this way of thinking, Hannukah points us not just to a single “historical” miracle but an ongoing “suprahistorical” one.
Because while the Macabees themselves make for an exciting story, and while that victory was tremendously important for freedom of Jewish practice, its impact did indeed diminish overtime. More than diminished. It ended up in with the reign of some of the most corrupt and power-hungry rulers in the form of the Hasmonean dynasty, whose infighting and ambition invited Rome in to rule Judea from 63BCE as a protectorate.
Power corrupts unless it is guided by holiness. Human power must be subservient to holiness, to the guidance of God.
There is no doubt – we live in a dark time - surrounded by lawlessness and cruelty, human power running out of control. We are ready to do something, anything, to make it stop. Our souls, our hearts are eager, desperate, but our hands are not able to do as much as our souls demand.
And here is the power of Hannukah. As Rav Kook (first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British mandate Palestine) wrote:
The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom.
The challenge here is one of time.
Increasing light, justice, faith and wisdom is slow work. It is predicated on waiting, on desire, and on hope. We await all that is promised by the Prophets. A better world. True justice. The Messianic age. Waiting does not mean bemoaning the current dark. Nor is that waiting a kind passive resignation to some weary future “whenever”. Rather for all of us, waiting is an expectant, faithful task, that requires our active participation at every turn in the smallest of ways.
This year Hannukah begins on the first Sunday of Advent. As Jews gather together to light one small candle, so too do Christians, preparing for the birth of the Saviour. As we Jews and Christians work together toward a better world, we also wait together for all that was promised. May our work be blessed, and our waiting be holy.