Tonight, Monday, December 23, 2019 is the first night of the eight day festival of Hanukkah.
Igniting Passion and Passing the Torch
My Gentile Hanukkah Story
When I think of Hanukkah I think of my mom, my very Gentile, half German/half Irish Christian, Evangelist, Bible toting, mom. My mother’s interest in the Hebrew roots of Christianity influenced me dynamically. It was this passionate pursuit that illuminated the Hanukkah lights in her home and ignited a similar passion in me. I am a third generation coffee drinking, book reading, family loving, pursuer of God.
My mother, like her father loved God, family, coffee, and books. They both loved learning and were avid readers. Mom didn’t just read a books, she devoured it. Mostly she loved reading about God.
But what does coffee, reading and family have to do with Hanukkah?
A lot actually.
Both Mom and Grandpa lived their beliefs; unapologetically. It wasn’t something they put on for the holidays. They lived their beliefs 24/7, courageously and steadfast with an insatiable zest for life. They had quite different ways of expression their intense passions but both were, if nothing else, committed to what they believed.
They both loved family. Mom would stand up to any bully who attempted to harm any of her six children, 11 grandchildren and 2 great-grandbabies. Fierce love and intense belief for standing up for what you believe to be right motivated my mother’s actions and pursuits. Grandpa’s mantra was to turn the other cheek; “love thy neighbor, bless those who curse you and pray for those who despitefully use you.” [Matthew 5:44] Grandpa would probably offer the offender a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone, as he tirelessly showered the individual with stories of God’s amazing love.
Never being one to settle for what other people told her, mom insisted on checking things out for herself. When her Protestant/Evangelical church told my mother that the gifts of the Spirit were not for today she went on a quest to find out if that was true. Her thought was that if they made such a fuss about it, she wanted to know what the fuss was all about. She ended up baptized in the Holy Spirit.
When these same church leaders insisted that non-canonized books was off limits, mom proudly opened her old Catholic Bible and promptly turned to the book of Maccabees. She discovered that this was the backstory to the celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights and what in the New Testament is called the feast of dedication. Since Jesus observed the Feast of Dedication she deemed it okay for us. (see John 10:22) As a result, that year in December, our family observed Hanukkah for the first time.
I will never forget it. None of us knew what we were doing but Mom gathered everyone in the living room so she could tell us a story. It was a real sight. My younger siblings were still in grammar school in the mid 1980’s. I was pregnant with my second child. We thought this was going to be another version of Mary and the baby Jesus. I was always surprised that mom didn’t try to rent a few stable animals so we would get the full effect. Rather than the typical Joseph and Mary and no room at the inn, Mom hurled us into the historical epic of the Seleucid Empire and Antiochus IV, Epiphanes.
She always made us sit through some Christmas story before we got to open presents. But seriously who cares about the Seleucids? Why didn’t you just say, the Greeks in the first place? Yet, Mom had a way of keeping children spellbound. She could be a bit theatrical and the kids ate it up. She would do different voices and fantastic facial expressions as she relayed the story. She didn’t just read the story. She made the story come alive. She made shields and swords out of aluminum foil for the boys. I don’t know if any of them heard the story after that point.
The Story behind the Festival of Lights
The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place around 200 B.C.
Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.
Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. It started with Mattathias killing first a Jew who wanted to comply with Antiochus’s order to sacrifice to Zeus, and then a Greek official who was to enforce the government’s bidding. (1 Mac. 2, 24–25). Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. The Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated.
The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.
Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night.
The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.
An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The boys who were now off smacking each other with cardboard swords and could have cared less when Mom lit the candles of her first Menorah. As only my mom could do, she took our Christmas to a whole other level.
From now, we weren’t just celebrating the birth of Christ, as awesome as that is. Now we were celebrating God with us, in a whole different way. The celebration of Hanukkah is God shining a light of hope in the midst of the four hundred years of silence before the coming of Messiah Jesus. Hanukkah is what it looks like to have God on your side when your enemies are stronger than you. It’s a reminder of that when it’s darkest just before the dawn, God lights a candle so we know He’s still there.
Isaiah 42:3 A bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.
I went home that night with a bundle of gifts under my arm and a light of hope and passion in my heart. The story of Hanukkah kindled a fire in me that has burned brighter with each year. I don’t always follow the dictates of tradition, but I do acknowledge the occasion. I haven’t stopped celebrating Christmas. But as Mom pointed out that if it was okay for Jesus, it’s okay for me. So, I kindle the Hanukkah lights in my heart.
Hanukkah reminds me that even when I don’t feel the nearness of God He keeps the lamp lit and the oil burning.
If you want to read the story of the Maccabees in its entirety click here: 1 & 2 Maccabees
Check out these videos for more info on Hanukkah