Text: "And they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days. And offered burnt offerings with joy and offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise."
The Apocrypha, 1st Book of Macabees
The Jewish Festival of Hanukkah comes so near Christmas that people want to merge its meaning with the various festivals of light that occur around the same time in the Christian calendar. Notwithstanding the wish for ecumenism, it would be a mistake for us to do so. Truth to tell, the sun does sink lower in the skies each day as we approach the Solstice; it does prompt people to find ways to hope for the sun to return to its zenith. But to mix Hanukkah's celebration with the Solstice, Christmas or Ramadan would be to miss its true meaning.
Hanukkah is a celebration of religious freedom. It commemorates the renewal and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 165 B.C.E.,. three years to the day after it had been profaned by the Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes. (IV) His purpose in desecrating that sacred altar was to insult the Jews and drive them into submission.
Let me relate the story again. Antiochus was known to his friends as "Zeus Manifest". He was a dictator. He wanted to bring Greek values to the Jews. He had already accomplished this in other parts of the world. Although he did not care about the religious practices of his peoples, he did insist that they worship the Greek god, Zeus. For the Jewish people he added other demands.
After waging war and finally conquering Jerusalem, Antiochus took firm control. First he sold the position of High Priest of the Temple to the highest bidder. When riots broke out the army was brought in to kill and plunder. The King then made the temple a place no Jew would enter by making it permissable for worshipers to sacrifice swine in praise of the Greek god, Zeus. They were also forced to eat that same meat forbidden by the Jewish Torah. Finally, Jews were forbidden to practice of circumcizing male children.
When the members of the Jewish community condemned the King's action as an abomination, he OUTLAWED the practice of Judaism, a crime punishable by death.
This is what happens when a tyrant does what he or she wishes. It's gone on down through history and it's not nice. On with our story.
In a town near Jerusalem, a Syrian officer demanded that the Jews there make the mandated sacrifice to Zeus. A village priest named Mattathais refused. He killed the officer and fled to the hills. Mattathais died an outcast in the same year of 165 B.C. But his son, Judas Maccabeus, (Who was nicknamed "The Hammer") gathered a band of rebels and began what history has come to call "The Maccabean Revolt". He defeated the general appointed by Antiochus and forced a treaty of peace. Then, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (Which we know as the month of December), Judas rebuilt the altar of the Temple. He restored it with a Rededication and a Feast of Lights which we call......Hanukkah.
Ever since that time Jews the world over remember that occasion as a reminder of the privilege of being able to practice religious freedom. The Menorah (which holds the candles) is a symbol of the kindling of the light for eight days. And, as we have heard, the ninth candle commemorates the miracle that at the time that the celebration of eight days was ordered, only enough oil was on hand to burn for one night. Miraculously the oil lasted the entire eight days of commemoration, thus the eight blue and white candles.
Now here's what Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the story". The last days of the festival have special importance. In a book titled Jewish Days, Francine Klagsbrun gives us an insight that is a wonderful theme. Hanukkah came to be a festival that was of special importance to women.
Some Jews dedicate the eighth day of Hanukkah to a figure in the story named Judith. Legend has it that she had more courage than all the men in her town. An Apocryphal story apparently written during the Maccabean era - but set in a time centuries earlier - involved the Assyrians. King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general to conquer Judea.
Of course the Jews resisted. So he lays seige to the town. And just when the people are about to surrender, Judith steps forward. She goes to the enemy camp. There she beguiles the general into believing that she can pray to Yahweh and help the general and his troops to subdue Judea. She stays three days, leaving each night to pray. This makes the guards accustomed to her departures.
On the fourth day, the general invites her to a banquet. Since he plans to seduce her, he dismisses his servants. When he is finally drunk and asleep, Judith takes his sword . . . and hacks off his head. With the head in a sack she returns to her home and when the Assyrian army finds its general decapitated, it flees in confusion. Israel wins a great victory and Judith leads the people in dancing and singing praise to Yahweh for defeating the enemy "at the hands of a woman." (Judith 16:6)
The second admirable Biblical theme is about Hannah, daughter of Mattathias and sister of Maccabeus. The Syrians decreed that all Jewish brides must spend their wedding nights with local rulers who raped and shamed them. In rebellion at her wedding feast, Hannah stripped naked before all the guests. When her brother sought to kill her for her wantonness, she demanded that they take up arms against the Syrians to save the honor of all Jewish women. According to the legend, it was Hannah's action which sparked the Maccabean Revolt.
Finally, there is the story of Miriam. It is hard to believe that she is remembered because it was Miriam who encouraged her seven sons to die for their faith. Seven sons. But die they did when they refused to eat pork. Antiochus's men tortured and killed each one of them for this. It is written that when the youngest son's turn came, the King urged his mother, Miriam, to persuade the boy to save himself. Instead she pressed him to follow his brothers' example. Kissing him she whispered, "Say to Father Abraham, `Do not pride yourself on having built an altar and offered up your son Isaac. Our mother built seven altars and offered up seven sons in one day. Yours was only a test but hers was real." With her sons gone, Miriam died, as well. In the Apocryphal Book of Maccabees she is blessed as one "who deserves to be remembered with special honor."
These are only a few themes that are linked with the season of Hanukkah. We need to remember that the faith journey that brought liberal religion to the fore had its roots not only in the Protestant Christian tradition, but in the Judaic tradition, too. So when we celebrate and guard religious freedom we need to remember how Hanukkah serves to remind us of others who fought for it two thousand years before us. So, too, with our sisters and brothers of the Counter-Reformation which began in the 1500's.
So you see, it is not difficult to appreciate some of the more positive elements emerging out of the Judaic tradition. Art, music, poetry, literature, drama and sacrifice were themes lived again and again by our spiritual neighbors of the past.
Today we are free to doubt; to question; to argue; to resist. We recognize no ecclesiastical hierarchy that tells us to do or believe this or that regarding our religious faith. And if we look into Scripture we can find similar parallels written in an effort to describe and to understand the religious aspect of the human condition.
There is no doubt that the troubled times we are in give us no measure of quiet when the Middle East seethes with hatred, vengeance and retaliation. It is not unlike the time when sincere but misguided Christians went to the Holy Land during the Crusades in order to rid the world of the pestilence that threatened Christianity's authority. The politics of the day notwithstanding, I would urge you to accentuate the positive about the season of Hanukkah. Permit it to be another way of remembering how our spiritual mothers and fathers won religious freedom in New England in that time of theocratic autocracy in this free land. Let us remember. Let us remember - with gratitude.
I would close this venture with some lines of poetry written by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Anthony F. Perrino:
I am the Hanukkah-Christmas Spirit
That comes with the month of December:
A winter-solstice spell, perhaps,
When people forget to remember--
The drab realities of fact,
The cherished hurt of ancient wrongs,
The lonely comfort of being deaf
To human sighs and angels' songs.
Suddenly, they lose their minds
To heart's demands and beauty's grace;
And deeds extravagant with love
Give glory to the commonplace.