Every year as we decorate the house to celebrate the Christmas season, I always make sure to get my menorah and put it out on the mantle. I usually also tell my wife that we should put it in the window so people can see, but I haven’t been able to convince her yet. As our house gets all decked out for Christmas with our stockings, our Christmas tree, and our Advent wreath, I have this odd tradition of lighting the candles on my menorah during Hanukkah.
I’m not Jewish and my celebration of Hanukkah is likely a bit sacrilegious in the lax way that I go about celebrating this holiday. But I think there is something significant about the Jewish feasts and festivals and so I celebrate Hanukkah.
What’s Hanukkah all about?
While we all have probably heard of menorahs and playing with dreidels made out of clay, Hanukkah is a historically significant holiday in Jewish culture. Hanukkah is an eight day festival of light, which because of the Jewish calendar varies from year to year, but always falls relatively close to Christmas. Thousands of years ago, even before Christ, the Holy Land was ruled by people trying to forcefully take over the people of Israel. The temple was taken over and the worship of the Jewish people was disrupted and Judaism was outlawed.
“The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.” – Josephus
A group of faithful Jews would eventually reclaim the temple and rededicated it to God. My friend Ken describes it this way:
The eight-day holiday celebrates and commemorates the unforeseen Maccabees' victory over the Syrians in the second century B.C.E. The Maccabees were a first and second-century B.C.E. Jewish family dynasty that brought about a restoration of Jewish family, religious, and political life in the wake of centuries of imperial occupation. Hanukkah itself is a remembrance of the "eight crazy nights" when the limited oil in the temple lit a menorah for eight nights - a sign of G-d's presence and favor.
What does it have to do with Advent?
As Jews have historically lit their candles in the celebration of Hanukkah, so also Christians have historically lit their candles in the preparation of Christmas known as Advent.
As a Christian who loves Judaism, I think there is a beautiful marriage that takes place when we understand Advent and Hanukkah. Hanukkah is a festival of lights and the celebration of the miracle of light. Advent is about the celebration of light entering into the darkest places of this world. Advent is about the coming miracle that is celebrated in the incarnation of Jesus and the coming miracle that the darkness never overcomes the light.
And it’s even in the midst of a Hanukkah celebration that Jesus makes it clear who he is:
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. – John 10:22-28
Jesus shines the light onto himself in order to let them know that the messiah has arrived.
The miracle of Hanukkah is about a light. The miracle of Christmas is about the light. And in the midst of a dark world that is haunted by riots, racism, and broken homes, only the light of the world can overcome the dark.
John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Hanukkah is the celebration of the light emerging from a dark time in which God’s people weren’t allowed to worship. Christmas is the celebration of the light of the world entering into the darkness of our own sin in order to make us children of the light.