Saturday, December 4, 2010

You Light Up My Life

(Hanukkah, not the Debby Boone song)

I've had quite the busy work week, so this post is a tad late. However, the Jewish Festival of Lights is eight days long, so...

To set the record straight, there is a biblical reference to this major event in my Season of Light. The two Books of Maccabees (apocryphal) introduce this festival, first observed "on the 25th day of the ninth month; that is, the month of Chislev, in the year 148" (1 Macc 4:52, which recalculates in our present calendar system to 165 BCE).

The original festival was to rededicate the (Second) Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

Perhaps the most central figure in the Books of Maccabees is Judas Maccabeus, who is neither king nor priest (he is the son of the high priest Mattathias), but a military leader, and likely the last heroic figure of the Old Testament. Indeed, this is the last historical event we can place with any accuracy before the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus.

The observance of this festival, however, is not the only thing by which Judas Maccabeus should be remembered. As the son of a high priest, he was gifted with a keen sense of knowing how to fight for a righteous cause, and for remembering the fallen in the aftermath of war (2 Macc 12:39-46). Specifically:

Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (2 Maccabees 12:42-46, New American Bible)

This is significant because it represents a paradigm shift in theology. The resurrection of the dead had not been mentioned so directly before now. It was hinted at in the writings of the prophets, but this indicates that those writings had gained acceptance. This has in turn been handed down to posterity, with the hope that goes with it.

The candles of the Hanukkah menorah represent those eight days when the light of the Temple sanctuary was in peril of being extinguished, and the miracle that it didn't. It also prefigures the light of Christ, the Morning Star which will never set. And they are also lights of hope; hope for a deeper sense of compassion, joy, and peace. May this light be aflame in our hearts and never be extinguished.

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