Saturday, December 05, 2015
The Feast of Dedication begins tomorrow at dark. As we count down to the darkest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere), we celebrate a violent victory with candles, games, songs, and (best of all) fried food and jelly donuts.
After their exile in Babylon, the Jews returned tot he promised land and set up a fairly peaceful, fairly prosperous society. They remembered the laws and commandments God had set forth and added structure to them to help keep them on track. They kept the first commandment, to worship only God, and the second, to not build or worship idols, despite the fact that all the cultures around the worshipped a pantheon of gods.
Enter the Greeks, stage right. This empire valued beauty, brains, and brawn. The Greeks believed in a whole family of gods with lives and stories as complicated as a soap opera. The Greeks believed in spreading their culture wherever they went. They were the cool kids of the 2nd century B.C.
In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV became king of Syria. (There's that pesky piece of real estate again!) Antiochus decided that all Jews should become Greeks. Some Jews jumped right on board, adopting the fashion and the language, and adopting Greek names. Most, though, didn't convert quickly enough for the Syrian king's taste. He sent his soldiers out to burn Jewish scrolls and kill anyone who would not worship Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods. Antiochus went so far as to build an altar to Zeus in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and have a pig sacrificed on it.
Several years into this "scrubbing" of Jewish thought and practice, Syrian soldiers tried to use an old Jewish priest named Mattathias to sway the tide of Jewish thought. If they could get this priest and his sons to bow down to Zeus, surely the rest of the nation would follow. They didn't expect resistance from this elderly priest, but then, they didn't know him. He wasn't about to bow down to any god but the one True God, and he certainly wasn't going to kill a pig to eat it (another of their bright ideas).
When one of the members of his mountain village stepped up to bow before the altar to Zeus, Mattathias flew into a rage. He killed the traitor and a soldier nearby. He tore down the altar to Zeus, then fled with his sons and anyone who would follow them into the mountains. There, this ragtag group that called themselves the Maccabees (the Hammers) staged a revolt. Armed with only sticks, rocks, and farm tools, they waged war against the Syrian army and their modern warfare supplies and tactics. In battle after battle, the Maccabeeans sacked the Syrians. The Jews had to win. They had more to lose.
They also had the Spirit of Almighty God raging inside them.
It took 2 years, but the Hammers sent the Syrians packing and won the right to worship who and where and how they wanted, which was as God commanded. Legend says that when they marched into Jerusalem as victors, though, they found themselves grieving instead of celebrating. Their beloved temple had been trashed, their books and candlesticks stolen. They needed to cleanse and rededicate the temple--and fast. And it would take eight days for them to make ritually clean, kosher olive oil for the task. "Luckily" they found a flask of oil with only enough to light the menorah for one night. They needed enough for eight nights, but this was all they had and they didn't want to wait. They lit the lights that first night, and then the second and third. Miraculously, the one drop of oil lasted the whole week.
Feast of Dedication. Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is a celebration of God's miracles. It's a chance for me to watch for miracles small and large in my own life and to remember that the God who worked miracles for his people back then is the same God I worship today.
Jesus celebrated Hanukkah in John 10. I'm going to visit that passage this week as we light the candles and celebrate miracles around our own table. For now, I plan to start jotting down the miracles I see around me on the white board above our dining table. I expect to be surprised.
This week's Torah portion:
Photo credit: nonnygoats via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND