Why Chanukah Should Be a Christian Holiday
Rev. Steve Schlissel - December 8, 2018
It seems contemporary appreciation of the Festival of Chanukah is largely limited to its proximity to Christmas. Ask somebody what Chanukah is and you might hear “It’s a Jewish sort of mini-Christmas where the Jewish people put lights in their windows and exchange gifts.” It seems very few Jews, and virtually no Gentiles, can today offer a cogent recitation of the events underlying this quite important—and in many respects, unique—holiday. Significant historical figures mentioned in a full account include Alexander the Great, so it has at least one strong connection to the wider (i.e., non-Jewish) world events, although the main action plays out on the small stage of ancient Judea.
Not only is Chanukah discounted as a legitimate holiday, even the literary significance of those documents providing us its history are given short shrift by believers and unbelievers alike. This is unfortunate. Assessing Chanukah’s literary importance ought to note how skillfully 1 and 2 Maccabees employ various archetypes which later would become fixtures in innumerable chronicles, factual and fictitious, military and general.
Speaking of military chronicles, the Chanukah story may be reckoned as among the first—if not the first—generally reliable chronicling of a successful deployment of sustained guerrilla warfare. Furthermore, the full Chanukah story features many (and many moving) sub-stories, a few of which anticipate Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by better than 15 centuries.
One subplot deals with a circumstance which led to a real and significant change in Jewish Law and practice that continues to have life-or-death implications to this day. (I refer to the explicit change concerning the permissibility of military self-defense on what is otherwise an inviolable sacred day of rest. The question having been settled in Jewish law for 2100 years—credit the Chanukah events—allowed for a swift and united response by Israel when they were cruelly and unconscionably attacked in the infamous Yom Kippur War of October 6-25, 1973).
So, let us begin our case that Chanukah ought to be embraced as a Christian holiday. We’ll start by recounting the gist of it as recorded in the Apocryphal Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Understand, this is a bare-bones retelling:
• Alexander the Great’s conquered domains are divided at his death among four generals.
• The portion including Israel falls to what will be known as Seleucids. From this line comes Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Cruel and driven, he seeks to consolidate and meld the areas under his control by a program of Hellenization. All other traditions and religions are to be forsaken. Jews are forbidden to practice circumcision. Mothers who are found to have defied the new rule have their babies wrapped around their necks; both are thrown from the wall to their death. 1 and 2 Maccabees highlight his efforts to persuade notable citizens to offer public pagan sacrifice or publicly eat pork.
• A baleful complication is identified as unfaithful Jews who are anxious to compromise with the pagans. They argue that separation from Gentiles is the root of their miseries. They advocate blending (eradicating Antithesis), functionally supporting Antiochus’ program.
• On the 25th of Chislev (168 BC), the Temple is defiled by pagan sacrifice and a statue of Zeus is erected in the sacred precinct. Daily sacrifices cease, as prophesied by Daniel.
• In the town of Modein, a king’s rep tries to enlist Mattathias, a Jewish Temple priest, as a (tax-exempt) king’s friend. If he offers a public (pagan) sacrifice, he’ll be in the money and royal favor. He absolutely refuses. An opportunistic, compromising Jew tries to accept. He moves toward altar, where he is promptly slain by Mattathias, who calls all who are on the side of the Lord and His laws to follow him. He and his sons, including Judah Maccabee, flee to the mountains. From there they conduct guerrilla warfare. “The world was not worthy of them.”
• On the 25th of Chislev of 165 BC, Judah’s forces recapture and purify the Temple, restoring it to use.
• With self-conscious reference to the eight-day feast of Tabernacles, the people vote that the Jews should forever memorialize this great victory brought about by God. Separately a legend arises about oil sufficient for one day “miraculously” lasting eight (i.e., until the supply could be replenished). Though a lasting element of the continued observance, it is not mentioned in the Apocryphal historic sources.
Read the full stories in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Now we shall explain:
Why Chanukah Should Be a Christian Holiday:
1. It already is. If you read the whole of the Old and New Testaments, you will find Chanukah only in the New!
Let me explain. Chanukah tells of something which happened between the Testaments (occurring roughly around 170 B.C.). Consequently, there is no mention of Chanukah or the Chanukah story in the canonical books of Jewish Scripture, i.e., in “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings,” or “the Tanakh,” i.e., the collection of texts which are the exact equivalent of the 39 books which, in the Christian Bible, form the Old Testament. The story is found in the Apocrypha, which is a collection included by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in their Bibles as deuteron-canonical (i.e., secondarily usable, but of lesser reliability than the inspired books). But the Apocryphal (hidden) books are excluded by both Jewish and Protestants from their respective collections of recognized, God-breathed literature.
However, both the story of Chanukah and the holiday commemorating the events narrated in the story are, in fact, mentioned in the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament. See John 10:22 and Hebrews 11 (and more). Of course, it is true that the events memorialized at Christmas are also found in the New Testament, but there is nothing like an endorsement or recognition of a “Christmas” holiday, either by direct instruction or Apostolic example. Thus, if we want to limit holidays to those found designated as such in inspired Scripture, as Protestant Christians are wont to do, Chanukah enjoys a slight edge on Christmas.
It should be noted that, while there is no recognized, divinely inspired recollection of the Chanukah events in the Old Testament, there is a strikingly potent prophetic anticipation of some of the leading features of those events. These are found portrayed long before they would occur by the prophet Daniel, and they include (significantly) the mention of “the abomination of desolation (9:27; 12:11),” later cited by Jesus as a pertinent capitulation of portending events which our Lord prophesied would occur again in (what we now call) 70AD.
2. Chanukah is significant for Christians in its emphatic portrayal of God’s active support of and nearness to His people even when no contemporary inspired declarations from heaven are issued. You may know that the period of time between the Old Testament Prophet Malachi and the New Testament angelic ministry to key figures in the Christ narrative is sometimes referred to as “the 400 years of silence.” This is a reference to the absence of an authorized and inspired prophet who could deliver to Israel words of Divine origin which carried in themselves the authority of the Lord and were worthy, if reduced to writing, of being included among the canonical books of Scripture. Yet, because of the absence of such fresh revelation, the Chanukah can be of help preparing Christians for life in this age, when God’s revelation has been historically completed. See Hebrews 1:1ff. By commemorating the Chanukah happenings, Christians are reminded that God’s faithfulness is indeed the same yesterday, today and forever, and is NOT tied to any necessity of an inspired prophet being present among His people.
3. But if we may be confident of God’s faithfulness without additional revelation, then we may also be confident of His truth and faithfulness apart from any signs or wonders. Why is that the case? Because signs and wonders were only close to common or normative in three time periods: The Exodus and entry into the land; during the revival ministry of Elijah and Elisha, and from John the Baptist to the Apostles, centering in and on the works and revelation of Jesus the Messiah. In all three periods, God enabled signs and wonders as authenticators of the agents by whom fresh revelation from God was being conveyed. If God’s revelation is complete in Jesus Christ, signs and wonders would no longer serve a purpose. Even if St. Paul were here, you’d more likely hear him say, “Take some wine for your stomach,” than, “Put this prayer cloth dipped in the Jordan on your belly.” to the point, 1 Corinthians 12:12, where Paul says, in defending his apostolic ministry, “The signs of an apostle were performed among you with utmost patience (by me): signs and wonders and mighty works.” If someone comes along doing signs and wonders, he’d better have something to add to what Scripture already says. But if he DOES, what will YOU do with Hebrews 1:1-2:4 which says God has said everything He has to say??
We are here presented with a lesson many Christians obviously still need to learn, for multitudes are misled to think that without signs and wonders, Christianity lacks power and interest. But Chanukah shows plenty of power and interest—and persecution, just as the New Testament indicated it would. God doesn’t need to superfluously add to a Word already complete. Chanukah ingratiates for us the truth that God’s benign presence should in no way be limited to historical epochs or episodes which were accompanied by authoritative revelation. This is of great importance for Christians, for they recognize that in Jesus Christ and His Apostles, the last period of clustered, “normative” miracles was concluded. Interestingly, this very truth is given more weight, again, in the Book of Hebrews. In many respects, Hebrews is a close New Testament relative of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Maccabees stresses what we are to learn from circumstances, God’s word in hand. Hebrews stresses that our attention focus in that same place! 2:1-4). Thus, the historical example of God remaining very much with His people during non-revelatory periods, elevates and concretizes the Covenant as the guiding reality for the people of God. Christians must not demand miracles. Our Lord said that specifically is an expression of Unbelief. Nor may we make our faith depend a current intervention, but rather, “I rely upon your word and promise and will remain challenged to be ever faithful, ever-vigilant and always responsible to remaining faithful to all you’ve commanded.” And that is the Chanukah story in spades.
4. Chanukah stresses faithfulness as the very hallmark of Covenant and Antithesis, two of the most important teachings in the whole of Scripture. Thus, Hebrews presents a literary climax in a hymn to faith in Chapter 11 which begins with a quote from Maccabees and ends with a reference to its heroes! Turning our minds back to any and all the great deeds of God in history must now culminate in our “turning our minds upon Jesus” and what He has accomplished—Hebrews 3, and even more so, Hebrews 12:2. The Chanukah story features martyrdoms which can make the most zealous Christian ashamed of his wimpiness. “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” “Whatever you are afraid of, it’s worse to fall into the hands of the Living God—as Antiochus did.” “God is treating you as sons.” “Remember how, when your faith was new, you gladly endured deprivations. Don’t give up now! Remember your leaders! Remember Eleazer—and the mother of seven.”
5. Chanukah boldly reinforces Jesus’ method of Church Growth—warning people of the costs of following Him, not enticing them with false notions of ease or heaven before its time. Soon enough we will inherit ALL that has been promised. But now is not the time of that inheritance. It remains by faith until the Consummation. That doesn’t make it more obscure. It is nearer now than when we first believed.
6. For the Chanukah story at its very beginning powerfully illustrates how, of all the enemies the Covenant people will face, the enemies within are the most vicious, callous, and destructive. Acts 20:28-32
7. Lastly, by embracing Chanukah, Christians will be exposed to one of the most extraordinary passages in religious literature. 2 Maccabees 6:12-17. It is when the narrator, to prepare the reader for the horrors about to be related, pauses and awkwardly forces himself to issue an exhortation which contextualizes the horror, placing even the miserable sufferings we will be reading of, in a context of covenant grace and mercy, so well suited to have us place ourselves in the line of covenant, and to make sure our ears are open to stories which, more than any other, might truly be thought of as the 1 Corinthians 15 of the earlier Testamental times.
8. And lastly, eight days, eight arguments that Chanukah be recognized as a Christian Festival. Listen to the way the victory of Judah Maccabee and his forces is described:
“Maccabeus and his companions, under the Lord’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners in the marketplace as well as the shrines. They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then…they offered the first sacrifice for two years. They pleaded with the Lord for mercy and steeled themselves to be chastened by Him unto edification for their sins. The purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoicing, in the manner of Tabernacles, not long before they had spent the feast of Booths wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. They offered hymns to Him who had brought the cleansing of His own holy place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate those same days every year.”
Now read John 10:22. And now recognize that Jesus our Messiah is the Greater Judah Maccabee, the warrior, kinsman-redeemer who came to reclaim and purify us, the GREATER Temple which had been defiled, horribly defiled. Jesus came to purify US! 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.