Last year was the first time I celebrated Hanukkah, and last Tuesday night we lit the menorah and ate latke potato pancakes to kick off the first evening of this eight-day festival (Dec. 16-23, 2014).
Why would a Christian girl observe a Jewish holiday? Good question! I really had no idea what Hanukkah was about except that during this time of year I knew that Christians celebrate Christmas, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, some African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, and George Costanza’s family celebrates Festivus. Whatever–Happy Christmakwanzika!
Some unexpected bread crumbs fell in front of me last year in November that caused me to search for truth. Most people know that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25, and I was totally content with realizing that He was probably born at some other random date. But, something profound started happening in me when it became very obvious that God is not random. I started reading the Bible differently when I digested that His first language is Hebrew–which has a divine alphabet that is full of symbolism and rich correlations–and that He goes by His Hebrew calendar and not by our Gregorian calendar.
Very quickly, the Bible, ripe with references to God’s appointed feasts and customs, started making a lot more sense. The Old Testament is just the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is Old Testament revealed. Through it all is Jesus Messiah–the Jew–referred to, nodded at, prophesied about. Then, He comes to earth and steps in to the meaning behind the feasts and customs and says, “That’s Me!” From beginning to end, it’s all about God’s plan to save and deliver all of mankind.
Unfortunately, Christians have largely lost the understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish people as a whole don’t see Jesus as the Messiah at all, therefore rejecting the New Testament writings that Christianity was founded on. You see the conundrum. Many clues go missing and dots unconnected because many Christians don’t know the roots of our faith.
Back to Hanukkah. Here are 5 reasons why I’ve added Hanukkah to my celebration calendar:
1. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. Rabbi Jesus has been dropping clues as to who He is. He has just made reference to a prophecy in Ezekiel 34. In John 10:22-24, it says, “Then came the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah) 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.'” He went all in during Hanukkah.
2. Jesus was likely conceived during Hanukkah. The actual date of Jesus’ birth has a lot of varying speculation. But, there are convincing signals as to when it was. With Zechariah, Mary’s uncle, serving in the temple as a priest during the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5), which was at a certain known time, it indicates when John the Baptist was conceived. John was born six months earlier than Jesus was. If the number crunching is accurate, you have important births coinciding with God’s feasts: Jesus is conceived during Hanukkah, John is born during Passover, Jesus is born during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). (Incidentally, Jesus dies during Passover, and the Church is born during Pentecost!)
If indeed the Light of World was sent to us on Hanukkah, and hidden in a humble virgin’s womb at the darkest season of the year, perhaps we can know He has a divine agenda and it most certainly includes using people who are willing to dedicate themselves to Him. This would have been the backdrop against which Mary would have had an angelic visitor on a night of celebration.
3. Light references have new clarity. Hanukkah, also known as “Feast of Dedication” and “Festival of Lights” was an extra-biblical Jewish celebration that commemorated the rededication of the the temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. after it had been desecrated by Greek-Syrian oppressors who put an idol to Zeus on the altar and sacrificed a pig on it. The Jews were threatened to blaspheme against their God or die, and a group of farmers and priests named Maccabees miraculously won the battle against soldiers to reclaim and sanctify their temple. They hadn’t been able to commemorate the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles, so Hanukkah basically made up for the postponed feast. This story can be found in the Apocryphal writings of 1 & 2 Maccabees, which Jesus and his followers would have been familiar with. Tradition says one-day oil supply miraculously burned for eight nights until a new supply could be made.
The lampstand (menorah) is what lights up the temple. In the middle of the lamp is a candle that sets higher, and is lit first to kindle the other candles. The Hebrew word for it is “shemash,” which means “servant.” Do these scriptures ring a bell?:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ John 8:12
“Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.” John 12:36
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple?…” 1 Cor. 3:16
Jesus was always stepping into the types and shadows of feasts and customs to say, “…And that is Me. I am what that’s about.” For those who would believe in Him, the altar is a symbol of the heart burning with passion and purity for God. Ever heard of “dedicating” or “rededicating” your life to the Lord?
4. Picturing Jesus’ birth makes more sense now. If Jesus was conceived during Hanukkah, he arrived during the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot–observed in the fall. The revelations start firing like popcorn once you know what Sukkot is. It’s one of three feasts during the year that observant Jews would travel to Jerusalem for. Also known as “The Festival of Our Joy” (*wink–cue angel: “I bring you good tidings of great joy…”), Sukkot is a seven-day feast where people make temporary booths, or shelters to stay in to remind them of what the Israelites stayed in as God provided for them in the wilderness. It’s kind of a big camping party. The men were required to stay in these shelters, while the women could stay in inns to sleep.
With the backdrop of Moses as deliverer, and Jesus coming as a deliverer–and their lives having dozens of similarities–Jesus being born in a “manger” holds more symbolism than just humble beginnings. The word “manger” or “stable” is actually “sukkah” (plural is sukkot) in Hebrew. “Sukkah” is a singular three-sided temporary dwelling place with plants and leaves woven together for the roof. Now, it doesn’t say in the Bible that there were animals there–that’s a more modern notion. Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, so the camping would have easily spread into the next town during Sukkot. The towns would have been booked. Oftentimes, the Roman government would conduct official tax and counting business around feast days because they knew Jews would be traveling to one spot, so the census could have been happening in that season as well.
Sukkot is a Jewish festival that is also a celebration for all nations! Interestingly, the angel announces to the shepherds “good tidings of great joy for ALL people.” How beautiful to picture that during this Feast of Tabernacles “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). Our bodies, and His, are temporary, transient temples to host the presence of God on this earth. That’s Good News!
5. Hanukkah is a beautiful and meaningful family celebration. I’m not well versed in how to do Hanukkah to the letter, but I kind of pasted together a “Hanukkah for Gentile Dummies” plan to observe Hanukkah these last two seasons. The gifts are small and simple, and we give each other one per night. The lights are lit each evening before eating to a lovely blessing said to God. There are Bible readings, and we connect Jesus as being the Light of the World. We eat latkes and donuts–it’s all about the oil, y’all! We play a dreidel game. We might even dance and wave our hands in the air like we just don’t care to the tune of a little Matisyahu (my son’s favorite). It’s a rich time to understand things more deeply and savor the time with God and each other. It’s an extra layer of thankfulness that Jesus came–God with us, a breathtaking plan of salvation.
So, it might seem a little crazy for a Christian girl to light up the menorah, but if Adam Sandler will make room for me during these 8 crazy nights, I’m game. It’s kind of like discovering family roots you didn’t know you had. Happy Christmakwanzika, everyone! Shine on!