Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Holiness of Hanukkah

I have an odd sort of confession to make. I enjoyed Hanukkah this year much more than I did Christmas.

My family and I started celebrating Hanukkah in 2004, the same year we started sprucing up our Easter meal to include some of the rich symbolism found in the Passover seder. Both decisions are rooted in the same thinking. Family celebrations of the Christian holy days as we've inherited them lack any real religious significance, and while religious observances at church are nice, our children are more likely to adopt our religious beliefs if we teach them at home.

It's not that Christmas isn't a holy day in our tradition. It is, but it's a loud kind of holy day. The chief sacrament we observe seems to be enjoying time spent with family and sometimes with friends, but even that's kind of hard to do, with all the extra fun stuff that's been added to the day, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and loads and loads of presents.

With everything else going on that day, the birth of Christ seems virtually impossible to focus on. That remains true even when you keep Santa out of your celebration and sing a few hymns or play Christmas carols on the stereo. The day is just too focused on the gifts under the tree and the big meal.

Maybe because it's a holiday we've added to our religious tradition, Hanukkah this year had a quieter, deeper sort of holiness than our Christmas celebration did. For their part, the girls loved Hanukkah, and needed few reminders what the holiday was about. They loved eating dinner by the light of the menorah, watching as the candles slowly burned away to nothing. They didn't go much for the traditional latkes and doughnuts, but they loved the chocolate coins and they argued each night over who would get to hold the shamash and light the other candles.

The candles typically lasted more than an hour. Long after we had finished eating, we lingered at the table while the candles glowed and found it was time easily passed together. We sang songs together, told the story of Judah the Maccabee, prayed for peace, and spent time together as a family, in worship and quiet contemplation of God's faithfulness to his people.

Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication, has its origins in the middle of the second century B.C. At the time, Judea was under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Syrian Greek who was determined to thoroughly Hellenize the Jews and eradicate their culture. In 167 B.C., Antiochus banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple by running a herd of swine through the Holy of Holies.

While rabbis kept the religion alive through Torah lessons disguised as dreidel games, Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against Antiochus. At the end of a three-year war, in 164 B.C., the Maccabees succeeded at driving the Syrian Greeks away and established Judea's independence. A portion of the Babylonian Talmud, recorded some six hundred years later, relates the familiar story about the jar of oil that miraculously lasted eight days and allowed the Temple to be rededicated.

Although neither the Jewish nor Christian Scriptures say how to keep the holiday, the New Testament mentions that Jesus himself celebrated Hanukkah, in John 10:22.

The themes of Hanukkah -- such as religious freedom and expression, maintaining our spiritual identity, and the need to preserve these things in a world that often shares neither our values nor our beliefs -- are themes that resonate deeply within the gospel.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, but even we are ever mindful that our sin has polluted that temple. The Feast of Dedication is a good time to recommit ourselves and ask God to miraculously make us clean once more.

I haven't given up hope yet on honoring the deeper meanings of Christmas in our family observances, but Hanukkah is going to remain a tradition in our family. It's too special and too holy a season to neglect.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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