Last night at Sundown the Feast of Dedication began, what we call Chanukah [the first letters are pronounced like the ch in Bach]. They are the Jewish holydays which celebrate the reconsecration of the Temple altar to the faithful service of the Lord in 165 bc. Even though it describes an event outside the Hebrew canon, Chanukah remembers and celebrates a significant historical event.
In the 4th C. bc, Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the Near East, including Israel. After his death, his empire split apart. The land of Israel, after a period of struggle, came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled the region of Syria. In the year 167 bc, the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, decided to force all the peoples under his rule to become Greek. The practice of Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision was outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the Temple. Some Jews, desiring to be modern and “with it” eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, and went so far as having the marks of circumcision surgically removed. The faithful resisted the pagan Hellenism and died as martyrs. One of the martyred heroes was a man named Eleazar. The Book of Maccábees says:
Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man… advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat [pork]. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with defilement, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the [meat], as all ought… who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took [him] aside because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and to pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal that had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the gray hairs that he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly… “Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. Even if for the present I would avoid the punishment of mortals, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” When he had said this, he went at once to the rack. Those who a little before had acted toward him with goodwill now changed to ill will, because the words he had uttered were in their opinion sheer madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.” So in this way he died, leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.
One day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar. They commanded the Jews to bring a pig as a sacrifice to show obedience to Antiochus’s decree. Mattathias was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to comply that he killed him. He and his five sons then fought the Greek detachment, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerilla war against the Greeks and their allies. Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who was called “the Maccábee.” These were the times of the Maccábean Revolt. With some popular support, extreme devotion to the Lord, and the example of certain saints like Eleazar, they were able after a short while to gain possession of Jerusalem and the Temple. There they cleaned and repaired the Temple and built a new, undefiled altar. But they could only find one small cruse of oil, enough to last one day, but when they lit the temple menorah with it, a miracle occurred and the menorah burned for eight days.
And so the Jews celebrate the Feast of Light and Dedication every Chanukah. In our own way we have the opportunity to celebrate a similar Feast of Dedication every year about this time. The birth of the Light of the World happened over 2000 years ago now. The celebration that we hold dear is hopefully more than a commemoration of His birthday; hopefully it’s more than a season when we feel more disposed to give gifts and boost the economy with our lavishness. We have the yearly celebration of Jesus’ birth to remind us—the faithful—of His light which must shine through our lives. This year, remember the zealous dedication of the Temple by the Maccábees, remember the miracle of the light that refused to go out, and let’s see how we might rededicate ourselves to God’s worship, finally to walk in the light which the Lord has given us!