This year, the Jewish Feast of Hanukah (Dedication) falls on the Christian feast of Christmas - quite literally, as it starts at sundown on the 24th December, Christmas Eve! Every so many years, the two holidays overlap, but rarely do they start on the same day. Hanukah is the annual celebration of the rededication of the 2nd Jerusalem temple in 165 BC, after it was desecrated by Antiochus, and Christmas is the annual celebration of the 1st coming of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus. For Christmas you eat turkey and for Hanukah you eat doughnuts and the two Festivals have nothing to do with each other. But on closer inspection, there are some interesting similarities that may propel us to think beyond the usual traditions we hold to, and give more depth and meaning to what some would call ‘the most wonderful time of the year’!
Christmas, as we well know, has become the retail holiday of the year! Finding the right gift for someone you love or care about can be a lot of fun, but being pushed and berated into spending a lot of money to meet the expectations of our consumer society is not! Hanukah, while not so commercialised, has also developed a giving theme over the 8 day celebration, stemming from the giving of ‘gelt’ or money to teachers and students of the Holy Scriptures. The ancient Rabbi Maimonides wrote, “Hanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.” (Likutei Sichot, vol. 10, p.291) We know the greatest gift to all humanity is the gift of Jesus himself, the Way to the Father, the Truth we are all looking for, and Life eternal - now that is the kind of Christmas rush our world could do with - people running to the Saviour of the world! This year, take the opportunity to ‘channel your material wealth toward spiritual ends’ by investing your time, resources, prayers, acts of kindness into seeing God’s kingdom invade the lives of those who have not yet encountered Jesus. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you, the Messiah (Anointed One), the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
In the traditional story of Hanukah, the oil needed to light the Temple menorah (lampstand), took 8 days to prepare. There is a legend that a small bottle of already sanctified oil was found and kept the menorah alight for a miraculous 8 days, enough time to prepare a new supply of holy oil. 8 days after His birth, Jesus was consecrated (circumcised) in that very same Temple where, as a newborn, he encountered the prophet Anna and devout Simeon. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel,” Simeon declared! The greatest ‘Christmas’ miracle of all was God becoming a small baby in order to start the journey of reconciling us to Himself. Take a moment to pause and reflect on the miracle of God’s provision in so many ways, from our salvation to our ‘daily bread’, and give Him thanks and praise. “Coming up to them at that very moment, [Anna] gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all…” (Luke 2:38)
No good Jewish Feast is complete without food, and Hanukah is no exception! Over the 8 days of celebration, there is a focus on foods cooked with oil, like latkes (grated potato fritters) and doughnuts, blinis (mini pancakes) …not a good time for those on a diet! And Christmas food traditions are as vast and varied as the nations and peoples that celebrate the Christian holiday. Jesus was always more than generous with food - when He fed 4 thousand people, there were 7 baskets of food left over, and when He fed 5 thousand men, plus women and children, there were 12 baskets of food left over, both wonderful examples of our good Father’s generosity and provision. I know a pastor and his family that never have Christmas dinner at home. Instead they take a few hours from the day to serve dinner to the homeless at an inner city shelter. When we buy our special food and produce this year, perhaps we can include a few extra things to give to a local food bank in our area, or you may like to invite a few extra people along to your family’s feast that would otherwise not be so blessed. They maybe small gestures on our part, but such acts of kindness make great impact ‘toward spiritual ends’.
One of the things I best love about Christmas in the winter is how early in the evening you can turn on seasonal lights! From houses to trees, gardens to simple fireplace boughs, (and from good taste to bad!) little twinkly lights dominate the streets, malls, communities and homes around us - warm glows on dark, cold nights that help make the winter season more cheery. Lights are the key component in Hanukah celebrations also as families light candles over the 8 days of the Feast to remember the lights of the Temple menorah. Of course, Jesus left no doubt as to His relationship with light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
And let’s also not forget our role to play: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16) This year, whether your lights be many or few, make their shining a prophetic act, that our lives will shine brightly for all to see. As you string them up, pray that the light of Jesus within us will attract many into God’s Kingdom, like moths to a lamp!
Did Jesus celebrate Christmas? The Gospel of John, chapter 10 lets us know that Hanukah was a part of His Hebrew annual cycle, but whereas Jesus may have had some sort of birthday celebration, it’s not likely that Christmas made His ‘to do’ list in December! But as followers of His teachings, surely we can ‘make the most of every opportunity’ to be a light to our community, to be generous to our ‘neighbours’, to celebrate the miracles and provision of God, and above all, to give and receive the gift of love that God gave to the world? We don’t just have to wait for Christmas or Hanukah, or any other special occasion to be the hands and feet of Jesus, but it is a good place to start!