When I first started teaching school, I was the only music teacher for four different elementary schools in Dublin, GA. I absolutely loved my job even though it was crazy traveling from school to school to teach.
Teaching elementary music is a lot like playing all day. Mind you, it was playing with purpose. And ever the historian, I loved to teach my students a little history along the way. One December we were getting ready for the Holiday season. I not only taught the children Christmas songs (yes, believe it or not I was allowed to sing songs about Jesus) but we also learned Hanukkah songs. We played games with dreidels and I told the children the history of Hanukkah. I had no idea that one of the little girls in one class was from a Jewish family who had recently moved to Dublin from Philadelphia. A few days later her teacher asked me – “Mr. Peters, you aren’t Jewish are you?” I laughed and told her, “No, I’m Baptist.” She replied, “I thought so, but Melanie is convinced you are Jewish since you knew all about Hanukkah.” Fortunately I was able to meet Melanie’s parents at our Holiday concert (at which we sang songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, Los Posadas & Kwanzaa). They were very grateful that I had incorporated Hanukkah songs & that I taught the children about the Festival of Lights. But they were surprised that I was not Jewish. It gave me the opportunity to explain to them that as a Christian I share a common spiritual heritage with them. And that heritage includes the fact that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. I was able to make a connection to them that no one else had. They had not made many friends in town since moving there from Philadelphia, and no one had really acknowledged their faith in a positive way before I came along.
When it came time for us to leave for the Winter break, Melanie had a present for me. It was a dreidel. It is one of my most treasured gifts from the years that I taught elementary school.
A few years ago, Misty and I met a wonderful Jewish couple and had the opportunity to celebrate the first several nights of Hanukkah with them. We came away with a greater appreciation for the holiday – a celebration that many of you might be surprised to find out (as I’ve already mentioned), that Jesus himself observed.
In John 10:22-23, we find Jesus in the temple observing the “Festival of Dedication.” This is another name for Hanukkah. So, what is it all about, you ask? Well, I’m going to tell you.
In 169 BC, the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes came into Jerusalem and routed the temple. He killed men, women, and children and carried away the golden altar and other sacred treasures. He sacrificed a pig to the Greek god Jupiter on the altar of the Temple, pouring the blood from it on the scrolls of the Torah and the altar. For four years he terrorized the Jewish people. Many fled the city and hid in caves. A family of devout Jews fought back. The father, Matthias was killed but his son, Judah (known as “the Hammer” or “Maccabeus” in Hebrew) continued to fight. Eventually Judah Maccabeus was successful in defeating the Syrian army and driving the invaders out of the country. The year was 165 BC.
Rejoicing, the Jews went to the Temple to restore it. They rebuilt the altar and made new holy vessels. Judah Maccabee proclaimed an eight day holiday for the “Dedication” of a purified Temple. But why the eight day holiday? The Menorah (the seven branched candlestick) in the Temple had to be re-lit. The people searched the Temple, but could find only one flask of oil for the lighting of the Menorah that had not contaminated by the Syrians. This flask of oil was only enough for one day and the preparation of fresh oil required a week’s time. The Menorah had to be lit, so they used the one flask of oil. And a miracle happened. Instead of the oil lasting for only one day, it for eight days – long enough for the priests to prepare and consecrate more oil.
The Festival of Dedication (or Festival of the Lights) became an annual celebration of the restoration of the Temple and the miracle of the oil. Jewish families have celebrated it for centuries, lighting 8-branched candlesticks – one candle each night for eight nights, to commemorate God giving them victory over the Syrians and allowing them to once again worship Him in the Temple. And this is the very same celebration we find Jesus celebrating in John 10.
So, what does this mean for us? That is for you to decide. Should we observe Hanukkah? Not necessarily, but I do know Christian families who do. But I do think that we should realize that we have a connection with Jewish people who do. We can use this connection as a way to build relationships with them – relationships that might give us the opportunity to tell them about the Light that we celebrate in December – the light of Jesus, the Messiah. Hanukkah this year starts on Dec. 16th. May you rejoice in the miracle of light that came both in the Temple and in the manger!