My son has a tiny rescue dog named Zeus. Whenever there is a lightning storm, Zeus races through the house barking to keep us safe. It’s both funny and fitting. Zeus, after all, is the Greek god of lightning.
Because we celebrate Hanukkah at our house, we know something else about Zeus. We know that when Syrian-Greek soldiers seized the holy temple in Jerusalem, they dedicated the sacred edifice to the worship of Zeus. If that wasn’t enough, emperor Antiochus made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death. He also ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.
Many of them wanted to fight back, but they were too afraid.
Except for a High Priest named Mattathias. He refused to bow before an idol. He refused to eat the flesh of a pig, something his faith forbade him to do. In short, he resorted to the sword to defend his beliefs, and he began a rebellion by followers known as the Macabees. Eventually, they were able to retake their land and reclaim their holy temple.
But it had been desecrated, used to the worship of Zeus and other idols, and it had been turned into a slaughterhouse for swine.
Jews were determined to purify their temple by burning ritual oil in the menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple. In faith, they lit the menorah anyway.
The miracle of Hanukkah is that the flame continued to burn because that small amount of oil lasted the full eight days.
To my Jewish friends, I hope the story is accurate.
We tell it every year, as family and friends gather to help me celebrate a holiday that does not belong to me. I am Christian, but I celebrate the faith and traditions of other religions, especially those beloved traditions and holy days of Judaism.
Not long ago when I was in Miami I sought out a rabbi and asked him if it was okay to do what I’d been doing for so many years. “Not only is it okay, but it is delightful and wise of you,” the rabbi said. “After all, your Jesus celebrated Hanukah. In fact, if it were not for Hanukah, there may not have been a Christmas.”
I thought about that. Antiochus was obsessed with the demise of Jewish faith and its people. He halted the services, the sacrifices, the Sabbath observances, and the teachings that were part of Jewish temple worship. He murdered the High Priest Onias III and slaughtered 40,000 Jews.
If it hadn’t been for Mattathias and his family and followers…how would history be changed? The Maccabean revolt was a turning point that saved the Jewish people and their religion from the very threat of extinction. If not, would there have been a Jewish woman named Mary? A temple setting where Luke begins the nativity with an angel announcing to a priest named Zechariah, that he will soon be the father of a son named John?
I whole-heartedly believe that God is in charge and will always find a way. But I also believe that our actions make a difference. My simple little act has been to prepare a traditional Jewish feast and to celebrate the story of Hanukah with friends and family. Many of you reading this have probably lit a candle on our menorah. If not, you’re welcome to join us.
Last year, in a strange mix of faiths, Santa made a Hanukah appearance that surprised even me. This year the eight days of light begin on Christmas Eve and end on January 1st. So there’s time to make room for a truly meaningful tradition if you choose.
2016 has seen a lot of darkness and divisiveness in the world. There’s too much fear and anger in the air. To counter that, I’m going to gather my loved ones from all walks of life, to unify our spirits and figure out what we have in common, to remind us that we’re all children of God, and to light a candle in honor of His miracles in our lives.