I recently purchased a menorah to display in my home. Hanukkah just ended last week, so my purchase was a little late (but it was on clearance!). The story surrounding the Jewish Festival of Lights fascinates me. It has recently caused me to think of Christmas in a very different way.
During Christmas we usually focus on Jesus’ birth, but I want you to imagine back with me to 165 years before Christ was even born. If you were a Jew during this time, you would have been living in Palestine under the rule of the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. Now Antiochus hated the Jewish people from the very beginning of his reign. He issued orders forbidding the observance of Jewish ritual laws. Not only did he construct statues of Greek gods all over Jerusalem, Antiochus even convinced the High Priest to participate with him in the sacrifices to these idols. Although all of these actions were horrifying to the Jewish people, the vilest thing Antiochus did was when he laid siege to the holy Temple in Jerusalem. After dedicating it to the Greek god Zeus, Antiochus sacrificed a pig, an unclean animal, on the Temple altar. He drained its blood and smeared it all over the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple. As if this was not horrifying enough, the Greek army confiscated the sacred Temple menorah.
Once the menorah was taken, the Jews were thrown into complete hopelessness. The confiscation of such a holy instrument was a direct insult to the Jewish people. Before, the Hebrews had remained steadfast in their faith without confrontation. Now that the menorah had been taken, they could no longer tolerate anymore of this torment. A Jew named Matthias Maccabbee finally stepped up and retaliated against the Greek’s oppressive rule. Matthias was definitely a zealot. He slit a couple of Greek officer’s throats, declaring that the Jews had been standing by for far too long. “If we would just take action and fight back,” he said, “if we had the courage to start a revolt, God would give us the power to do it. Think of all of our ancestors—David, Moses, Joshua, Gideon. Whenever Israel was threatened, they resisted and won. If we attack and stand our ground, God will have mercy on us and deliver us.”
The Jewish people were immediately filled with fervor. Taking up their arms, they joined Matthias and raged war against Antiochus and his Greek army. They were determined to defeat the invaders and win back the sacred menorah.
After winning back the menorah, victory seemed sure. The Israelites returned to the Temple to clean up the mess that the enemy had wrecked on it. Altars were overturned an smashed in two, blood was smeared over the walls, scrolls were torns and lying among the dust. But before anyone begins purifying the Temple, before anyone starts cleaning up the mess, everyone searches the Temple for oil to light the menorah. This is the first thing that needs to be done, before anything else. All the priests sift around through the rubble until a small flask of oil is found. It doesn’t contain much, but at this point it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the menorah must be lit. Now. Eagerly, the High Priest sets flame to the candles, and a warm glow settles over the Temple, casting shadows on the walls. With the lit menorah back in the Temple, the Jews were filled with a sense of peace and confidence. Now that the menorah was lit, there was hope. The Jewish people knew that they were finally safe.
When I first heard this story of the history behind the Jewish festival Hanukkah, I wondered what was up with the menorah. The only places where a menorah, or a lampstand, is mentioned in the Bible are in Exodus and Leviticus. God issued specific descriptions to His people about how the tabernacle was to be constructed, and among these descriptions were instructions about the menorah. The High Priest ritually attended the lampstand, making sure that none of the candles had been extinguished. God commanded that the menorah be lit all day and all night. It was to never go out.
To the Jewish people, this menorah was a symbol of God’s presence among them. As long as the candles were lit, God was taking care of them and dwelling among them. If the flames were blown out, the Jews believed that their God was no longer with them.
Now can you understand the devastation the Jews felt when the menorah was taken from them? Their enemies had extinguished the candles and removed it from God’s Temple. The symbol of God’s presence was absent, and because of this, it seemed to the Jews that He was no longer with them.
The desire to experience and connect with God is one of the deepest longings in the soul. We all have menorahs, symbols, with which we measure our favor with God. Many times its our wealth and financial security. Other times its our emotions, our "spiritual progress," our sense of worth. When we put stock in these symbols, we are as C.S. Lewis terms it saying “encore” by demanding that God reproduce an experience or an emotion.
That menorah was supposed to be a symbol of God's presence, not a gauge of God's presence. A symbol’s value lies only in its ability to lead to the spiritual. The menorah and the temple became worthless when the people were content with the symbolic representation of Yahweh instead of Yahweh Himself.
We are content with our wealth as an indicator of God's presence. We are content with our emotional well being and happiness. We are content with all our comforts and securities. We have made all of these elements symbols, and instead of directing us to God, they replace Him.
In Isaiah 9:2 the prophet promises that one day God would send a permanent Light. This Light would outshine the light from the menorah. Whereas the menorah’s light was transient and unreliable, this Light would be permanent and dependable.
Symbols will let you down. They will fail you. If you have not already experienced it, your menorah will be taken away from you someday.
But there is good news. God promises over and over again all throughout Scripture that He will never leave you. Regardless of whether you are aware of it, God’s presence is always with you. This is the reason why God sent the Light, because He wants to be with you.
The birth of Jesus marks the permanence of God’s presence among His people. The light that the Jewish people had longed and desired for was now attainable. And unlike the light produced from the menorah, this Light, God’s presence, could not be blown out.
The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.
He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness can never extinguish it (John 1:5).
May comfort, peace, and joy direct you to God's Gift of Light this Christmas season.