Reflections on the Festival of Lights in Israel
There is something special in the December air of Jerusalem. The first rains have washed the skies and streets clean. Surrounding hills shimmer with a new growth of green grass. The sun sets early and, though the night seems long, there is an air of festivity. It is the season of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication.
Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a nine-stemmed candelabra for eight successive nights as we commemorate the victory of Judah the Maccabee and the Israelites over the Syrian Hellenists in 164 BC. The wicked ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes,” demanded not only to be obeyed as king, but to be worshipped as a god. His troops defiled the holy Temple, offering idolatrous sacrifices on God’s altar. Their attempt to extinguish the light of the God of Israel failed as the Lord strengthened a small band of Jewish fighters as in the days of Gideon. Against all odds, they drove out the Syrians and restored worship of the one true God.
According to Jewish tradition, God performed a miracle while the Temple was being cleansed and rededicated. Whereas there was only one day’s supply of oil, it is said to have burned for eight days while fresh oil was being sanctified for Temple use. That is why Hanukkah is also referred to as the “Festival of Lights.” Jewish people light a nine-branched candelabra (one light for each day the oil burned, plus the shammash, or “servant” light). We also eat fried foods to remember the miracle of the oil.
In Israel, shops of all types and sizes feature Hanukkah decorations and special sales. Cheerful greetings fill the air and there is a relaxed and happy atmosphere throughout Israel as people exchange gifts with one another.
Then there are the holiday jelly donuts called sofganiout— raspberry or strawberry jelly filling inside fried dough and covered with powdered sugar. Every Hanukkah I conduct my own personal survey of the best donuts in downtown Jerusalem. I have not yet found the perfect donut, but I must assume that it is out there somewhere. Meanwhile, the less than perfect ones taste pretty good!
Yet at times, even this happy season has been eclipsed by strife. Such was the case in the days that Yeshua (Jesus) walked the earth. He was often in Jerusalem for the festivities and celebrations of His people, the Jewish people. We read how He was in Jerusalem during one Hanukkah season in the narrative of John 10:22.
Less than 160 years had passed since the great battles that resulted in the Festival. The mood must have been tense as people yearned to be free from the yoke of Roman oppression. No doubt, as some remembered the small band of Jewish freedom fighters, they hoped that Yeshua would rise up like Judah the Maccabee to hammer down the armies of Caesar. Others were jealous of His power.
The religious authorities challenged His credentials openly. “If you are REALLY the Messiah then tell us now—prove it!”
Jesus did not pack up His bedroll and head back to Galilee in humiliation, nor did He back down from their challenge. He looked straight at those who confronted Him and announced Himself as the Shepherd of Israel who came to lead the flock of God. He boldly asserted that He and the Father were one (verse 30).
Yeshua’s words pierced their hearts and they reacted violently, picking up stones to put Him to death. And yet, amidst shouts, howls of derision and general confusion, Yeshua eluded their grasp. Somehow, He simply walked out of that potentially explosive situation.
Two thousand years ago, the Festival of Dedication or Lights reminded the nation of Israel that God performs miracles for those who want to worship Him in truth. In that same Temple where tradition teaches that God miraculously sustained the ceremonial light, there stood a greater light, Yeshua, the Light of the World. He offered a greater miracle—that of eternal light and life to all who would believe. Those who wanted to extinguish Yeshua’s light could not, because the light He brought was from God Himself.
Jerusalem still holds the potential for an explosive situation at any time, on any day. Even a joyous Hanukkah celebration could quickly turn to tragedy with the sudden actions of a radical few. But God is still performing miracles for those who want to worship Him in truth. He can ignite hearts with His own Spirit, which burns supernaturally even when we grow weary or discouraged.
The light of Yeshua continues to shine in many places around the world as it burns brightly in the lives of those who know Him. Please join me in praying that His light will shine brightly in Jerusalem and bring peace and joy to the lives of all who dwell here.