December’s landscape is dominated by the artistry of light. In cities and suburbs, from store windows to neighborhoods strung with holiday decor, the beauty and attraction of light is wonderfully inescapable, inviting all to embrace the festive mood. Would that those lights might point beyond their own beauty to the deeper significance found in God, who alone is Light.
Why do we find these festival lights so attractive? Scientists have tried to explain the complex phenomenon of light through the language of physics, relying on quantum theory, wave theory, etc. Fortunately, we don’t need to comprehend all the properties of light in order to receive the benefit of its beauty. So it is with God.
I grew up in Boston where our family made annual pilgrimages to view the December lights on display in the windows of Filene’s basement. I also remember staring in wonder at the flickering candlelights of the Hanukkah menorah. I didn’t need to understand the physics of light to enjoy their beauty.
We can enjoy holiday lights for their simple beauty but we can also allow them to point us to a deeper meaning and a far deeper beauty.
“Hanukkah” actually means dedication. It is more commonly known as the Festival of Lights because of the well-known tradition of lighting the nine-branch candelabra—called a menorah or Hanukkiah—every night of the eight-day festival. According to tradition, the lights of the menorah are to remind us of a miracle that occurred during the second century B.C.
The Syrian ruler, Antiochus had captured Jerusalem and defiled the Temple. Though vastly outnumbered, Jewish warriors known as Maccabees recaptured the city and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, hence the name Hanukkah. According to legend, when they went to rededicate the Temple they only had enough sanctified oil to light the seven-branch menorah in that Temple for one day. They would need more time to make and sanctify enough oil to keep the menorah lit, but they were zealous to dedicate the Temple and did not want to wait. And so, according to legend, one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for more oil to be made and sanctified for use in the Temple. That is why, according to tradition, the festival lasts for eight days.
Notice that I referred to this traditional story as a legend as opposed to a historical event that can be verified. What we do know is that when the Jewish people recaptured the Temple, the most recent Jewish holiday to have passed was the Festival of Tabernacles. That great festival was detailed in the Law of Moses. It was to be celebrated for eight days with many sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Syrians had made it impossible to observe that holiday in its proper time. So it seems that Jewish leaders called for a Tabernacles celebration—albeit a bit late—to celebrate the great victory over the foreign oppressors. Over the years, that victory celebration became a festival in its own right, and retained certain characteristics from the celebration of Tabernacles.
During the times of the second Temple, the Festival of Tabernacles was especially known for its marvelous illumination ceremony. Beginning on the second night of the festival and continuing for each subsequent evening, the court of the women in the Temple was set aglow by four giant candelabras, each one some 73 feet tall.
The rabbinic commentary called the Mishna tells us “there was no courtyard in Jerusalem not illuminated by the light…” and “he who has not beheld this celebration has never seen joy…” (Sukkah 5.1)
Within the context of this very celebration, Yeshua (Jesus) declared, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). Weeks later, He was in the Temple once more. It was Hanukkah (John 10:22) when Jesus announced, “I and my Father are one” (verse 30).
I find it amazing that Jesus chose these two festivals to make such bold Messianic claims. He certainly did not “hide His light under a bushel.” After all, according to the prophet Isaiah, light was to be one of the dominant characteristics of the ministry of Messiah who was to come (Isaiah 49:6), just as Simeon recognized when he held the baby in his arms, calling Jesus “A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
The celebrations of Hanukkah and Messiah’s birth are both Festivals of Light pointing to the Light of the World, Jesus. Surely, he who has not beheld that light has never seen true joy. And therein lies the challenge for us today. It is our privilege and responsibility to shine His light at all times, especially in this festive season. I find it compelling that the apostle Paul, when he gave story before King Agrippa, actually understood his own calling to proclaim the gospel as part of the fulfillment of the Messianic hope to bring light to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:16-18)
Likewise, the One who declared, “I am the Light of the world,” also told us, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 [emphasis ours]). Even though we are not the light in the same way Jesus is the light, every time we make Him known we share that function with Him, spreading His joy.
This month as we admire the lights on display, we can remark to any who will listen how the beauty of those lights reminds us of the One who truly is the Light of the world.
When Jewish people light the menorah for Hanukkah, each night we use the ninth candle, called the Shamash or servant candle, to light the others. We are told to place our menorah in a window so that all might see our faith and hope at this Festival of Lights. What a beautiful picture that paints of God’s Shamash, our servant Messiah, Yeshua, who has provided the light we share with others. In this festival season let us also remember to place Him prominently in the window of our lives so that all may see our faith and hope as well. “In Him was life and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).