Hanukkah and the Eternal Light of God
Jesus was formed by the feasts of old. A devout Jew, he was raised by parents who dutifully observed the Jewish calendar, and in his ministry he observed the holy days with his disciples. However, more than simply celebrating these days which remember the marvels God has done, Christ embodied them.
Since the Apostolic Age, the Church has seen that what is foreshadowed in Israel comes suddenly into the light with Jesus. The Catechism teaches, “The economy of the Old Testament was deliberately oriented so that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ, redeemer of all men” (CCC 122, quoting Dei Verbum 15).
From a Christian perspective, then, the feasts of ancient Israel have found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This includes Hanukkah, which Jesus observed and which began this year at sunset on Tuesday, December 16, and culminates on December 24, Christmas Eve.
The festival of Hanukkah, which is Hebrew for “dedication,” celebrates the second-century B.C. defeat of Assyrian Greeks who had captured Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple, and the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary (1 Maccabees 4:36-59, 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). Today, however, this holiday is perhaps better known as the Festival of Lights.
Light and flame have always served as signs of God’s presence. When Moses first experienced the nearness of the Lord, it was at the burning bush. When Moses received instructions for the decoration of Israel’s sanctuary, he was told to make the Menorah, a bush-like seven-branched lampstand, which would light up the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (Exodus 25:31-40). Solomon also set up ten golden lampstands in the Temple (2 Chronicles 4:7). The light in the Temple sanctuary was likewise a sign of God’s presence.
After the Temple was retaken, according to Jewish tradition as recounted in the Talmud, only one vial of consecrated oil for the sanctuary lamp was found, sufficient for one day only. However, the light miraculously burned for the eight days it took to make more oil (Shabbat 2).
As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, this time can be an occasion for Jews and Christians together to remember that it is God himself who is Light that is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, God is the Eternal Light which cannot be extinguished. The rededication of the Temple that we read about in Maccabees reminds us that even if evil has defiled the good, evil will be defeated. This is a time of hope.
As Christians, however, we can see something more. In the divine mystery of God, we recognize that Jesus himself is the Light. Saint John attests in his Gospel, “through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Jesus confirms this testimony, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
During this season of Advent, we decorate our homes, Christmas trees and streets with lights, joyfully awaiting the coming of our Savior. At Christmas, we profess that God “made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light” (Collect for Midnight Mass). Likewise, the Easter Vigil will begin with light, with the paschal candle being lit from a new fire as the priest prays, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” Meanwhile, candles adorn the altar in our churches and a sanctuary lamp burns perpetually near the tabernacle when the Blessed Sacrament is in reservation, to indicate the presence of the Lord.
When we know Jesus Christ is the Eternal Light, that he is “God from God, Light from Light,” we will see all things in his light. Joyfully then we sing in the Alleluia refrain on Christmas Eve, which is the culmination of Hanukkah this year, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.”