Happy holidays everyone. I just love this time of the year, don’t you? I love the lights, the fellowship and family, and displays of generosity…..the cool crisp air…… and good will among men and a genuine hope for peace on earth. I love remembering the birth of God’s son, Jesus Christ, and the humility with which our Savior entered this world.
Yet, due to the late time we are in Salvation history….a time in which human history as we know it is coming to a close…….so much seems to be changing. We live in a world of ironies and uncomfortable transition, pulled in so many directions at the same time. This is truly a pivotal moment in history; I dare say that the last time mankind was in this state of both apprehension and hopeful expectation was the last few years prior to the birth of the Messiah. Many of us in the Body of Christ are discovering the Hebrew Roots of our faith, being introduced to God-ordained festivals and appointed times, and in the process we are forced into re-thinking some of our long held traditions in the light of God’s progressive revelations.
It might surprise you to know that those of us who have decided to re-open the Torah and the entire Bible and actually read it and study it and take it for what it actually says, are finding ourselves in unfamiliar territory because we at times wonder whether or not we might be defending things that perhaps we should not. Many churches around our wonderful country have begun to rethink our dedication to doctrines and traditions that have but the scantest of connection to Holy Scripture, all the while we dismiss those celebrations that our Lord both ordained and personally participated in.
I want all of you to know that I’m certainly not here to condemn long-standing family traditions, nor do I even pretend to have all the answers. I am struggling with this right along with most of you. But, perhaps, that we are struggling at all is the greatest single sign that we cannot continue business as usual. When the God of all Creation opens our eyes and hearts we cannot simply ignore it. Therefore the issue for us in our time is not whether we should cease to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but rather when and how.
While it may seem so, this uncomfortable struggle over Christian holiday traditions is in no way a new phenomenon. It might surprise you to know that the very same Puritans who left Europe to escape religious persecution because they did not believe that they should do anything that was not firmly rooted in the Bible….the same Puritans that established the earliest colonies in America, and those whom we rightly venerate and credit with establishing our annual holiday of Thanksgiving…….shunned the celebration of Christmas. Their stated reason? It was common knowledge that Christmas was established by means of a Papal decree and was but the renaming of the ancient holiday called, Brumalia.
Indeed, there is absolutely nothing wrong, and everything right, about wanting to commemorate the advent of our Savior. Yet no serious Bible scholar any longer defends the date of December 25th as the true day of His birth. We do not know the precise date….in fact, we’re not entirely certain of the season. It’s one of a long list of things we all wished the Bible revealed, but it doesn’t. It was far more likely Fall than Winter as the accounts of the Nativity seem to indicate according to where the sheep in the fields, along with their Shepherds, were located….among several other pieces of evidence which we won’t go into tonight. But we also need to take into account that NOWHERE do we find in the Bible an ordinance to celebrate the birth of any man, nor will we find a Tradition established for that purpose. In fact, it was abhorrent to Jews and to the early church (long after it had become a gentile organization) to celebrate the birth of anyone because it was standard practice for pagans.
So do we know at what point in history December 25th was chosen to observe Jesus’ birth, and the reason for selecting that day? Yes, we do. It is well attested to and recorded even among the archives of the Catholic Church who first ordained it. And it is in this understanding of how and when Christmas was established that we find this strange intersection of Hanukkah, Christmas, and the birthday of Zeus (which was one of the many names for the Sun God). Of course, each of these celebrations has it’s own meaning and purpose and is celebrated differently.
It happened during the reign of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, in the 4th century AD, that the first Christ-mass (as it was originally called) occurred. It was precisely in the year 354 and it is recorded on the Calendar of Philocalus, the official scribe for Pope Damasus. It was finally made an official Christian holy day by edict of the Roman Church Pope not quite a century later, in 440. And if one will only take the time to read the actual minutes of the various ecumenical councils of the Bishops of the Church under Constantine and the councils of Nicea and Laodicea among others…..we will see an ominous and serious religious/political tug-of-war in action.
Listen to this quote from the renowned Shaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge:"How much the date of the festival depended upon the pagan Brumalia [The December 25 celebration], following the Saturnalia [an eight-day December 17-24 festival preceding it], and celebrating the shortest day of the year and the 'new sun' . . . cannot be accurately determined. The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence . . . The pagan festival with its riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit and in manner. Christian preachers of the West and the Near East protested against the unseemly frivolity with which Christ's birthday was celebrated, while Christians of Mesopotamia accused their Western brethren of idolatry and sun worship for adopting as Christian this pagan festival."--
Under Constantine Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire and certain Christian holidays were ordered to occur on the already well-established pagan holidays so as to not create offense or upset within the vast and diverse population that was Rome. The intent was generally quite honorable: to make Christianity the preferred Roman religion…..but only to a point. In that era, the preeminent religion of the Roman Empire was Mishrain……Sun Worship. Many religions were present in the super-tolerant Roman Empire, and they were all generally welcome, provided each person respected all the others AND continued to the worship the Roman Emperor as a god. That did NOT change with Constantine. What did change was that Christianity, which had been a chaffing problem wherever it cropped up primarily because it refused to acknowledge other religions’ gods AND refused to participate in Emperor worship, was now legitimized. Still, Christianity was a minority religion in the Empire. How was Constantine going to encourage Christianity without creating civil and religious upheaval in his empire? Compromise.
Since the days of the Greeks, even before the Roman Empire, Zeus was the name of the Sun god. Rome, before the time of Christ, renamed Zeus to Jupiter, because they had become so infatuated with Astrology. In Constantine’s era the largest religious group of the Roman Empire gave the sun god yet another name…..Mithras. Not only had a day of the week been dedicated to communal worship of the Sun-god (Sun-day, the 1st day of the week) but also for centuries the birthday of the Sun god had been celebrated. That day was December 25th. The official name of the day was “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis”…..the Day of the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun”. The problem was that there were MANY religions in the empire that worshipped the Sun; each in their own way, with varying degrees of dedication, and each with a different name for their Sun God. So, a common holiday name that would not show favoritism to one faction over another was eventually chosen for the day to celebrate the Sun God’s birth: Brumalia. We should well understand and identify with this effort at tolerance and compromise as we see this ongoing battle in America in our day over whether the word “Christmas” should be used for the December holiday season because it causes such a wide range of feelings from warmth for some to downright outrage for others. So the search for a politically correct title for the holiday season is underway in America as we speak; Constantine (almost 1700 years ago) had precisely the same problem and he solved it by renaming the holiday.
The birthdays of gods were celebrated by the Romans as they were in most cultures. It was normal and expected. Now that Constantine had ordained a new God…… Jesus Christ…… obviously they had to celebrate his birthday, too…….it was a given within the Roman culture. Since no one claimed to know the actual date of his birth……at least no gentile knew, and certainly the outcast Jews weren’t to be consulted on the matter…… the date chosen could have been any day. December 25th was chosen NOT because the Bishops thought this was actually Jesus’ date of birth, but because it was politically expedient.
Much like today where too many Christian leaders want to say that whatever the name of the god that a culture or religion celebrates, they just don’t realize that they’re actually celebrating Jesus…..which I couldn’t disagree with more strongly…. the question for Constantine was, how does he Christianize the pagan religions of Rome, without taking away their traditions and starting a civil war? The answer: introduce Jesus as the NEW NAME for the god they had been worshipping all along: the Sun God. After all, it was fairly common to rename gods from time to time.
Therefore, in exchange for Constantine being allowed to encourage citizens of the Empire to adopt Christianity, the Christian Bishops agreed to create a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th, the Sun-god’s birthday; and the Sun-worshippers agreed not to oppose this but to recognize that Jesus was but another name added to the growing list of names for the god of the Sun. But, not everybody was happy about this solution.
Christianity had already become sectarian…..that is, it had quickly broken into many denominations. Several of these denominations erupted and loudly condemned celebrating Christ’s birth at all, because nowhere does the Scripture call for such a thing. The book of John and the book of Revelation were written about 70 years after Yeshua’s death, and still we find no reference to celebrating any holiday but the ancient Biblical Feasts. Others had no problem with celebrating His birth, but NOT if was intentionally intertwined with some long-established pagan holiday. Yet, as happens in societies, when the leaders accept something new and encourage it and go forward regardless of the complaints, momentum builds, time passes, and it generally becomes practice. Within a couple of generations just how the whole thing started becomes unimportant. So over the centuries Christmas became an entrenched part of Christianity.
The co-mingling of Christianity and Sun worship can be seen right up to this day. One of the most easily recognizable is the use of the sun-disk (the symbol of the sun god) that we see painted behind the heads of Jesus, Mary, and sometimes the various canonized saints. Eventually, this came to be called a halo, and its use even spread to depictions of Angels. We find the same concept, of course, in the use of wreaths at Christmas time. Evergreen branches have, since time immemorial, been used to symbolize life and fertility. So the Sun worshippers (long before Christ’s birth) had developed the tradition of weaving branches of evergreen trees into a circle (representing the sun disk) and hanging them in their homes.
Now the Jews were particularly offended over all this business. Because for them December 25th (or more accurately, by their calendar Kislev 25th) was also a Holy day. Because the Julian calendar and the Hebrew calendar are different, December 25th and Kislev 25th only intersect every few years…..most of the time they are entirely different days. And, this holy day of Kislev 25 was established precisely AGAINST any celebration of the Sun god. On December 25th in the year 168 B.C. the hated Syrian governor Antiochus Epiphanies walked into the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, on Zeus’s birthday, and placed a statue of Zeus (the sun god) in the Holy of Holies. Next he sacrificed a pig to the pagan god, then had the pig chopped up and boiled, and poured the meat and broth over all the sacred Torah scrolls and furnishings of the Temple. The Syrians took complete control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and this led to the Jewish uprising led by Judas the Maccabee that is now called the Maccabean Rebellion.
Three years later, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Jewish rebels fought and took back the Temple, purified it, removed the statue of the sun god, and celebrated by relighting the Menorah that had been dark for the past 3 years. This event was the first Hanukkah. Hanukkah simply means “dedication”… (hence the translation “Feast of Dedication”) for on Kislev 25, 165 BC, the Temple was re-dedicated to the God of Israel.
So with that brief history of Sun worship, Hanukkah, and Christmas, we see what a tangled web has been weaved around the birth of the sun god, the Feast of Dedication, the nativity of Jesus, and the date of December 25th.
We know a lot about Christmas, because most of us have been raised in homes where it would have been unthinkable NOT to celebrate Christmas. It really didn’t matter whether we were raised in a home that believed in God or not; because just as in the era Christmas was first invented, Christmas in western culture has long ago became simply a season for corporate merriment and secular celebration at least as much as about remembering the birth of Christ. But, Hanukkah is another matter. So, let’s see what Hanukkah is about.
First, even though Hanukkah is NOT listed as one of the 7 Biblical holy days, it IS in the Bible and its occasion is validated…..usually under the name of Feast of Lights, or Feast of Dedication. And we know for a fact that Jesus, Yeshua, celebrated Hanukkah, because we’re told the story of the trip he made from his home in Galilee to Jerusalem to be a part of that joyous celebration. Further, He used Kislev 25th (Hanukkah) to make a startling statement that is so important to all of us, but also insured that he would not survive too much longer.
Let me read to you John10:22-30.
NAS John 10:22 At that time Hanukkah took place at Jerusalem; 23 it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. 24 The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, "How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly." 25 Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father's name, these bear witness of Me. 26 "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. 27 "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. 29 "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 "I and the Father are one."
Yeshua plainly stated that He could grant eternal life, and that He and the Father were echad….one…something the Jews thoroughly understood. He said MORE than the people had expected. They hoped He was the Messiah; but to add “yes I am”…..and further….. “I am God”…..was TOTALLY unexpected. They never imagined the hoped-for Messiah to be anything but a man, a human, and a military leader. So even those who at this point were open to Him being Messiah rejected Him because they considered Him an idolater and blasphemer after claiming His own deity.
Even worse, He did it on Hanukkah; he did it on the day of celebration that the Temple was freed from perhaps the most infamous idolater in Jewish history, Antiochus Epiphanies. Epiphanies means “god appearing”; Antiochus had declared himself to be a god. Yeshua’s pronouncement of his own deity could NOT have come at a more sensitive time.
The point is, Jesus Christ knew of, and participated in, Hanukkah. And He chose that day, Hanukkah, to announce His deity.
Hanukkah is an 8 day celebration that begins on Kislev 25th. And the focal point is the Menorah. But, it is a special Menorah; not the standard Temple Menorah. The original Temple Menorah had 7 branches, at the tips of which were 7 oil lamps. The Hanukkah Menorah…..today called a Hanukkiah….. has two extra branches and oil lamps, for a total of 9. Why?
It was to remember the miracle that began on Kislev 25, 165 B.C. The story goes that when the Temple was purged and then the Jews readied the Temple Menorah for lighting, they had a problem; they had only one jar of olive oil for the lamps. It’s not that other burnable olive oil wasn’t present, it’s that the olive oil used for the Temple Menorah was specially made and set-apart, by the priests, as called for in Leviticus. They took the only holy olive oil, carefully filled each of the 7 oils lamps with oil, and to their surprise, the Menorah burned brightly for 8 days……one jar of oil was typically sufficient for only ONE day.
So in remembrance of that miracle (and after the pattern of the Feast of Tabernacles) Hanukkah was made 8 days, and eventually the 9 branch Menorah was developed (after the Temple was destroyed for the final time in 70 A.D.). Why 9 branches and not 8? This gets interesting.
The center branch that you see here stands above the other 8 branches; it is given a higher place, yet it is called the Shamash, or servant, lamp. The Shammash is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, and from this the first of remaining 8 lamps is ALSO lit on Kislev 25. Each night of Hanukkah, another of the lamps is lit, generally going left to right, using the fire of the Shammash lamp to light the others. Tradition says the Hanukkiah may NOT be used to light your home; it is to be used only to celebrate the holy days; and it is to be placed where passers-by can see it. What wonderful symbolism is here for Disciples of Yeshua; the light of the servant is used to kindle the light of all that follow.
What I would like to finish up with is this: if you’re like me, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You want to celebrate the birth of our Savior. But in light of where we are in history, and what we have (reluctantly) learned about the day we have used for hundreds of years to celebrate the birth of Yeshua, I think Hanukkah represents a wonderful alternative, and a way to have a fresh start free secular influences. Hanukkah has always been a family time, a holy time, a joyous time, and a time of remembrance of divine cleansing and purifying. We know for a Biblical fact that Jesus celebrated that holy day. In addition there is an interesting connection between the traditional reason for Hanukkah and our New Testament theology. The first Hanukkah was about cleansing the Temple, and as St. Paul states, our bodies are now the Temples of God, as within us lives the Spirit of the Lord. Our Temples…our bodies and our lives…. had to first be cleansed by the blood and living water of Yeshua HaMashiach before the Holy Spirit could dwell there. Our Temples, our bodies, have been rededicated to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since Hanukkah occurs near the same time as Christmas, we can be sure that neither accurately represents the day of Our Savior’s birth, which Jew and gentile Bible scholars agree did NOT occur in the winter. Yet, does that mean that if we do not know the exact day, that we should not acknowledge His nativity?
To my way of thinking we can and ought to celebrate the coming of Messiah into this world. How we do it, though, is no longer so easily settled…..at least its not for some of us. A great scholar once said that ‘ the rituals of a society reveal that society’s values at the deepest levels’. I think he is correct. And, I am sad to say that the rituals of Christmas indeed DO reveal our society’s deepest values. Santa Claus, Snowmen, boisterous and drunken parties, and wild spending on a decadent level have become the modern symbols of Christmas, and hold naked our deepest values for all to see. The most visible icon for Christmas in Western Society is no longer the Nativity, but the Christmas Tree. Secular families and institutions think nothing of joining and celebrating the Christmas Season, because all of the focal points of Christmas have become devoid of spirituality and, therefore, quite comfortable for them. That traditional day venerated and cherished by Christians for centuries as the opportunity to remember the nativity of Our Savior has been infected by the virus of secular humanism. Why is it so shocking then that the final step in divesting this celebration of it’s last vestiges of it’s supposed purpose by severing away it’s name, Christmas, is now upon us?
That said none of this is a surprise to God. We have arrived, I am convinced, at that marvelous time prophesied so long ago, that the division between Jew and gentile would end. That the Jewish people’s hearts would soften and be accepting of their own Messiah; and that gentiles would find a love for the Jewish people inexplicably growing in their hearts. That the Gospel would do a full circle: from the Jews to the gentiles, and then from the gentiles back to the Jews.
By we gentiles embracing the God ordained and prophetic Biblical Feasts of Torah, and observing the Scripturally validated celebration of Hanukkah…every one of these observed in the NT by Jesus…….. we have a new and exciting avenue to both serve, identify with, and celebrate our Messiah. And perhaps just as important, we have a way to knock down that middle wall of partition between Jew and gentile by worshipping the Lord, together, in common observances.
How do we transition from a rather inauspiciously born tradition to something that is more Bible oriented and godly instead of merely religious? That is for each of us to decide. But Hanukkah at the least gives us a model, a pattern, and a place to start anew. Hanukkah was a re-dedication of the Holy Temple from a place of pagan ritual to worship of the Yehoveh. What could be more appropriate in our time than to use Hanukkah as a point of re-dedication of these fleshy Holy Temples to the one who’s entire purpose for being born, was to die for us: Yeshua of Nazareth.
Blessings over the candles
Typically three blessings (Berakhot singular Berakhah) are recited during this eight-day festival. On the first night of Hanukkah, Jews recite all three blessings, on all subsequent nights, they recite only the first two. The blessings are said before the candles are lit. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle, lamp, or electric) is lit on the right side of the Menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first and is lit first proceeding from left to right, and so on each night.
The first blessing
Recited all eight nights just prior to lighting the candles:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik neir (shel) chanukah.
Translation: "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights."
The second blessing
Recited all eight nights just prior to lighting the candles:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-asah nisim la-avoteinu, bayamim haheim, (u)baz'man hazeh.
Translation: "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors, in those days, at this season."
The third blessing
Recited only on the first night just prior to lighting the candles:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v'kiyemanu, vehigi-anu laz'man hazeh.
Translation: "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season."
After kindling the lights
When the lights are kindled the Hanerot Halalu prayer is subsequently recited:
Hanneirot hallalu anachnu madlikin 'al hannissim ve'al hanniflaot 'al hatteshu'ot ve'al hammilchamot she'asita laavoteinu bayyamim haheim, (u)bazzeman hazeh 'al yedei kohanekha hakkedoshim. Vekhol-shemonat yemei Hanukkah hanneirot hallalu kodesh heim, ve-ein lanu reshut lehishtammesh baheim ella lir'otam bilvad kedei lehodot ul'halleil leshimcha haggadol 'al nissekha ve'al nifleotekha ve'al yeshu'otekha.
Translation: "We light these lights For the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make them serve except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations."
Singing of Maoz Tzur after lighting
Each night immediately after the lighting of the candles, while remaining and staring at the candles, Ashkenazim (and, in recent decades, some Sephardim) then usually sing the following hymn written in Medieval Ashkenaz (Germany).
Ma-oz Tzur Yeshu-ati, lecha na-eh leshabei-ach. Tikon beit tefilati vesham todah nezabei-ach. Le-et tachin matbe-ach mitzar hamnabei-ach. Az egmor beshir mizmor chanukat hamizbei-ach.
Ra-ot sav'ah nafshi, b'yagon kochi kilah. Chayai meir'ru b'koshi, b'shibe-ud malchut eglah. Uv'yado hag'dolah hotzi et has'gulah. Cheil Par'oh vechol zaroh yardu ke-even bim'tzulah.
D'vir kodsho hevi-ani vegam sham lo shakateti. Uva noges v'higlani ki zarim avad'ti. V'yein ra-al masachti kimat she-avarti. Keitz Bavel Zerubavel l'keitz shivim noshati.
Kerot komat b'rosh bikesh Agagi ben Hamdatah. V'nih'yata lo lefach ul'mokesh vegavato nishbata. Rosh y'mini niseita ve-oyev shemo machita. Rov banav v'kinyanav al ha-etz talita.
Y'vanim nikbetzu alai azai bimei Chashmanim. Ufartzu chomot migdalai vetimu kol hashmanim. Uminotar kankanim na-aseh nes lashoshanim. B'nei vinah yemei sh'monah kavu shir urna-anim.
Chasof z'roa kodshecha v'karev keitz hayeshu-a. Nekom nikmat dam avadecha me-uma haresha-a. Ki archa lanu hasha-a ve-ein keitz limei hara-ah. Dechei admon b'tzeil tzalmon hakeim lanu ro'im shiv'ah.