Hanukkah, an eight day Jewish celebration, which can occur in late November to late December, and Christmas, the Christian celebration on December 25th, are celebrated close together in time, but are they connected beyond that?
The quick answer usually given is no, but think about it a little. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 167 BC.
After conquering Judea, the Syrian leader plundered the temple, ended Jewish services and erected an altar to Zeus in it. Leading a Jewish revolt, Judas Maccabeus reconquered the city, cleansed the temple and initiated an eight day celebration in memory of the event. Eight lights lit successively call people to God’s holy place.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ approximately 167 years later.
Both of these feasts are about the Presence of God. For the Jews God was in the temple as Creator and their Savior through time. For Christians God reveals his presence in Jesus Christ, who proclaimed himself God’s Son, “the light of the world” as he celebrated the Jewish feasts in the temple. (John 7-10)
All the gospels report that Jesus cleansed the temple and spoke of himself replacing it. Luke’s gospel begins in the temple with the promise to Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist and ends as the Child Jesus enters his “Father’s house.” (Luke 1-2) Our readings today link the restoration of the temple by Judas Maccabeus and the Jesus cleansing the temple: 1 Mc 4:36-37, 52-59/Lk 19:45-48
Far from being separate, Hanukkah and Christmas are connected in their celebration of God’s presence. Hanukkah reminds us of the temple, the place of God’s provisional presence. The Christmas mystery reminds us of the abiding presence of God with us in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, the Light that never fails, who gives life to all nations.