Today is the fourth day of Chanukah and there are four days left until Christmas. It is the perfect occasion to mention how they are connected.
The Gospel of John (10:22) makes a passing reference to Jesus going to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Chanukah. As festivals go in the long history of Israel, it was a relatively new holiday back then. So let’s unroll the papyrus to an earlier chapter than Jesus (who lived at the beginning of the first century as kept by the Gregorian calendar).
We have to back up a few hundred years to Alexander the Great. (Doesn’t everything seem to go back to that weird man-child?) Anyway, three-hundred-plus years before Jesus, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire and the floodgates of Hellenist culture swept across the Mediterranean and beyond. Greek language, ideas, and technology did what Hollywood and McDonald’s has done in our world — spring up and influence every culture they touch. Then the Roman Empire of course, put it in a bottle and sprayed it even further.
Two-hundred or so years after Alexander, Jerusalem and Judah were violently oppressed as Antiochus, one of the Seleucid Greek kings, tried to stamp out an indigenous religion and culture that refused to be assimilated. On the 25th of the month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which can fall within November or December on the Gregorian calendar, Antiochus had a pig sacrificed on the high altar of Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem. He previously had decreed that observances of the Sabbath were prohibited and had the Temple dedicated to one of the Greek gods. But this repugnant desecration was the spark that ignited a revolution. Three years later, against tremendous odds, Antiochus was defeated. On the 25th of Kislev again, in 165 BCE, the Temple was cleansed and the altar re-dedicated.
The memory of that re-dedication and the events surrounding it, is the substance of Chanukah as Jesus observed it more than a century and half later. Because the Christian observance of Jesus’ birth has been almost completely assimilated into secularist and consumerist culture, I like to imagine Jesus quietly going about the observance of Chanukah sometime around December 25th 30 CE. In my mind’s eye, I listen to him giving thanks for his religion being saved against all odds. (Any similarities and all ironies intended).
The relationship between Judaism and a religion with a Jewish prophet at the center of it ought to be extraordinarily intimate. Yet historical events, mostly Christian persecutions and violence every bit as horrific as anything Antiochus did, have caused that relationship to be strained, broken, formal, or simply forgotten. I suppose that is how White Nationalist anti-Semites can pretend they are Christian without any sense of shame.
In 2022 we hit an all-time high of anti-Semitic incidents in the US: 2,717. There is a brutal relationship between that trend and the hemorrhaging pustule of nationalistic violence revealed on January 6th, 2021. Closely connected to it all is an ex-President feasting with avowed anti-Semites.
An anti-Semitic Christian is the most painful of oxymorons – two things that simply cannot exist together. Yet here we are with people who imagine they are Christian doing violence to a relationship they should be cherishing. Anti-Semitism is a persecution of Jesus as well as Judaism.
May Chanukah and Christmas conclude with peace this year.