The story of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah – Friday, 33rd week in ordinary time – 1 Maccabees 4:36-37, 52-59

The story of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah – Friday, 33rd week in ordinary time – 1 Maccabees 4:36-37, 52-59

The kingdom of the Greek king Antiochus the IV is threatened on every side. Faced with a need to defend his kingdom he decides to unify them through aggressive Hellenization and for money he resorted to the pillage and plunder of Jerusalem. For the Jews their problem was compounded by a struggle for power within the community and these included the high priestly office. All the parties in the struggle sought to win the favour of the king and Antiochus promised to support the one who acted most according to his will and to provide the money he so desperately needed for his military campaigns. So, he begins to meddle in Jewish religious affairs in a way that no other Greek ruler before him had done.

One reason for Antiochus’ aggression on Jerusalem was his chronic shortage of funds. But the rivalries among the Jews for power provided him with another reason. Rumour had reached Palestine that Antiochus had lost his life in his second campaign against the Egyptians. Relying on this rumour, Jason who had been dispossessed of his high priestly office came out of his exile and with a force of a thousand men invaded Jerusalem. He took the city and forced the high priest Menelaus to take refuge in a citadel. But he did not gain control of the government and of the city, probably because he massacred his own people and thus was alienated by them. He had to flee once more to the Transjordan. He was hunted, like a fugitive, till his death.

Interpreting these events as a rebellion against his rule, Antiochus ravaged Jerusalem and placed a royal commission there to keep the people in line. To enforce his rule Antiochus sent his commander, Appollonius to Jerusalem in early 167; he continued the reign of terror. Initially he presented himself to the Jews as a man of peace but then he showed his true colours and massacred many of the people and took others as slaves. He looted the city and partially destroyed it. He erected in Jerusalem a citadel called Acra (1 Mac 1:33-40). It was a Greek city within the larger city of Jerusalem. Acra remained a hated symbol of foreign domination for some twenty-five years. Antiochus was set to unleash a thorough Hellenization for the Jewish people; Yahweh was displaced in favour of Zeus or identified with Zeus. In 167 Antiochus issued an edict which cancelled the concessions made by his father. He prohibited the religious customs of the Jews and imposed Greek religious customs.

This set off the Jewish resistance movement and a man called Mattathias and his five sons become the founders of the Jewish resistance movement. Mattathias whose name means “a gift of God” was a priest belonging to the class of Joarib, which held the first rank among the twenty-four divisions established by David to perform weekly services in the temple. This strong orthodox Jew lived with his family in Jerusalem at the time of the edict. Hoping to escape from submitting to the demands of the edict, Mattathias moved his family to Modein a small village twenty miles north east of Jerusalem.

We are told that the king’s representative reaches the village of Modein to enforce the law. All the residents were compelled to take part in the sacrifice. Mattathias was asked to take the lead in offering the sacrifice since he was a man of respect and renown. In return he and his sons would be numbered among the friends of the king and honoured with silver, gold and many gifts but he refused and when a fellow Jew wished to comply, Mattathias slew him on the spot along with the king’s officer and tore down the altar. Along with those who were zealous, he and his family fled to the hills. This spontaneous revolt turned into a full-scale war between orthodox Jews and the Seleucid kings.

In the first year of the resistance movement the numbers grew but gradually (read 1 Mac 2:29-41). Others who were also fleeing form the persecution went to the hiding places in the wilderness. They did not form part of Mattathias band. In their idealistic zeal they refused to protect themselves against the enemy when they were attacked on the Sabbath and so were pitifully slaughtered. When Mattathias and his band heard of this, they mourned for them deeply. As a result of this, Mattathias and his band suspended the Sabbath law as long as the resistance lasted. Mattathias and his band conducted guerrilla war tactics against the Seleucids and renegade Jews. They tore down pagan altars and forcibly circumcised the uncircumcised boys. However, when Mattathias saw his death approaching, he called his sons together and gave them his last message

After the death of his father, Judas took command as the leader of the resistance movement. His efforts were so successful that the whole revolt is commonly called the Maccabean war, after his nick name. Under his leadership, a tiny guerrilla war snowballs into a full-scale military engagement in which smaller Jewish forces managed to defeat a much more powerful Seleucid army. This period ended in 164 with the re-dedication of the temple and this marked the end of the religious persecution.

Today’s text tells us how Judas and his men marched into Jerusalem ‘to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it. They got rid of all items connected to Greek cult. The defiled altar was torn down and the stones stored to one side ‘until there should come a prophet who would tell them what to do with them’. They reintroduced all items connected with the cult of Yahweh

Exactly three years to the month of the abomination of desolation in December 164 the temple was purified and re-dedicated to Yahweh with great feasting and rejoicing. So great was the rejoicing that the resistance movement decide to institute a new feast to commemorate this historic event ‘the feast of lights’ because of all the joyous effect created when all the candles were finally lit. Today the Jews celebrate this feast as the feast of Hanukkah a few days before Christmas. They celebrate it by lighting candles. One candle is lit every evening until the eighth day when  eight candles are lit

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