Festivals of Light
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
I have always thought it fitting that Christmas and Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, are so close together usually on the calendar. Approximately 160 years before the Coming of Christ, the Jews revolted against the Seleucid Empire. This was one of the most important struggles in all of human history. It determined that the Jews would remain a people set apart, worshiping Yahweh, and not become, like so many Peoples before and since, a lost people, blended into larger populations, their god forgotten. It was this revolt, led by Mattathias, his name meaning “gift of Yahweh”, and his sons, known collectively as the Maccabees, that is told in First and Second Maccabees. The revolt was successful, but ultimately, through civil wars and the overpowering military might of Rome, the Jews again fell under foreign domination, and Jesus was born into a world ruled by Rome. However, the revolt established that the Jews would remain a separate people, worshiping their God and safeguarding their faith. This was an essential element in setting the stage for the coming of Christ.
Throughout history we Catholics have remembered the Maccabees. In calling for the First Crusade, Pope Urban II stated: If in olden times the Maccabees attained to the highest praise of piety because they fought for the ceremonies and the Temple, it is also justly granted you, Christian soldiers, to defend the liberty of your country by armed endeavor.” Such citations are endless in Catholic history, because we recognize in the Maccabees a heroic striving to defend the worship of God.
The Festival of Lights and the entry into this world of the Light of Christ are intertwined, something for us to remember as we celebrate Christmas.