Hanukkah commemorates the astounding victory of the Jewish people over the pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 B.C. Antiochus had set up an altar for Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem, and even offered swine flesh on the altar. Antiochus forbade circumcision and the teaching of the Torah. Clearly, the survival of Judaism hung in the balance.
A small band of Jews organized a guerrilla movement and revolted against Antiochus. With God's help they defeated their Hellenist masters. They then cleansed and rededicated the temple, lighting the menorah for eight days as Solomon had done before. The Talmud says that they had only one day's worth of oil, but the lamp miraculously stayed lit for eight days.
Yet Hanukkah, for all its wonder, is not even a biblical holy day. True, it does make a cameo appearance in John 10:22 as the "Feast of Dedication." Historically a minor Jewish festival, Hanukkah has evolved into one of the most festive Jewish holidays, perhaps because of its close proximity to Christmas. The beautiful lights of Hanukkah shed light on the physical world, just as God's Word illuminates the spiritual world.
"Your word is a lamp for my feet," the psalmist says, "a light on my path" (Ps. 119:105). Modern people, even those of us who love God's Word, might be tempted to gloss over this statement. We are so used to our modern electric lighting that we cannot imagine existing without it. In some of our cities, it never gets dark. But when the sun went down in ancient Israel, it got dark—pitch black in fact. Those who ventured outside at night had to take a lamp so they would not trip over a stone or step into a hole.
God's Word, this psalm assures us, is like one of those lamps. Carrying it with us is not an optional extra in the sometimes dark world in which we live. It is vital and mandatory. We need the Bible's sure light on the path of life, not only so that we can avoid problems, but in order to safely reach our destination. Without the lamp of God's Word, we will surely walk in darkness.
Yet Christmas talks about another Light, another Word, that not only enlightens us but searches our hearts. No, I am not talking about the glorious heavenly host, which pointed "certain poor shepherds" to the manger. Nor am I thinking about the Star of Bethlehem, which led the magi to the Christ child.
The Light I am referring to is a living Person, glimpsed as a baby in Bethlehem, but understood only by some—and often only in hindsight.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it …. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:4-5, 9-14).
This is the Christmas Light, the living Word becoming flesh, making his dwelling among us, and dazzling those with eyes to see. But not everyone could see the blazing light, because it illuminated the state of their hearts. They chose to be spiritually blind.