Chanukah, Christmas, and Western Civilization
Chanukah, the festival of lights, is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the victory of the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans) over the powerful armies of the Seleucid (Greek) Empire under King Antiochus IV. King Antiochus, in 167 BC, in a show of force, forbade important Jewish observances such as keeping the Sabbath and circumcision and dedicated the ancient temple in Jerusalem to Zeus. In the town of Modi’in, Antiochus’ soldiers forced a village elder named Matityahu to sacrifice a pig before a pagan altar. Matityahu refused. When another Jew complied, he killed him and another Greek official. This sparked a three-year rebellion against the Greeks and their Jewish allies, some of whom accepted Greek or Hellenic culture. Matityahu and his sons, the Maccabees, fought to maintain the ancient ways of the covenant. At first, the Maccabees and their motley fighters employed guerilla tactics but eventually formed regular forces and routed the Greeks. In 164 BC, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem and rededicated the temple, removing pagan influences, thus the name “Chanukah” or rededication.
It was a most unlikely victory. But because of it Judaism survived. Without this victory, history would have been profoundly altered. In the absence of Judaism, Christianity, which followed more than a century later, would never have emerged.
Chanukah is a victory of religious liberty, of the weak over the strong, of righteousness over tyranny, of light over darkness, a miracle. But there was another miracle. Jewish tradition holds that when it was time to light the Menorah in the Temple, there was only enough pure oil for a single day, but it lasted eight days after which it was replenished. And the men that had been soldiers and were now priests and scribes knew that their victory over the mighty Greek army was not just by force of arms but through divine providence. That God walked among the defenders of Judaism.
After the Greeks fell away, there was a brief interlude of Jewish independence in Israel but then the Romans conquered the Holy Land in 63 BC (Pompey). Life under Roman rule was difficult and there was another rebellion in 70 AD. General Vespasian destroyed the Jewish kingdom and King David’s ancient capital fell for a second time. Many Jews died or were enslaved. There rose again a savior in 135 AD, Bar Kochba, but in the end his rebellion too crumbled before Rome’s might (Emperor Hadrian). Jerusalem and the Temple were ploughed under with salt and hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Jerusalem was resettled. Rome renamed Israel, Palestina, reaching back to Israel’s ancient foes the Philistines to conceal its Jewish past. The exiles went forth as slaves and rootless wanderers. And the long night began.
But the Chanukah flame continued to burn in the hearts of the Jewish people who dreamed of returning to Israel and Jerusalem. For 2,000 years it burned in villages and cities across the seas and the continents. And the exiles returned to reclaim their patrimony. In 1948, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the modern state of Israel was born, its fledgling forces defeating the five Arab armies that attacked it at the moment of its birth with the intent of annihilation, another miracle. And so the Chanukah lights continued to burn in Israel, sometimes flickering but still illuminating, nearly 70 years later.
With Christmas upon us, there is also a light that burns for Christians, under assault in the West by the secular left and around the globe especially within the Muslim world. It is symbolic that in the darkest time of the year, Christian teaching tells that the logos or the word was made flesh in the form of a newborn baby, the baby Jesus, a Jew, under a star, a light for the world to drive away the darkness and bring redemption and hope.
That Chanukah and Christmas are closely linked in the calendar is fitting for the message they each bring. The two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, taken together as the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the foundation of Western and American civilization. Western nations are the greatest in the world because they are informed by Judeo-Christian principles. It is in the West where human rights, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, music and the arts, science and technology have flourished and where slavery was ended. These are the nations that inhabitants from the rest of the world seek to live. It is in Western nations where citizens are most free and enjoy the greatest prosperity. It is not an accident.
We must dedicate ourselves to preserving America, the West, and Western civilization, by preserving its Judeo-Christian tradition. The light of Chanukah and Christmas must continue to burn, and illumine the night, pushing away the darkness that is always present, the norm for most of history. They should guide us and our nation and the West for all time. It is what distinguishes us from the rest, our values, our devotion to truth, knowledge, goodness, beauty, and reason, the belief in the sanctity of the individual made in the image of God, rejecting the moral and cultural relativism of the post-modern left and the totalitarian threat of unreformed Islam. We must rededicate ourselves in our current battle as the Maccabees did against the Greeks and as Israel did against the Arab armies that sought its destruction in 1948 and has done ever since against its many enemies.
The spirit of Chanukah and Christmas should inspire us.
Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all.