Was Hanukkah the Church's first Christmas?
I remember as a young man, one year shopping for family Christmas Cards.
Close to me were a couple of elderly ladies. They were busy picking up cards and then discarding them. One of them suddenly pipes up “Look at this Doris, can you believe it” – as she was thrusting a card into the face of her friend; “Emmanuel – God with us! They bring God into everything today, it makes you sick!” I was totally baffled that no one would have known that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus, especially two elderly ladies.
For many, in our country today, there is sadly a complete detachment from the root meaning of Christmas. It has been overtaken by a plethora of westernised, quirky, materialistic and non-religious traditions causing people to dismiss the Christian message. This westernisation of Christmas has affected the Christian perspective too.
Regardless of peoples' thoughts about Christmas, there is a divine truth that needs to be rediscovered, especially by the Church.
CHRISTMAS AS A HISTORY:
Have you ever thought that there may have been a time when the Church never celebrated the Christmas event, nor had any recognition of 25th December being associated with the birth of Jesus?
Well, this was the case for the first three hundred years.
It is believed that the first recording of the 25th December being associated with Jesus' birth came from Hippolytus of Rome (170–236); He apparently based it on an assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months.
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor).
A few years later, Pope Julius I, officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December, and the first inclusion was found in The Chronograph of 354, calendar produced for a wealthy Roman by Furius Dionysius Filocalus.
The later tradition of the Midnight Mass was started from about 430AD by Pope Sixtus III in the Basilica of St Mary Major, and it was the only one that is allowed to take place after sunset and before sunrise the next day. It was also a service only for committed believers – the Fidelium Missa, the Mass of the Faithful. This meant that, Catechumens (believers who had not yet been baptised) were not permitted to be a part of the Lord's Supper and were only allowed to join in until the offertory. At this point a call would go out to them - Ite, missa est- you are dismissed. The second part of the service was call the Christ Mass - the Christ sending. Why do I mention all of this?
Well, in Anglo Saxon the word mass was called the sending , and Christ was called Heliand - the healer. This translates to 'the sending of the healer'. Is that not a wonderful phrase? Don't you think that it aptly describes the purpose of the coming of Jesus, and also the purpose of the going of the church to its community?
Because of the above, the majority of Christians actually believe that 25th December was the day on which Jesus was born. Interestingly though, no date is ever given in the Bible regarding Jesus' birth. Just as no one knows the hour or the day of the first coming of the Messiah, Matthew 24:26 – tells us that it will be exactly the same with the second coming of the Messiah.
We know that only two of the four gospel writers provide us with information regarding the birth of Jesus. Some of those details differ too. (While we do not have time to go into them here, there are legitimate reasons for this). Luke was a Greek historian and Matthew was a Jewish one.
From the outset Matthew, the first of the gospel writers firmly places Jesus in the heart of the Jewish faith and unmistakably points to Him being their long awaited messiah. ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:’
Beyond these gospel accounts there are no other references to the details of the birth of Jesus or any evidence that the first disciples of Jesus celebrated this event; especially not the date of his birth.
IS THERE ANY POSSIBLE CONNECTION WITH 25TH DECEMBER AND JESUS' BIRTH?
Is it possible then, to discover anything from the biblical narratives that might lead us to discovering any other possible link to 25th December or when He was born?
Interestingly, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah (also known as Lights or Dedication), starts on the 25th of Kislev in the Jewish calendar, and occurs around the same time as December in the Gregorian calendar. It celebrates events that took place between the Old and New Testament.
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Light and the Jewish Feast of Miracles or signs and wonders that reminds the Jewish people of the time when they overcame an enemy of Israel at miraculous odds.
HANUKKAH THE TRADITION
Here is a very brief outline of the story. There was a tyrant king from Damascus, Antiochus IV who sought to rule over the Jews and force them to worship Greek gods. 1 Maccabees informs us that he insisted that a swine be sacrificed on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, and then built a statue of Zeus, giving Zeus his own features. Jewish rebels under the leadership of the priestly Maccabee family rebelled and then led the fight for freedom for the next three years. Against all odds they overcame the enemy, reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem and restored it.
In order to rededicate the temple, they needed oil to light the menorah, but they could only find enough untainted oil to keep the flames burning for one night. And here's the miracle: The oil lasted for eight days. In that time, they were able to make more oil and keep the eternal flame lit.
There was a prophecy given at the time– ‘In the midst of darkness, God will send His great light!’.
It led the way for this festival to become a major event in the Jewish calendar to be associated with the coming of the messiah.
JESUS AND HANUKKAH:
Now we know from the Old Testament, that there were three pilgrim feasts described in Leviticus 23 when the Jews had to come from all over to Jerusalem to celebrate. The Spring feasts were ‘Pesach’ and ‘Shavu'ot’ (Weeks, Pentecost), and in the Autumn the Feast of Tabernacles, ‘Sukkot’. However, by Jesus' day, Hanukkah had become a fourth festival when many Jews (although it was not mandatory by the Torah), would come to Jerusalem to celebrate.
The Apostle John informs us that Jesus was in the habit of celebrating this festival too. In fact, John is the most festal of the four Gospels, and reveals the nature and ministry of Jesus through the use of the festivals the most. So we should not be surprised to find out that he potentially links the birth of Jesus with this festival. Let me show you.
1) In chapter 1 of his gospel account, John does something very interesting; he speaks of Jesus being the light of the world who is sent miraculously by God to dispel the darkness. The evil that pervaded this world could not overcome or defeat God's eternal light. I believe that this is a direct link to the prophetic statement of Hanukkah 'In the midst of darkness, God will send His great light'!
This is John's entrance of Jesus, as opposed to copying the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. They speak of His physical coming and prophetic fulfilment, John speaks of His theological coming and prophetic fulfilment.
2) Just prior to Jesus celebrating Hanukkah (see chapter 10), John records Jesus beginning to develop an association with the meaning of the festival by identifying Himself as the Light of the world.....
1. John 8:12 – I am the light of the world
2. John 9:4-5- Night is coming – again light of the world.
3. John 10 – Jesus heals the blind man – Physically and miraculously takes Him out of darkness into the light.
According to Talmud – This was the kind of miracles that only the Messiah could do - making the blind see and the deaf hear.
For Jesus, he did miracles for three reasons:
1. To show the compassion of God.
2. To prove that He is Messiah.
3. To defeat the work of God's enemy and demonstrations of the power of salvation. It is interesting that while the people recognised the blind man they chose to reject him .....
Therefore the neighbours, and those who previously saw him as a beggar, were saying, “Is not this the one who used to sit and beg?” Others were saying, “This is he,” still others were saying, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am the one” (John 9:8-9).
3) During the festival of Hanukkah, Jesus having clearly demonstrated that He was the anointed one sent by God, the Israelites recognised this and ask for confirmation....
10:22 - “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
It was no coincidence that they asked this of Jesus at the time of Hanukkah, because it was full of prophetic significance about the coming of messiah.
Sadly though, it was yet another occasion when the Jewish people thought that the messiah would come and set up His kingdom as a political one and not a spiritual one. The people wanted the blessings of Jesus, but not His spiritual Lordship – Just like many today!
As in the case with the blind man, they recognised Him for who he was, but chose to reject him.
The first disciples did recognise who Jesus was and chose to believe in Him. All of the New Testament writers make a prophetic connection with Jesus and the Jewish festivals, so it is not inconceivable then, that the early believers would have used the festival of Hanukkah to celebrate the first coming of Jesus. Imagine though, as the church separated itself from its Jewish roots, it also lost the significance of many of the Hebraic traditions. Eventually in the dust of time and external influences they became totally hidden and replaced with alternative traditions.
I believe that this is very possibly the case with Christmas. For me it is no coincidence that 25th December is so close to 25th Kislev, which is the start of a Jewish festival that focuses not only on the defeat of God's enemy, but the promise of the coming of messiah who will dispel the darkness of evil with His eternal light.
Whether or not it can be associated with the birth of Jesus or his conception is for another time and that makes for a very interesting bible study.
Mark Baker – FOI Director
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