If someone threatened your whole lifestyle, what would you do? If you are an American and someone tried to take away your basic freedoms, would you let them? I knew a man in California who taught a motorcycle safety class. He was staunchly opposed to motorcycle helmet laws. He would teach people to wear them, but opposed legally forcing them to do so. Personal liberty was so ingrained into him that he was willing to actively oppose any legislation that would limit personal liberty, no matter how much it might be in the best interest of public good.
Centuries ago a certain group of people were faced with just such a dilemma. The Jewish people had a long history of following the laws handed down from Moses through the rabbis. They did not always keep them perfectly, and God punished them when they did not. But ever since their return from Babylon almost 400 years prior, the Jewish people had, as a nation, kept the Law of Moses. When Alexander the Great conquered Palestine, he began overlaying Greek customs on the Jewish way of life. After he died, his generals and their descendants (the Ptolemys of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria) fought for control of Israel. By the second century BCE, the Seleucids had control, and stepped up the Hellenization of the Jewish people. Laws were passed forbidding circumcision or worship in the Temple. The altar in Jerusalem was profaned. The Jewish way of life became virtually illegal.
There were two principal reactions to the spiritual genocide wrought by the Seleucids, primarily under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. One group of people, mostly of the upper classes, saw this as a way to consolidate their power and increase their wealth. They caved in to the new laws, even to the point of participating in the Greek games, which necessitated surgery to reverse their circumcisions. Some of these people bribed Antiochus into removing the proper High Priest and installing his brother instead. The Sabbaths and the holidays were abolished and the new High Priest ended the daily sacrifice. Greed was about to destroy the Jewish people, when even the Babylonian captivity could not.
The opposite reaction swung in defense of Judaism. Led by the Hasmonean priestly family, which became known as the Maccabees, the common Jewish people revolted against their new leaders. This began when Matthias the Hasmonean killed a Jew who was about to sacrifice to a Greek idol. Matthias’ son, Judah, soon took over the revolt and led a series of guerrilla attacks against Hellenized Jews, and eventually against the Seleucid army. The Maccabees inexplicably won the war. They fought for their way of life, and they were victorious. In the aftermath of the war they rededicated the Temple, an event celebrated every year in the holiday of Chanukah. (Chanukah begins the evening of December 15 in 2014.)
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matt 5:15-16)
These words were spoken almost two hundred years later. And almost that same amount of time after these words were spoken, the tradition was recorded that during the rededication of the Temple the priests only found enough oil for lighting the lamps one day, but that little bit miraculously lasted seven days. Thus the lighting of the menorah became a part of the Chanukah tradition. In the light (no pun intended) of what Jesus said about shining in the world, it is appropriate that this became part of Chanukah. The whole revolt against the Seleucid rule was an effort to let God’s light shine in the world.
A part of the tradition of the Chanukah menorah is that it must be put in a window where all who pass can see it. The light must not be hidden, under a bushel or behind a curtain. Chanukah, then, is all about standing up for your faith, even when it might be unpopular. It is about letting your light shine, so that others will see and praise God.