Tonight, the Jewish people celebrate Chanukah, a Mysterious Ways story for the ages.
Today, nearly everyone in the Guideposts office was singing a Christmas carol for a Merry Christmas video we’re putting on our website. I sat it out. Not because I’m Mr. Scrooge, but because I’m Jewish. Tonight, and for the next seven nights, I have my own holiday to celebrate, along with the rest of the Jewish people: Chanukah.
Chanukah doesn’t have nearly as many great songs as Christmas does, but the holidays do have one thing in common, besides their place in the calendar year. They both celebrate miracles. In the case of Chanukah, the miracle could easily be a Mysterious Ways story in Guideposts.
In the 2nd century BCE, Israel was part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria, a Greek-influenced kingdom. At first, the Jews in Israel were allowed to practice their faith openly. But a new king, Antiochus the Fourth, was determined to “Hellenise” the Jews, and force them to worship the Greek gods.
Antiochus ordered his troops into the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. They defiled the temple and installed an altar to Zeus. A war began.
A man named Judah Maccabee led the Jewish resistance, and ultimately prevailed over the mighty army of Antiochus. But the joy over the victory was short-lived, when the Jews saw the destruction left behind at the temple.
The eternal flame, the light that, by Jewish law, needed to remain lit at all times in the temple, was dark. And the oil required to light it had all been destroyed. All, except for one tiny vessel. Barely enough oil to light the flame for a night, much less the eight needed to create enough new oil to keep the flame burning.
As I learned on my trip to Israel for Guideposts, the oil used in the Holy Temple was extra virgin, the tiny amount of oil that seeps from olives when they’re first secured in an olive press. The Jews couldn’t just mash a bunch of olives. The process to gather only the purest of oil was painstakingly slow.
They used the last of the oil to light the flame. It burned throughout the night. When they awoke the next day, it was still burning. Incredibly, it kept burning the next day, and the next. It burned bright for all eight days, until the new supply of oil was ready.
It may seem a minor miracle, that oil meant to last one day instead lasted for eight. How many times have we managed to drive where we needed to go even though that empty tank light went on? But for the Jews who had just survived a war, it was a sign that nothing could destroy their faith, not even the mighty armies of the empires that surrounded them.
Nearly two hundred years later, another empire, the Roman Empire, would threaten Jerusalem. And for many, it was another miracle, the birth of a child, that would give the people of Israel renewed hope.
One could say that without Chanukah, the Israel of Jesus’ life and times would have never existed.
So tonight, whether you’re Christian or Jewish, take the time to be thankful for God’s Mysterious Ways.