Why do I, as a Christian, celebrate Hanukkah? That’s definitely a valid question. So first, let me answer a question you may not be asking:
Do I think Christians must celebrate Hanukkah?
The answer to that is absolutely not. Gentile Christians, biblically, are not required to keep Jewish feasts. However, that said, we are not told that we can’t keep them either. But further than that, Paul refers to the feast of Passover in his letter to the Galatians in such a way that you really can’t appreciate what he’s saying without having experienced a Passover celebration at least once. For many years, I taught about, wrote a book about, and organized/led Christ-centered Passovers at churches, in homes, and for various groups. Almost every pastor who attended one of these commented that the Lord’s Supper came to have so much more meaning for him, and many changed the way their church celebrated the Lord’s Supper, so that it helped their congregations better understand how this practice fit into the context of Passover. (Most lay people who came had the same type of response, but I mention pastors because they’ve usually been trained theologically — but as Christians, usually have never experienced a Jewish holy day, and therefore miss out on some of the meaning and profundity of the New Testament.)
So the first reason I like to encourage Christians to celebrate Jewish Holy Days at least once is because it gives us a better understanding of the Bible, and therefore of God’s plan for us and the way He works. But please note that you will never, ever hear me saying that you are less of a Christian, less holy, less saved, less sanctified if you never learn anything about a Jewish holy day. We are not saved by our works.
I like to celebrate Hanukkah and other Jewish holy days because it reminds me that my roots as a Christian are Jewish. This is a point of humility, actually, and I think that it’s quite important. There have been times in history when Christians have believed themselves to be better than Jews and have even persecuted them horrifically. Paul reminds us in Romans 11 that we are grafted into the Jewish olive tree. He points out that we are not to be arrogant about our faith, because we get our nourishment from the Jewish root and not the other way around.
Another reason I like to celebrate Hanukkah and other Jewish holy days is because of their purpose: To remember and teach. Celebrations help us to remember what God has done for us, and they give us an opportunity to teach those things to our children and others.
Sometimes, ritual gets a bad rap. And there’s a good reason for that. When we practice ritual without meaning, it becomes nothing more than a rut. Jesus talked about how worthless meaningless repetition is, and told us to avoid it. (Matthew 6:7) In prayer, repeating the same thing over and over can numb your mind. The words begin to have the opposite effect from what they’re supposed to have and often lead to disdain rather than worship. This can be true of any ritual.
I remember attending a church a couple times where communion was celebrated every Sunday. It was a big church and the elements were passed out, kind of like taking the offering, almost nonchalantly. It seemed meaningless. It really bothered me. I had to repent of my judgmental attitude later, though, when I learned how much it meant every week to some of the people in the congregation. I learned an important lesson: It’s what you do with a ritual that counts. If you just go through the motions, it’s going to be meaningless, a farce … and it can become an insult to God. But if you choose to always focus on the point of the ritual, it will never become meaningless and it will always glorify God. It takes an intentional, disciplined focus — which can be difficult, but often it’s those difficult disciplines that truly do help us walk closer to the Lord. (More about this in my post about Mitzvah.)
I think part of the important thing here is to not become legalistic about it. Allow Christian freedom. Understand that celebrating these rituals will not save you. Know that it’s not about the actions and the props — it’s about what they mean. This is why I’ve made such a big deal about my dog kibble menorah: Because I want to make it clear that it’s not about having a beautiful menorah (or even a real one); it’s about what it reminds us about God and His relationship with us. If I didn’t have birthday candles and dog kibble, I could have used electric lamps … or even have drawn pictures of candles to fulfill the purpose. The props are not what’s important. They are merely tools to help us focus on the meaning. If we give the props too much priority, we run the danger of losing the meaning entirely. Likewise, if we miss a day in our celebration here or there, we have no condemnation.
Ritual, something that is done over and over, can be a precious reminder and it can transform us. Sleep experts often recommend a bedtime ritual, to train your body to know that it’s time to sleep. Rituals can also be used to train our spirits and our minds that now is the time to focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (the Lord’s Supper, Resurrection Sunday, Passover), or on God’s provision and protection (Hanukkah, Purim), His redemption (Passover, Yom Kippur), love and respect for His Word (standing when the Word is read in church, practicing daily devotions, Simchat Torah). You get the picture, even if you don’t know what some of these celebrations are. When we make a conscious choice to find or preserve meaning in the rituals, they become, not rote recitation, but joyful and heartfelt worship and adoration — which is what we’re about. (“The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”)
Which leads to the next reason I like to celebrate Jewish holy days: They glorify God. When I celebrate Hanukkah, I find myself worshiping God because of His might and holiness. Hanukkah reminds me that God will always make a way for His people to worship Him. It reminds me that He is Holy and that I need to approach Him with a hallowed respect. It draws me into a time of rededication of my self, my body, my soul, my spirit, my mind to serve Him and to love Him and to enjoy Him. Hanukkah reminds me — and it seems that the timing is always perfect, just when I need it — that He is the God who provides. When He calls us to do something, He will provide what is needed to do it. Hanukkah reminds me that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Light of the World and that He calls His followers to also be lights and to not hide our lights. (Matthew 5:14-16)
And that brings me to my final reason: Hanukkah points me to God in all His Persons. It points me to the Father because He is my Protector and Provider. He is holy and to be treated with respect. It points me to Jesus because He is the Light of the World. The Hanukkah miracle — the light that lasted 8 days, miraculously provided by God — reminds me of the bigger miracle, the Light that lasts for eternity, miraculously given by God. Hanukkah points me to the Holy Spirit because it’s only with His help that I can truly rededicate myself to His calling, and it’s only through the conviction and power He provides that I can live in fulfillment of that. Again, the timing is interesting: Right before New Year when we traditionally examine the past year and set intentions for the next.
So why do I, as a Christian, choose to celebrate Hanukkah?
- Because it gives me a better understanding of God’s Word and how He works.
- Because it reminds me that my roots are Jewish.
- Because it’s an opportunity to remember and teach.
- Because ritual can be a transforming discipline.
- Because it glorifies God.
- Because it points me to God in Three Persons.
- Because it gives me a time each year to focus on rededication.
- Because it leads naturally into the next chapter of life.
For the first part of this series, go here.
You can read part seven here.