In 1938, during the dark days of the Holocaust, Pope Pius XI declared to Catholics—and all Christians that “Spiritually, we are Semites.” Christians and Jews are all Children of Abraham and must stand in solidarity against evil in the world. It is also true that studying Jewish history and religion reveals the roots of the Christianity, and can guide us in responding to the challenges that people of faith face in modern times.
Consider the festival of Hanukkah that begins at sunset on Thursday, December 10. That feast celebrates events recorded in the books of First and Second Maccabees. Although Hanukkah is one of the more popular Jewish holidays, especially in America, the Maccabees books are not found in the Hebrew Bible (or in most Protestant bibles). However, they are found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles and in the Septuagint, an early Greek language version of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are interesting reasons for those strange twists, but that is another story.
Christians often think of Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas”—a lovely festival that involves lighting candles on the menorah, singing traditional songs, and exchanging gifts. In fact, Hanukkah commemorates an epic struggle between an outmatched Jewish resistance and internal and external forces that were determined to destroy Judaism. It is a story that is especially relevant for Christians and Jews today, with growing hostility to people of faith and declining religious observance around the world.
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In the fourth century B.C., Israel was subjected to Greek rule when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. Two centuries later, Alexander’s successors had grown contemptuous of Judaism, and acted mercilessly to impose their “superior” Hellenist culture on backward Israel and its restrictive beliefs and rules.
Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, the “visible god,” forbade the practice of Judaism under penalty of death. He murdered the incumbent High Priest and 40,000 Jews and sold another 40,000 into slavery. He desecrated the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus, plundering its sacred objects, and sacrificing pigs on its altar. Mothers who circumcised their children were humiliated by being paraded around Jerusalem with their babies and then murdered, along with the rest of their families and those who had performed the circumcisions.
Whether succumbing to pressure from the pagan emperor, or cooperating for personal gain, or simply being allured by the prospect of social progress, many Jews renounced the religion of their forefathers and adopted Hellenism. They assumed Greek names and some even underwent surgery to reverse their circumcisions. Much of the religious hierarchy also sided with the Hellenists against their fellow Jews. However, an elderly priest named Mattathias resisted those abominations. He fled to the hill country of Judea with his five sons and other co-religionists. From there, they waged an inspired guerrilla war against the Hellenists. The rebels suffered many hardships, but they persisted, and as the victories mounted, their strength grew.
After Mattathias died, his son, Judah, became leader of the guerillas. Because of his prowess in commanding the resistance, he became known as “Maccabee,” which means “hammer.” Likewise, his fighters were called Maccabees.
Antiochus resolved to eliminate the Maccabees once and for all, and sent an army of 65,000 soldiers against Judah’s force of 10,000. Before the engagement, Judah and his army prayed fervently to God for Israel’s deliverance. Their prayers were answered and the Maccabees roundly defeated the superior Hellenist forces. Although some fighting continued, that battle freed Israel, which would remain independent until occupied by the Romans a century later.
After the victory, the Maccabees rushed to Jerusalem to purify the desecrated Temple and rededicate it to God. (“Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew.) According to tradition, they found only one day’s supply of consecrated oil to light the menorah, but it miraculously remained burning for eight days until the oil could be replenished. Thus, the celebration of Hanukkah lasts eight days and menorahs used for the feast have eight main candles, one for each day.
What are the lessons that people of faith today can learn from the Maccabean resistance? In 167 B.C., the religious Jews faced threats of extinction from their pagan emperor and from many of their fellow Israelites. The High Priests, other religious and civic leaders, friends and neighbors were in league with the emperor. The religious institutions of Israel were crumbling and the Jews who remained faithful faced persecution and death. But the Maccabees never gave up hope in the providence of God and persevered in the defense of their beloved faith. Free of fear and despair, they defeated the evil that meant to destroy their faith and heritage against all odds.
The Polish people faced a similar challenge in the 20th Century. Like the Hellenist rulers of Israel, the Communists who ruled Poland used terror and fear to maintain control and destroy the deep Catholic faith of the people. However, in 1979, in the first return to his homeland as pope, John Paul II inspired the Polish people to call out the evil of Communism. He challenged the people with these words:
I plead with you—never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.
The Poles took the pope’s words to heart, and the Communist dictatorship was doomed. Less than two years later, the tables were turned and the dictators were on the defensive offering reforms that they hoped the people would accept. Within 10 years, Communism in Poland had been all but destroyed.
Christians and Jews today face perils similar to those of Hellenist Israel and Communist Poland—persecution of God’s faithful and intolerance of their beliefs. Government, academia and the culture are increasingly hostile to the Judeo-Christian culture on which America is based. Sadly, in the name of tolerance and remaining relevant in the modern world, the clergy are too often indifferent or worse, supportive, of the dismantling of the country’s core Judeo-Christian principles.
America cannot survive if it abandons its guiding moral principles, as President John Adams explained in 1798:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
To this Catholic, the emancipating message of Hanukkah was demonstrated by the Maccabees and by John Paul II—never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid! We hear those simple, powerful words proclaimed repeatedly throughout the Scriptures, by Moses, David, Solomon, Ezekiel and Isaiah, and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul. That message is profoundly liberating, for the Maccabees, and the Poles, and for us.
We may face a long grey twilight of ever-increasing intolerance and persecution of the faithful and their Judeo-Christian principles, but we know how it will end. It is up to us to act boldly in the face of injustice, live our faith openly and fearlessly, and oppose evil wherever it is found.
As Catholics, let us embrace the rich patrimony we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters, starting with the lessons of Hanukkah. To all Children of Abraham, Happy Hanukkah! Be a Maccabee—persevere, trust in God … and be not afraid.