Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The term Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “appearance.” Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent helps Christians not only to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus Christ but also to look forward to his glorious Second Coming. Although Advent customs may be foreign to many, like so many other seasonal traditions they are a wonderful way to turn our attention more fully to the true meaning of Christmas.
Many Advent traditions come from Germany, where Martin Luther encouraged its continued observance as a way of teaching children and families more about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ. It came to be celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans there and has become a common celebration in many Christian faith communities throughout the world.
One of the best known Advent customs is the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and a single white candle in the center. The wreath itself represents the never-ending circle of God’s love, that he is forever the same in his love toward his people. The green of the wreath, as in the Christmas tree, represents the hope of eternal life that comes through Christ and serves a reminder of the freshness of God’s love and promises. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, that his birth represented the coming of the light into darkness, and that we are called to reflect that light in our lives.
The outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, although customarily the third one is rose or pink. Traditions differ regarding the symbolism of the candles. One is that they represent the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through Jesus Christ. Each Sunday before Christmas an additional candle is lit, creating a beautiful stepped effect as the previous weeks’ candles burn down further. Scriptures can be read and carols sung as part of the lighting, which we do before family prayer. The four candles can also represent the different Old Testament covenants that God made with his servants, beginning with Noah and continuing through Abraham, Moses, and David. The central white candle is known as the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and represents the new covenant made possible through Christ.
While formally observing Advent is not part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, individuals and families can often adapt and employ such traditions for their own use. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has spoken positively of the Advent traditions that he grew up with in Germany in a recent First Presidency Christmas devotional, as have other converts to the Church. As my wife and I were developing our own family traditions early in our marriage, observing Advent was one that we found enriched our Christmas season, and in recent years we have found that it is a wonderful way to teach our children, share spiritual experiences with them, and keep them focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
For LDS families, Advent can be adapted by reading not only from the Old Testament and New Testament but also from the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price (see our selection at my Advent site). While not all families may wish to observe such Advent customs, spending time with the scriptures and enjoying beautiful music on the Sundays of Advent can be uplifting and provide meaningful reflection on the season.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
I am finishing co-directing the BYU summer study abroad program in Rome this weekend before moving on to Athens for the final week and half of the summer term.
It has been a hot and humid month as Dr. Gary Hatch and I have tried to keep a day ahead of the forty students who joined us. We have seen a lot of Rome and of Italy during the month.
However, Rome has been our base of operation, and during the term, we lived in several different apartments located around Vatican City, the smallest independent nation on earth. Two student apartments, in fact, have direct views of St. Peter’s Basilica from their bedroom windows.
Of course, like other travelers and tourists, we visited the Vatican museums, the Vatican gardens, the Scavi (the first-century necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica), and inside the church itself. The students also attended a papal audience the very first week. On other occasions St. Peter’s magnificent square was a meeting place for the group before we headed off to some other location in the city. Nevertheless, it seems as though we were in the shadow of St. Peter’s every day no matter where we were in the city.
Even for non-Catholics, St. Peter’s is a must place to visit in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta is located in the church, and his dome looms over the skyline of Rome itself, beckoning people to gather at this remarkable site.
According a long-held tradition, Peter was crucified in Nero’s Circus and buried nearby sometime between AD 64 and 66. At some fairly early date, maybe by the middle of the second century AD, Christians marked a tomb they believed contained the bones of Peter. Later, Constantine erected a church on the site in the fourth century. Eventually, Pope Julius II began the construction of a new church, the current basilica, on the site in 1505. Beginning in 1939, the Vatican sponsored several archeological investigations under the Basilica where they found the remnants of the first church building and some first-century tombs.
Today, visitors to the Scavi are shown a specific tomb Catholics believe is that of St. Peter, directly under the current high altar covered by Bernini’s canopy directly under Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Although most likely not the tomb of the fisherman from Galilee, there is something remarkable about visiting a site that has been the focus of pilgrimages for nearly two thousand years. And while we may never know exactly what happened to Peter (where, how, and when he died), there is something that makes us think about him in the shadow of the basilica named after him in this amazing city on the Tiber River.