In mid August, in the mid of scorching summer, we celebrate Maccabees. However, when we walk through this city in freezing winter days, sometime around Gregorian Christmas, in the window frames of the Jewish houses or even more noticeable in their synagogues and other buildings, we can see candleholders with eight lighted candles and we know then that Jews celebrate their holiday Hanukkah for eight days. It’s hard to believe that we can relate our, Eastern Orthodox celebration of Holy Maccabean Martyrs with Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. You may be surprised, brothers and sisters, when I tell you that it is the same holiday and that we, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the same Saints.
Some time ago, our Patriarch used to light a candle in a candlestick for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Many rushed to judge him. This is how I felt about that: The Holiest Serbian Patriarch lit the candle for the Saints that Congregational Orthodox Church celebrates. Therefore, he lit the candle for the orthodox Saints. (Where I am from, many families celebrate these Saints as their Slava).
I will confess now, that before I learned this, I was a little irritated with this aggressive emphasizing of the eight candle holder. To be clearer about it: those candle holders and Jewish celebration of Hanukkah only reminded me of our religious indifference and furthermore of our unwillingness to profess Christian faith and values clearly and openly. In other words, I was not irritated by Hanukkah-God forbid-but bleak Serbian indolence. Now that I know more about the history of this holiday, and about the relation between Hanukkah and our celebration of the Holy Maccabean Martyrs, I wish that we can show more self-consciousness and stronger declaration of holy orthodox faith.
Let’s see the relation between those two holidays.
I will tell you about the time and place of the events of the story of Holy Maccabees. Time of the events of the story: almost two centuries before the Coming of our Lord; place of the events of the story: occupied Jewish land, and the Holy City of Jerusalem. Because the battle of the Jewish people for the faith of their fathers lasted for decades, and Holy Maccabees were the brightest example in this revolt with their adamant declaration of one God, the whole period of about hundred years was named after them.
To help you understand the circumstances in which Holy Martyrs, Maccabees came to be, I can tell you that among Jewish people of that time, the situation was as tragic as it is among us, unfortunate Serbs, now, two thousand nine years after the Embodiment of God’s Son. Complete disarray, conversions, betrayals, conflicts and dissidences, disasters everywhere. Jewish people, land and Holy City, occupied. Leaders, aristocracy, High Priests, various profiteers and nabobs had their eyes fixed onto then powerful Greece; the same way eyes of our present-day scoundrels are fixed onto “Europe” and its union. Led by blind and deceptive leaders, people slowly relinquish Holy faith and traditions and take other people’s religion and unknown traditions.
While the people and their leaders followed God’s path and practiced His laws, God’s hand protected them and defended them against evil. When they rebelled against Lord, God’s hand weighed down upon them with all its might and main. Evil multiplied, God’s punishment had to come. Wrath of God poured over apostates especially through pagan ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV. He robbed and pillaged the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. In 168. Before Christ, “he entered Jerusalem with a great army, and pretending he wanted peace, he took over the city by fraud. He did not even spare those that (nicely) accommodated him; but because of the wealth of the Temple, seeing all the gold in the Temple and precious ornaments of the gifts, for the love of money he broke his promises so he could rob all of it. He pillaged the Temple, taking even the vessel of God, the golden lanterns and golden altar and table of bread and censers, he did not even leave the curtains that were made of silk and Tyrian purple, he did not leave anything which put the people of Judea into great sadness. He also put a stop to their daily sacrifices, which was their constant practice by Law. And he robbed the whole city; many he slaughtered and many others he captured along with women and children, there were about 10.000 of the captured. He burned the most beautiful parts of the City, he destroyed the walls, and he built a fortress in the lower City; it was tall; taller than the Temple; he put the walls around it and fenced it with walls and towers and he put Macedonian garrison to guard it. And in the Tower many ungodly people lived, people of the wicked nature that gave people of Jerusalem many troubles. This ruler built another altar to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon it, making a sacrifice that was not lawful or patristic by the laws of Jewish faith. He compelled them to relinquish their faith and their God and to respect those that he considered gods. They built in every city and every village pagan temples and they put altars, upon which he ordered sacrifices to be made daily. He also ordered that anyone who continues to hold to Judaism be punished.
And many people of Judea, some voluntarily and some because they feared the punishment, followed his orders; while those that were more proven (in their faith) and those of noble soul were indifferent to him, and they paid more attention to their fathers’ traditions than to the punishment with which he threatened them if they did not obey. For that, they were tortured daily, and suffering bitter pain they died for their faith. For they were beaten and their bodies were mutilated, and they were crucified while still alive and breathing, and their women and children which were circumcised despite the ruler’s order, were hung to their parents’ necks. And every Holy Script and Law of Moses that was found was destroyed and their possessors were brutally executed.” (Joseph Flavius, quoted from Bishop Atanasije Jevtic’ translation). This ruler’s arrogance was so high that he called himself god and he took the name of Zeus of Olympus; he commanded that all of his subjects worship only one god-Zeus of Olympus, with whom he thought himself equal (F. Justin Popovic). Furthermore, he commanded that bowing to Jehovah, circumcision, Sabbaths, and the difference between clean and unclean be stopped.
The atrocities of this forerunner of Antichrist stirred the blood of the orthodox people. One of the priests, Matthias with his five sons led a rebellion against this evildoer and his satraps. While dying he left his government to his third son Judah Maccabee. His three year battle, from 166-164 was described in both books of Maccabees, as well as his God-given liberation, cleansing and renewal-sanctification (Hanukkah) of the Temple of Living and True God in Jerusalem. (Bishop Atanasije)
In this rebellion and fights against pagan violence, the seven Maccabee brothers martyrly succumbed. Their priest, saint Eleazar, was their exemplar and support because he died a martyr and his testimony of the Only True God was adamant. Their mother, saint Solomonia, encouraged them till the last breath of the youngest son; and in the end she followed her sons to the Lord.
I will remind you of the Resurrection of Christ icon. Lord, annihilating the underworld and destroying death, holds two people by the hand-we recognize Adam and Eve- and behind them there is a long line of those that were delivered from the underworld. Those are, brothers and sisters, all the righteous of the Old Testament, from Abel to the last one. They did not disregard the messengers of God, nor God Himself.
God came down to the underworld “to proclaim to the imprisoned spirits” (1 Peter 3-19) the same Gospel that he proclaimed on earth. (F. Justin) There is no doubt that they recognized the Saviour and Redeemer in Lord Christ, and He was adopted as such first by the sons of Israel who devoutly expected Him and predicted His arrival. (same)
Among them were, the saint brothers, the Maccabees, their priest and their martyr mother Solomonia and because of that we celebrate them as witnesses of Resurrected Christ.