The Maccabbees

The worship service for January 1, 2006, was informal. The homily for the day, given by Rev. Dan Harper, was improvised to a greater extent than usual. Thus the text below is fairly rough. Homily copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

HOMILY — “The Maccabees”

When we gather here in the Green Room in the middle of winter, it feels to me like we’re gathering in the living room of the church. Maybe by next year, we’ll have the fireplace cleaned and working so we can have a real fire. And what better thing to do on a winter day in your living room, than to listen to stories….

Tonight is the last night of Hannukah, so we’re going to tell the story of Hannukah. You might be wondering why a post-Protestant-Christian tradition like Unitarian Universalism would tell the story of a minor traditional Jewish holiday like Hannukah. Well, I have three reasons. First of all, Hannukah is a chance to dive into two books, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, that were removed from the Bible during the Protestant Reformation — 2nd Maccabees is a book of history that includes the origin of Hannukah — and I always like to read books that I’m not supposed to read. Second of all, the period from 164 BCE, the date when Hannukah originated, to 200 CE, by which time the Mishnah and much of the Christian scriptures were written, was a period of intense religious ferment within Judaism — it led on the one hand to the establishment of a sect of Judaism now called Christianity, and on the other hand to rabbincal Judaism.

The third reason is the most important: the story of Judah Maccabee’s recapture of the great Temple of Jerusalem is one of the great stories of liberation. It’s a great story, and it’s not an easy story. It’s one of those rich, difficult, complex stories, and like all good stories it does not allow us to feel comfortable but pushes us to wonder who we are and what we should do with our lives.

I’ll partly read from 2nd Maccabees, but it’s a long story so I’ll have paraphrase here and there. Now let the story begin…

The Jews have been taken over by the Syrian empire, and they are now ruled by King Antiochus; who has put greedy, cruel Menelaus in charge of the great and sacred Temple at Jerusalem. When King Antiochus goes off to invade Egypt, some of the Jews lead an unsuccessful revolt against Menelaus, The King returns, and, angered by the revolt, desecrates the Temple. In second Maccabees, it says:

“Antiochus dared to enter the most holy temple in all the world, guided by Menelaus, who had become a traitor both to the laws and to his country. He took the holy vessels with his polluted hands, and swept away with profane hands the votive offerings that other kings had made to enhance the glory and honor of the place. Antiochus was elated in spirit, and did not perceive that the Lord was angered for a little while because of the sins of those who lived in the city, and that this was the reason he was disregarding the holy place.” [2 Maccabees 5.15-17, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV)]

There is worse to come. On the holy sabbath day, Antiochus’s forces kill great numbers of people in Jerusalem; but Judah Maccabee and a handful of his compatriots escape and hide in the hills. The story continues in 2nd Maccabees:

“Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place. Harsh and utterly grievous was the onslaught of evil. For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit. The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.” [2 Maccabees 6.1-6 NRSV]

And it gets worse. Jews are forced to participate in sacrifices, and many choose martyrdom rather than participate in acts they considered vile and debasing; they resist being forced into giving up their religion and culture, to assimilate into the religion and culture of their conquerors.

At last, Judah Maccabee is able to organize resistance fighters. They attack the Greek and Syrian soldiers in lightning raids, gradually increasing the intensity of their attacks. King Antiochus sickens and dies, and the resistance fighters see this as a sign that their God is helping them in their time of need. They continue their insurrection until at last they are able to drive the foreign conquerors out of Jerusalem. At last came the moment when they could purify the great Temple. Here is how the story is told in 2 Maccabees:

“Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence…. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals…. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.” [2 Maccabees 10.1-4, 6, 8, NRSV]

The celebration of Hannukah arose from this historical event. The rabbis recorded the beginning of the holiday in the Talmud Bavli, tractate Shabbat 21b:

“When the Greeks entered the Temple, the defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the Hasmonean Kingdom [that is, the kingdom eventually founded by Judah Maccabee and his followers] became strong and was victorious, they checked and found only one jug of oil that had the seal of the High Priest and had only enough to light for one day. A miracle was done for them and they lit from it for eight days. The next year, they established them as festive days of praise and thanksgiving.” [Link to this online translation of the Mishnah.]

So this is a story of a small, weak country that has been invaded by a strong foreign military force; it is a story of how the foreign conquerors tried to force the Jews to give up their Jewishness, to give up their religion and their way of life. It is a story of how the Jews resisted as best they could, until finally, a miracle, they managed to beat back the conquerors and clean out their Temple, they were able once again to practice their religion as they saw fit.

More than just a military history, this is a story that tells how sometimes people have to fight for liberation. Indeed, some of us are already fighting for liberation from oppression: women who are still fighting to be paid the same wage as men for the same work; people of color who are still fighting for justice and equality in a culture dominated by white folks; gays and lesbians who are still fighting for such basic rights as legal marriages.

Not only does this story tell us that we might have to fight for liberation, it says that the fight may get to the point where blood is spilled. This is a hard thing for a peacenik like me to hear; but I also understand that a lot depends on how bad the oppression is. When the Temple is desecrated and the Jews are forced to participate in unclean rituals, I can understand that some of them choose death rather than assimilation and accommodation; and I can understand why Judah Maccabee rises in armed revolt. This raises a hard question: What is so central to you that, if someone tried to force you to give it up, you would rather die first? Would you die for your religion? Would you die for justice? These are questions I would prefer not to have to answer!

So let’s ask a question that is not quite so harsh. Let’s ask: Which fight for liberation are you willing to give the most to right now? Think about that question for a moment: Which fight for liberation are you willing to give the most to right now? Perhaps for you it is a personal fight that means most to you right now, a fight to liberate yourself from illness or personal troubles. Or it might be a fight against some form of injustice that you have witnessed; so for me, what means most to me right now is the fight for fair wages and worker safety and meaningful work; this is because I spent years in working class and service industry jobs.

Which fight for liberation are you willing to give the most to right now?

I’m going to ask you to take an index card and a pencil, and (if you wish) to write down your answer to this question: Which fight for liberation are you willing to give the most to right now? Then I’m going to ask you to give the card back to Emma and to me, and we will read the answers, anonymously, to the question: Which fight for liberation are you willing to give the most to right now?


By reading these answers out loud, we have heard what people in this community feel is worth fighting for. These are matters for our religion: for as Unitarian Universalists we are not content to wait for some heaven after death, we want to build a heaven here on earth. These are matters for our religious community: our religion requires us to tell our children what is most important in life, what they should be willing to fight for. These are matters for our inner spiritual life: as much as we believe in the power of love, we know that love is an active force that requires us to go out into the world and do something about it.

May the power of love prevail in the end. So may we bring about a heaven on earth. May we make the world a better place for our children, and our children’s children.