Friday of week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on 1 Macc 4:36-37, 52-59

Today’s reading recalls the institution of one of the most important feasts on the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Dedication. Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers had been waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian occupation of their land. Eventually they defeated and drove out the Gentile forces. Having defeated their enemies, Judas Maccabeus, a son of Mattathias whom we saw in yesterday’s reading, called on his followers to go to Jerusalem to purify and dedicate the Temple which had been desecrated by having the “Abomination of Desolation”, that is, a statue of Baal or Zeus Olympus erected on it.

The New Jerusalem Bible notes:

The Temple was one of the principal objectives of the rebels, as the centre of Jewish religious life, without which the Law could not be observed in its fullness. The Gentiles had sacked and profaned it; now, as soon as the first victories are won, it is purified and re-consecrated. The death of Antiochus Epiphanes, which our author mistakenly places after the expeditions against the Idumaeans and Ammonites (in chap 5), doubtless had something to do with it too. The concept of the holiness of the Temple will be a dominant theme in Second Maccabees. (edited and text references omitted)

In passages immediately preceding the main part of our reading, we are told that Judas and his followers found the Temple in a state of total desolation – there was no one there, the altar desecrated, gates burnt down, vegetation growing freely as it might in the middle of a forest. Judas and his companions were devastated at the sight. He ordered the purification of the site by priests specially chosen for their impeccable credentials and faithfulness to the Law. It was then decided that the original altar should not be repaired but, because of its contamination by pagan rituals, should be pulled down and removed. A new altar was built in its place and other furnishings, like lamps, vessels, altar of incense and the table were installed.

Now we can pick up our reading. “On the 25th day of the 9th month, Chislev in the year 148″, that is, the 14th December 164 BC and the third anniversary of the first sacrifice offered to Zeus, a sacrifice was offered on the new altar. Thus was the new altar dedicated to the sound of all kinds of musical instruments. It was exactly the same day and the same time of the year when it had been originally desecrated by the Syrians. The people prostrated themselves and praised Heaven (this book sedulously avoids using God’s name) for all that had been achieved.

The dedication was celebrated for eight days altogether with holocausts, sacrifices of deliverance and thanksgiving sacrifices. Further adornments were added to the restored building. There was no end of rejoicing because the humiliation brought about by the gentiles had been obliterated.

Judas, with his brothers and the whole assembly, then laid it down that the days of dedication of the altar should be joyfully celebrated at the proper season for eight days every year, beginning on this 25th day of Chislev.

The feast of Dedication is still celebrated by Jews and known by its Hebrew name, Hanukkah. It is one of the ‘youngest’ feasts in the Jewish calendar. During the feast the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) was sung and leafy branches and palms were carried. Second Maccabees emphasises the similarities with the feast of Tabernacles or Shelters, which itself commemorated the inauguration of the Temple of Solomon.

The lamps lit at Dedication soon gave it its other name, ‘Feast of Lights’. The fact that these lamps, symbolising the Law, were placed not only in the Temple but in private houses assured the survival and popularity of the feast long after the desecration of the Temple in 70 AD. It is given great prominence in Second Maccabees. It is mentioned in John’s gospel, where we read: “It was winter, and the time came for the feast of the Dedication. Jesus was walking in the temple area, in Solomon’s Portico…” (John 10:22-23).

Today’s reading reminds us to remember the dedication of our own parish church and of the care and respect with which it should be maintained. Many communities have spared no expense and spent long years to build a church they felt worthy of being God’s house. We see the magnificent churches, say, of the Gothic or the Baroque period in Europe which took generations to be completed. And in some of these, too, we see magnificent liturgies of celebration on the great feasts of the year.

At the same time, we must never forget that the real Temple, the real dwelling place of God for us is his people. “You are the temple of the Spirit,” says Paul. We must remember always that the building, however magnificent, is for the people and not the other way round. When the building becomes poorly attended, an empty shell, just a work of art or a museum – or even a warehouse, it says something about the people by whom and for whom it was built.

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