Hanukkah is sometimes called the Festival of Lights. In fact, Josephus calls it by this name as early as the first century. But there is something odd about how he phrases it:
From that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights [Greek: phota]. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that hence was the name given to that festival. (Antiquities of the Jews 12:325)
Josephus supposes they call it the “Festival of Lights” because liberty appeared? That makes no sense. Why doesn’t Josephus seem to know why it is called by this name? After all, it should be obvious. Just a few lines prior, Josephus explained what historical event they celebrate:
So on the five and twentieth day of the month of Chisleu… they lit the lamps [Greek: phota] that were on the lampstand. (Antiquities of the Jews 12:319)
Josephus is deliberately hiding something here, and it’s easy to see why. Hanukkah commemorates a successful military rebellion. Writing to a Roman audience shortly after the destruction of the Temple, Josephus probably thought it wise to downplay this aspect of Hanukkah.
This reveals an important truth about the Hanukkah lights. They do not merely remind us of a past event. They symbolize a much bigger revolution that is yet to come, for those who can see it.
A lamp is meant to be seen. As our Master said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 11:33).
As such, seeing is at the core of Hanukkah. According to Jewish law, one recites a blessing upon merely seeing the chanukkiah, even if someone else lit it (b.Shabbat 23a). There is no other mitzvah object like this—that merely seeing it necessitates a blessing. One does not recite a blessing upon seeing a sukkah or a piece of matzah, for example.
Seeing means more than light entering the eyes. It is comprehending. As Yeshua taught:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. (Matthew 13:13, 16)
Luke records a beautiful prayer of Yeshua and a fascinating comment:
In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Then turning to the disciples he said privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:21-23)
The chanukkiah is not a normal lamp. The purpose of a normal lamp is for the light to reflect on other objects and make them visible. The light of the chanukkiah, however, is holy light; its only purpose is to be seen directly. The declaration we recite after lighting explains:
For all eight days of Hanukkah, these are holy lights, and we are not to make any use of them except to look at them in order to give thanks and praise your great name for your miracles, wonders, and salvation.
When we look at these candles, what are we supposed to see? What are we supposed to envision? This may be hinted at in the blessing we recite upon seeing the light of the chanukkiah:
Blessed are you, O LORD, our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our fathers long ago at this time.
The phrase “long ago at this time,” or in Hebrew, bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh, literally means, “in those days, at this time.” In the simple sense, “those days” refers to the time of the Maccabees in the second century BCE. However, the prophets use bayamim hahem, “those days,” to refer to the Messianic Era:
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 33:15)
The miracle of Hanukkah was that those days—the days of the Messianic Era and the World to Come—were made visible at this time—in our present era. When God performs a miracle for us, we witness the kingdom of heaven breaking through into our world: “those days at this time.”
This may be what made Josephus so self-conscious about the Festival of Lights. The lights are not just a memorial to what once was. They represent a revolution that will overthrow the entire world as we know it: the reign of the Messiah.