We like to win. Anybody who thinks of his team as “lovable losers” is deceiving himself. Second place just means you are the best among the losers, but a loser nevertheless. Nobody ever wrote a self-help book about losing with grace and dignity; if somebody did it didn’t sell well. We like winners, and we like to be winners.
When was the last time you saw a joyous celebration by the losing team? No, it is the winners that celebrate. In the Tour de France the winner gets the kiss from the pretty young lady. The winner of the Indianapolis 500 auto race gets the celebratory glass of milk. The Kentucky Derby is the run for the roses, but only the winner gets them. It has always been thus. The Greeks ran for a crown in the Olympic Games. Caesar came home in triumph, which originally meant he got the ancient equivalent of a ticker-tape parade.
The Jewish people are no different. Passover is really a celebration of victory over Egypt, when God brought them out with “a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm.” (Deut 26:8) Purim is a celebration of victory over the machinations of Haman (boo! hiss!). (Esth 9) The most well known victory celebration for the Jewish people, though, is probably Hanukkah.
The holiday (December 16-23 in 2006) is technically a celebration of the rededication of the Temple. In a real sense, however, it is a celebration of victory. Without military victory, the Temple would have remained defiled. Antiochus IV Epiphanes had defiled the Temple. Judas Maccabaeus had led the revolt that was in process of defeating the Seleucid Greeks.
Then Judas and his brothers said, "See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. (1 Maccabees 4:36-38)
While it was the result of a military victory, the dedication of the Temple was also a spiritual victory. It would have been easy for the Jewish people to assimilate into Greek culture. They could have accepted the defiling of the Temple as a sign of Greek ascendancy. Instead they battled for their spiritual lives, and the dedication of the Temple was their victory.
He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. … At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. (1 Maccabees 4:42-46, 54-55)
It has been said that, since the destruction of the Second Temple, the table in the home is the equivalent of God’s temple. If that is so, then we need regularly to do what the Maccabean victors did. We defile the home and the table in many ways: disrespect, angry words, infidelity, indifference. At this time of the year, and regularly through the year, we need to cleanse and rededicate our lives and our homes. “Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God.” (Lev 20:7) Then there will be great rejoicing and the disgrace will be removed. (1 Maccabees 4:58) Then we will have won a victory as great as that celebrated on Hanukkah.