At this winter time of year, when the days seem almost perpetual darkness, it is easy to bemoan the fading of the light. There is, for many of us, that certain winter weariness that starts to set in. As I have said before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that most of the great religions of the world have some sort of festival of lights at this time of year. We need to remember the light, and celebrate the light, when winter comes. One of the most important of these celebrations, of course, is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
For eight consecutive nights, starting last evening, our Jewish neighbors and friends will light candles in their homes, as will members of the Jewish faith around the world. These candles will symbolize the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 137
when just a tiny bit of sacred oil burned, miraculously, for eight straight
nights. “Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. It is a time for joy
and celebration, for merriment and gift-giving, and fun and games. It is also a
time when the Jewish people are asked to remember what a dedicated few can do
against a mighty empire.
So that’s why I think that it is fitting and proper, whether we are of Jewish heritage or not, to take a little time during the rush of the Christmas season to mark the festival of Hanukkah as well. For the story of the Maccabees represents a precious legacy to all of us.
Hanukkah is about the victory of freedom—religious freedom, in particular. It doesn’t celebrate the Maccabbes’ military skills or the might of their weapons or the tactical prowess. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates the depth of their commitment to a sacred cause, a spirit which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. Indeed, it is a story written not just in ancient scriptures, but deep upon the human heart.
Just as it is easy in December to bemoan the fading of the light, so it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming mired in the long, sad litany of folly and failure that litters our human sojourn on this earth. There are certainly enough stories of war and mayhem and senseless violence in history to go around.
This is, for even the most casual student of history (for even the most casual observer of life, for that matter) a hard story to ignore. But it’s too easy to come to believe that it’s the whole story, because it’s not. Perhaps this is another reason we have Hanukkah and Christmas and other days that celebrate the human spirit: to remind ourselves that the story of human stupidity and callousness and depravity is only about half the story of our human race, perhaps—maybe a little more, maybe a little less.
For, yes—only a fool can deny the face of evil in human experience. But we have seen the face of the divine there, as well. In our own lives—in our history—in our common human story—we have also seen the many blessed faces of hope. They have met us along the pathways of our existence in a fascinating and inspiring variety of shapes and sizes and ages and races. History can depress us, but hope can take our breath away, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected corners.
Yes, though humankind walks through the darkest valley, hope abides.
In the bleakest years of experience and the grayest years of history, hope abides.
Amidst our deepest fears and our greatest disappointments, hope abides.
Hope is also always borne by men and women (and even children) who look just like us. Who wear the face of humanity as we do—no more, but no less. Who are no less than fully human, in all that magnificent potential; no less than fully alive, completely open to the Spirit’s power moving within us, transcending the limitations of human history; transforming the often-drear and turgid prose of human experience into the vibrant, singing poetry of hope.
In spite of persecution and prejudice and pogrom and even unspeakable Holocaust, the eternal light of the faith kindled by the Maccabees still shines.
In spite of greed and selfishness and exploitation and tyranny, the eternal light of hope still illumines the path of human history.
In spite of darkness and depression and despair, the eternal light of love still burns in our hearts, and lights our days and fires our nights, and reminds us that we are created in the image of the divine.
As Vaclav Havel reminded us, in words that have become a sort of mantra for me, hope is not the same thing as optimism. Hope is not the assurance that things will be easy or will turn out well. Hope is, rather, the blessed assurance that what we are doing makes sense and has purpose, and that it is the right thing to do, whatever the immediate consequences.
The words of the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, too, echo with hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Parker wrote, “but it bends inexorably toward justice.”
Arrogant and self-satisfied little men might strut about the stage of history for a little while, acting like a sort of schoolyard bully. But history does not belong to them, and sooner or later, they always face a day of reckoning.
Hope is a dimension of the spirit; it is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face. It is a divine gift passed down by fragile human hands. Hope is a gift from God. But it only comes alive if we light the lamp, and live out hope within our lives.
Seek out and find your own angels of hope, my friends. Listen to the stories of your own days, your own stories, and ponder the deeper questions in your hearts. Discern for yourselves who it has been—which people, which men and women, have spoken words which lit up the darkness, have lived lives which reflected that deep hope?
Then remember this: The spirit that was within them also lives within you. It is within you right now, waiting in this season of Hanukkah, this season of Advent, to come alive, to bear fruit, to grow, as the perennial seed lies waiting in the ground of winter for its season of new life to come again.
There are angels of our common human history who call to us, as well. Some walk still among us now; others are long gone, except in memory. All still live in special places in our hearts; they still burn in the candles of the menorahs of our souls.
We can remember Mahatma Gandhi, his creativity, his persistence, his discipline. We can remember his commitment to human liberation, not just of the physical person, but of the mind and soul as well.
We can remember Rosa Parks who got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and took her seat on that bus in Montgomery on the first day of December in 1958, and launched a new American revolution.
We can remember Nelson Mandela, whose quiet grace and dignity led a nation away from an almost certain abyss of violence and bloodletting, and onto a road toward promise and possibility and peace.
We can remember Lech Walesa, a simple electrician in a shipyard on the Baltic coast of Poland, who through conscience and courage and religious faith and good old Polish stubbornness alone, decided that working men and women in his country, no less than anywhere else, deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. And so, Solidarity was formed, and the face of Europe (and the world) was changed.
When we take the easy way out and despair of the sad state of our world, let us take time to remember this great cloud of witnesses that travels with us on this human journey. Remember these cherubim of the human spirit, these seraphim of hope: men and women, sometimes of extraordinary powers, but oftentimes not; all somehow inspired, either by a spark from heaven, or some spark deep within their souls, to put aside the easy, well-worn path of lukewarm living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, and little more hope.
Back in the year 137 BCE, the Maccabees could have said: “Oh, the Seleucids are too strong. We’re doomed. Our people will never be free. Let’s just worship their pagan idols.” Or, later, they just could have lamented: “Oh, there’s not enough oil. We can’t rekindle the lamp. The Holy Light will never burn again.”
But they didn’t. They fought on. They lit the lamp with the little bit of oil they had. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Gandhi could simply have said: “The British are too strong; they’ll never leave India. But I’m well educated; I’m bright; I’m ambitious. To heck with these Untouchables; I’ll just set up a law practice for myself and make enough money to get by comfortably.”
But he didn’t say that, and so the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Rosa Parks could have just gotten up from her seat when that bus driver in Montgomery told her to. It would have been easier for her just to get up, and walk to the back of the bus.
But she didn’t. She sat in that seat—a defiant and courageous angel of the human spirit. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Mandela could have given into those who told him to preach violence and race war and revenge. It would have been easy to do so; it could even have been justified. But he didn’t. He chose the more excellent way of non-violence and reconciliation. So, light another candle on history’s great menorah.
Walesa could have lost himself in personal concerns. “Why should I worry about anyone other than myself?” he could have asked. “I’ll join the Communist Party instead; I’m become a careerist, an apparatchik and boss other people around.”
But he didn’t. So boldly light another candle, and let the hope of Hanukkah still shine.
There are other lights, too—small and flickering now, perhaps; but waiting to be fanned into full flame by the winds of hope.
Light a candle for Myanmar, for Burma, where the seeds of democracy planted by brave souls like Aung San Suu Kyi might truly be bursting through the hard ground of tyranny.
Light a candle for Syria, where brave men and women once again have proven (nearly 40,000 of them with their lives) that the way of hope is seldom easy, but that no amount of military force or totalitarian tyranny can quench a people’s longing for freedom.
In Burma—and Syria—and in so many other places around our world—the true lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Emma Lazarus once wrote:
Kindle the taper like a steadfast star,
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a luster till afar
An eightfold splendor shines above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn:
Chant psalms of victory till the heart take fire,
And the Maccabean spirit leap new-born.
May the spirit of Hanukkah be born anew within us, every year. May that spirit of justice and freedom—and of hope—move within our hearts and hands, and resonate in our time, and illuminate the world.