The Hope of Hanukkah
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 12, 2004
At this cold and dark December time of year, when the sun seems as though it has been snuffed out of our lives completely, it is easy to bemoan the fading of the light. Perhaps, in many of us, that winter tiredness, that weariness of flesh and spirit begins to set in. As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at this particular time of the year, most of the great religions of the world have some kind of festival of lights. One of the most important of these, in our culture, is, of course, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
For eight consecutive nights (staring this year on last Tuesday evening) candles are lighted in the homes of our Jewish neighbors, as in Jewish homes around the world. These symbolize the eight days of rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 137 BCE—“Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. It is a time for joy and celebration; a time for merriment and gift giving and games. It is also a time when the Jewish people are asked to remember what a dedicated few were once able to accomplish against a mighty empire.
One of the traditional Jewish prayers for Hanukkah goes like this:
“Creator God, on this festival of Hanukkah, we recall the heroism of the Maccabees who first taught the Jewish people—and through them the whole world—the meaning of religious freedom. We thank thee for their inspiration. By kindling these candles, we keep alive the flame of their zeal. We dedicate ourselves to carry on in their spirit. We pray that these tiny candles may bring the light of thy blessing into our homes and our hearts.”
This is why it is good and fitting and proper, whether we personally have Jewish ancestors or not, to take time during the rush of Christmastide to mark the festival of Hanukkah as well: To remember the Maccabees and their story, for it is a precious legacy to all of us, Jewish or not.
The victory of the Maccabees is so much more than the triumphal conclusion of one more long, drawn-out guerrilla conflict. Hanuukah marks, more importantly, the victory of freedom—and religious freedom in particular. It doesn’t celebrate the Maccabees’ superior military tactics, or their overwhelming weaponry, of the skill of their forces. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates the spirit of their commitment to a sacred cause, which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. That’s a story written not just in ancient scripture, but deep upon the human heart.
It is easy in mid-December to bemoan the fading of the light. It is easy, too, to repeat the sad litany of human folly that litters the chapters of our human journey upon this Earth. Human history is chocked full of wars and mayhem and senseless violence and what an observer once called the “Fundamental Stupidity” of the human race.
This is, for even the most casual student of history (the most casual observer of life, for that matter) a hard story to ignore. It can take one’s breath away to consider that ways which human beings have found to kill, maim, oppress, repress, exploit, cheat, dominate, enslave, and harm their fellow creatures. When we were in Fatima in Portugal this past summer, Elizabeth and I visited a little museum sponsored by one of the religious orders there, which contained an absolutely lovely collection of religious artwork and artifacts. But downstairs, deep in the basement of the museum, there was also a special exhibition honoring various Christian martyrs. This room, in stark contrast to the glorious religious artwork upstairs, contained numerous examples of torture implements and devices that, it was said, had been used by those in power who opposed the spread of Christianity. It was a sickening display, and I finally had to leave barely half way through; because it occurred to me that these very same implements (or ones just like them) had probably been used a couple of hundred years later during the Inquisition by Christian leaders, against those they perceived as their enemies. I felt deeply saddened by how little we human ones seem to learn from our history sometimes. I’ve studied enough history to know that the import of all of this human-inflicted terror and mayhem cannot be denied.
But we have to remind ourselves—and perhaps this is why we have Hanukkah and Christmas and other such celebrations of the human spirit—we have to remind ourselves that the “Fundamental Stupidity” tells only about one-half (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) of the story of our human sojourn.
For yes, we have seen the face of evil in human existence. But we have seen the face of God there as well. In our own lives, in our history as a people, in our common human epic, we have also seen the many blessed faces of hope—which have met us along the pathways of our lives in a fascinating variety of shapes and sizes and colors and ages. Hope can take out breath away, too, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected places.
Yea, though we walk through the darkest valley, hope abides.
In the bleakest, gray years, hope abides. Amidst our deepest disappointments, hope abides.
Hope is also always borne by men and women—and children, too—like us: human beings, no more than that—but mark this, too: no less than that; no less than fully human, fully alive; no less than fully open to the potentialities of the Spirit working, moving, transforming each and every moment of human history; each and every moment of our living; all the years of our days; transforming the often-dull and turgid prose of human existence into the vibrant, dancing, singing poetry of hope.
In spite of persecution and prejudice and pogrom and even unspeakable Holocaust—the Eternal Light of faith rekindled by the Maccabees still shines.
In spite of greed and selfishness and exploitation and dictatorship—in spite of the “Fundamental Stupidity”—the Eternal Light of hope still illumines the path of human history.
In spite of dreariness 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 reminds us, hope is not the assurance that things will be easy or will work out well. Hope is, rather, the 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 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 time, acting like some sort of privileged heir or schoolyard bully. But history does not belong to those who merely talk about morality and justice; it belongs, ultimately, to those who practice these things.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” wrote the ancient Hebrew psalmist. From the ancient and holy hills—from our strong and indomitable Mother Earth—from those greater forces in life which the ways of the world cannot give or take away—our help will come and our hope will come. “Our hope is in God,” wrote another ancient author. “Our hope is in the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.”
Hope is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face; it bears a face like any of ours. It is a divine gift passed down to us by fragile human hands—like ours. Hope is a gift from God, but it only comes alive if we live it.
Seek out and find your own angels of hope, my friends. Listen to the stories of your days; look within; ponder the question in your hearts; discern for yourselves who it has been—which people—which men, which women, which children—which of your fellow creatures has spoken words of hope to you? Which have lived lives of hope for you when you most needed it?
Then remember: 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 seeds lie buried, waiting, in this season of winter—waiting for their time of gestation to come again.
There are angels of human history who call us on, as well. Some are still here among us now; others are already long gone; all live still in special places in our hearts; all still burn in the candles of the menorahs of our souls.
We can remember Mahatma Gandhi: his humor, creativity, stubborn persistence and disciplined search for that which was right. We can remember his commitment to human liberation, not just of the body, but of the mind and the soul as well.
We can remember Rosa Parks, who got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and so took her seat on that bus in Montgomery in 1958, and launched a new American revolution.
We can remember Nelson Mandela, whose quiet grace and dignity led a nation away from the abyss of violence and bloodletting, and onto the 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, courage, 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 despair at the sad state of our world (an easy enough thing to do, especially now), let us take time to remember this great cloud of witnesses that travels with us on our human journeys. I have mentioned just a few such souls; I could easily think of a dozen more who inspire me just as much. Among all of us, there are probably hundreds of such blessed souls, lighting the ways of our paths.
There are so many angels of the human spirit, angels of hope. Men and women, sometimes with extraordinary skills, sometimes not, all somehow inspired by some spark from heaven, or some spark deep within their souls, to put aside the easy well-worn path of lukewarm living (day in, day out; neither hot nor cold; full of little sound and little fury and so little meaning)—put it aside, and find within themselves, a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, a little more hope.
The Maccabees could have said: “The Seleucids are too strong. We’re doomed, Our people will never be free.” Later, they could simply have lamented: “Oh, there’s not enough oil. We can’t rekindle the flame. The Holy Light will never burn again.”
But they didn’t. 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 and ambitious. I’ll set up a little law practice for myself, and I’ll get by.”
But he didn’t say that. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Rosa Parks could have just gotten up when that bus driver in Montgomery told her to. She could have just gotten up, and took her place at the back of the bus.
But she didn’t. She sat in that seat, defiant, courageous, a strong and brave angel of the human spirit. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Mandela could have given in to those who told him to preach violence and race war and bloodshed. It would have been so easy, maybe even justifiable. But he didn’t. He chose the more excellent way of non-violence and reconciliation. So, light another candle of the great world menorah.
Walesa could have lost himself in personal concerns. “Why should I worry about the other workers?” he could have asked himself. “I’ll just join the Communist Party instead. I’ll worm my way into the hierarchy. I’ll become an apparatchik and boss other people around.”
But he didn’t. So light another candle in history’s bold menorah, and let the defiantly hopeful lights of Hanukah still shine.
There are other lights, too—small and flickering now, perhaps—but waiting to be fanned into full flame by winds of hope.
Light a candle for Burma, where an unspeakably brave woman named Aung San Suu Kyi will one day lead her people out of the totalitarian darkness, and into the new light of freedom.
Light a candle for the Ukraine, where students and workers and ordinary men and women in the frigid, cold streets of Kiev and other cities will finally gain for their nation a place in the sunlight of democracy.
In these places—and more—the lights of Hanukkah still shine.
Emma Lazarus, who wrote the famous words that are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, was a celebrated poet of the second half of the nineteenth century. She was also a faithful and dedicated Jewish woman, whose words capture eloquently the power and dynamism of this day:
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 that Hanukkah spirit “leap new-born” within us. May that spirit of justice and of freedom—and of hope—resonate through our times, and illuminate our world.