Happy Hanukkah! That may seem a strange thing to say in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you are like me, you cringe a bit at the idea that Unitarian Universalist congregations have unwittingly become a part of what is being called â€œChrismahanukwanzakah” â€”a mishmash of winter holidays that are more about selling things than respecting religious traditions. And of course, there is the oddness of hearing a sermon on Hanukkah given by someone who is not Jewish and whose understanding of the significance of the holiday comes from reading books and long conversations with his rabbi mother-in-law.
But a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage is engagement with other faith traditionsâ€”engagement based on respect and a belief that while no one tradition has the only truth, each has its share of the truthâ€”and a certainty that learning from others is holy work. Still, we have to be careful not to create some â€œlowest common denominator” assimilation of what we encounter. â€œChrismahanukwanzakah” is easy to come by. A deeper, more real experience of the depth of the Hanukkah story and tradition are much harder to find.
With that in mind, I want to begin by refreshing your memory. The story of Hanukkah began 165 years before the Common Era. Three years earlier, the Greek Assyrians, led by King Antiochus, seized the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and turned it over to the worship of Zeus. They desecrated the space, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and began entering cities, rounding up Jews, and insisting they bow to idols and eat the flesh of a pigâ€”two things expressly forbidden by Jewish law. An elder named Mattathias was outraged and began a rebellion. When he died, his son, Judah Maccabee, continued the fight. He and a few others fought the Assyrian army and, despite the overwhelming odds, retook the temple. When they entered, they found it nearly destroyed. The altar was broken, the precious objects had been stolen and sold, and most importantly, the lamp that was always lit to indicate the presence of God had been snuffed out.
Judah Maccabee and his men looked everywhere for the special, consecrated oil they needed to relight the lamp. They found only one small container that had not been ruinedâ€”enough for only one day. But it would take eight days to make more oil. (Why eight days? Because in the Jewish tradition, the eighth day was a new beginningâ€”it was infinity or wholenessâ€”one more day than it took to create the world.) With only one dayâ€™s worth of oil, the temple could not be rededicated. Even so, they lit the lamp and eight days later, it still burned. The temple was restored. These are the miracles of Hanukkahâ€”that a small group of fighters could defeat an army and that one dayâ€™s oil burned for eight days, restoring the temple.
This story is interesting in many ways to those who study religion. It is interesting because within the story and within Jewish tradition, there is a contest of miracles. There is the miracle of the lightsâ€”God causing the oil to burn for eight days rather than oneâ€”and there is the miracle of the Maccabeesâ€”that just a few poorly-armed Jews could successfully throw off a powerful oppressor and reclaim their holy spaceâ€”the Temple. At different times and for different reasons these two miracles have competed for prominence in the celebration of Hanukkah.
It is also interesting to note that while Hanukkah is one of the smallest Jewish festivals and one not mentioned at all in the Hebrew Bible itself, but only in the midrashim, itâ€™s proximity to Christmas has made it the most well-known and well-assimilated holiday in the Jewish year. That can only be described as ironic, since the Maccabean rebellion was a life and death struggle against the insidious power of the assimilation of Jews into Greek culture.
And so, what do Unitarian Universalists have to learn from this minor festival with its competing miracles? Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Roberta Finkelstein writes:
Though much has changed since the Maccabean rebellion, much remains the same. There are still tyrants seeking to impose conformity. And some of them are not foreign dictators but Americans who have made their personal religious fervor into a cudgel to be used against those of us who donâ€™t share it.
The victory of Hanukkah was a victory for freedom and diversity and toleration. The guerilla war of the Maccabees ended long ago, but the struggle for the minds and hearts of the inhabitants of this earth is ongoing â€“ and the enemies of freedom, the people who fear diversity and preach intolerance as a virtue â€“ they still roam the globe with their armies and their statues of idols. And it is still up to us, those who received from the Macabees the gift of religious freedom, it is up to us to continue the defense of that freedom that the Maccabees began.
Indeed, one of the reminders the Hanukkah story holds for us is that religious freedom is worth fighting for. When I titled this sermon â€œDefending Holy Places,” it was this that I was thinking ofâ€”the sacred place of conscience within each person. Throughout our history as Unitarians, Universalists and heretics, it is this knowing that each human being has to stumble toward their own holy placeâ€”their own understanding and experience of what is most meaningful and worthy of our attention and adorationâ€”that has most inspired us. It was this religious freedom that Judah Maccabee fought for and it is the same religious freedom that our own heroes and martyrsâ€”Michael Servetus, Francis David, Joseph Priestley, Olympia Brown, and so many othersâ€”gave their lives to defend.
And so, for Unitarian Universalists, the Hanukkah story is a reminder of the vital importance of religious pluralism and respect for difference. And it reminds us, that in order to protect that freedom, we must begin by knowing who we are. Mattathias reminded his sons that they were Maccabeesâ€”a word that means â€œhammer”â€”and that they could not allow their identity to be swallowed up and disappear into the dominant culture of their day. So too, we have to know who we are and what holy spaces in us and in this world are worth defending.
But there is something to learn from the â€œother” Hanukkah miracle as well. Rabbi Gregory Marx tells the story in this excerpt of his Hanukkah sermon:
As we celebrate Hanukkah, I’d like to ask you a question. Why is Hanukkah celebrated for eight days? It should only be a seven day celebration. The Maccabees had enough oil for the first day. The miracle occurred on the following seven days. So why do we commemorate an eight day miracle?
Professor Larry Hoffman of HUC gives a wonderful answer. “Hanukkah celebrates not one miracle but two. There are the seven days that recall the intervention of God in unprecedented ways, the times, that is, when we did not give up (though we might have) and when a feeble initiative that ought to have died within a day lasted instead until we found a way to keep it going. But the miracle of the first day is more awesome still. It is the unaccountable human penchant to light a flame in the first place, to dare to hope (against all odds) that if we can just get through at least one day, the defeat we fear just might not come true … light a candle in your soul and feel God’s breath fan its flames until you find your own courage to go on.”
The miracle of the first candle was the most impressive, for the Maccabees went ahead and lit the candle knowing that there was not enough oil to last. They forged ahead, when reason dictated that their efforts were futile. Rabbi Shim Maslin writes, “Like the Israelites who forced God’s hand by plunging into the Sea of Reeds while Moses prayed, so the Maccabees kindled that last drop of oil with the faith that the sacred light would not gutter and fade, that the prayed miracle would occur. ”
Rabbi Avi Weiss writes:
“Needing oil for eight days but having found oil that could last for only one, most people would not have lit the Temple candelabra at all. Why light when failure is certain? Why make the effort, if the effort is doomed? The miracle of the first day is that the Maccabees found the inner strength, the inner courage, to light the Menorah in the first place. They did not give up, for nothing is impossible, and in the end they prevailed. No one is immune from … moments of darkness and night. But … light can remove the darkness, day follows night. The message of Chanukah is to kindle the first light: to care, to be concerned and to lift others. In the end, the
Chassidic masters said, â€˜a little bit of light has the power to drive away the darkness.’ ”
Perhaps not surprisingly the lesson of this Hanukkah miracle of lights is similar to the lesson of last weekâ€™s exploration of the lights of Advent. It is the lesson of the power of hope. Even though life is complicated and the odds seem against us, we light that first candle. When we kindle its flame there are no assurances, and yet to refuse to light it is to allow hopelessness to defeat us. And that is a defeat we cannot afford.
There are two Hanukkah miracles and they are both important. Perhaps, in fact, they do not compete so much as they complement one another: Know who you are and fight for religious freedom and kindle the flame of hope, even in the face of despair. The Hanukkah story reminds us all that we must defend the holy places in this world and in our own hearts that make room for our faithfulness and hope. Happy Hanukkah, my friends. May the lights we kindle during this season burn brightly and may miracles abound.
Amen. AshÃ©. And Blessed Be.