Hanukkah, the Festival of lights, began on December 2 and continues until sundown on December 10. This is a holy season for millions around the world, many of whom are looking for light in a landscape that seems to them all too dark. Uncertainty about the future, regional conflicts, economic instability, environmental fears, problems on a global scale – we need this holiday season to remind us that the light returns and miracles happen.
At this time each year, Jews around the world tell the story of the Hanukkah miracle, the miracle of the light. There are two ways to look at this story, but let me tell it to you briefly first.
In the second century BCE, the land now called Israel was part of the Syrian Greek empire. The Jewish people were subject to King Antiochus IV, a despot and a tyrant determined to stamp out all Jewish practice and thought, and impose a common religion throughout his empire. He destroyed the temple, refusing to permit observance of Jewish practice and custom.
A Jewish rebellion crystallized around a leader named Judah Maccabee, or Judah the strong. It was not a large force. However, although Antiochus sent thousands of soldiers, the much smaller force of Maccabees defeated him.
That is the first miracle celebrated during Hanukkah – the defeat of a larger force by a dedicated group fighting for the right to worship in their own way, and indeed for the survival of their whole way of life.
The second miracle, and the primary miracle celebrated during Hanukkah, unfolded when the Maccabees returned to the Temple to cleanse and rededicate it. The Syrians and Greeks had defiled the temple, clearing out the idols and destroying the altar. Because the gold menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the returning Jews made one of cheaper metal. However, when they began to light it, they found only enough purified oil for one day. Not enough! However, in faith they lit it nonetheless, and it continued to burn for eight days until new oil was available. In memory of this miracle, Jews today light the menorah for eight days, celebrating the miracle of the oil, God’s message that they were delivered out of the darkness.
The first way to interpret this story is a miracle sent from God – he made one day’s worth of oil burn for eight days. In this interpretation, many celebrate a supernatural event sent from God as a reward for the Jews’ faith, courage, and obedience.
Isn’t this what many of us first visualize when we think of a miracle? An agency outside ourselves performing an supernatural and amazing event, inspiring faith and belief in an intervening force unseen.
There’s another way to look at this story, and I think it’s this way that gives the story its lasting meaning and resonance for so many. On a symbolic level, stories like this remind all of us that at the end of a long darkness light is coming. At the end of a period of oppression and suffering, the light appeared and remained.
The Hasidic master Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter taught that the lesson of Hanukkah is not that we need to light the candle, but that our place is to be the candle. The Hanukkah message is that we are to bring light to places of vast darkness. As he said “A human being is created to light up this world” (Hanukka, 1874).
The same lesson is reflected in the Book of Proverbs 20:27, where we are told “The soul of man is the lamp of God,”. What does this mean? I believe the message to us is that, ultimately, our task is not to light candles but to be candles, lighting the darkness where we can. We have the potential to be the light that brings the presence and love of Spirit back into a world gone dark.
That may include our own worlds. In the past few months we’ve all seen friends and family facing challenges, loss or transitions. Death, sickness, job changes, family disruption – all these are disturbing and challenging. The lesson of Hanukkah is that the light continues to shine in dark places, if we only take the step to light the first candle.
As Michael Strassfeld writes,
“In lighting our menorah, we ignite the flame in our souls, the spark that cannot be extinguished that will burn not for eight days but for eternity.”
And that’s important.
We are not passive observers of divine action in our lives, whether we call them miracles or not. We are cocreators. When we commit our energies, our best minds, our biggest hearts to be the light in dark places, that is when miracles can unfold. Look what the Maccabees did – they did not sit back and ask God to eliminate the Syrians. They didn’t look at the empty menorah and ask God to light it. They committed, body and soul, fully and completely, in faith and in the certainty that God was with them. Cocreation is not for those who are only half in.
Perhaps a miracle is not a big show put on by the Divine for us to observe in awe and amazement so we’ll believe in a power larger than us. Perhaps a miracle is those moments when we decide without fear that we can be the light.
Some of you may be familiar with A Course in Miracles. This work has a different view of a miracle, one that challenges us to participate as miracle-makers, reflecting the truth of ourselves as perfect and beloved children of God.
The Course teaches that a miracle is a shift in perception from fear to love, from what is unreal to what is real. It tells us that “miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them.”
What are the implications of this truth for us? We know that we are made from love, and every time we make the choice to live from that knowledge we participate in a miracle. We shift our perception, and make the decision to look at people and events through the eyes of love. Miracles result.
As the Course teaches, “love waits on welcome, not on time.” We don’t have to wait for the right time, the convenient time, when we aren’t busy or hassled. We simply say yes, right now.
In this season of miracles, we each can bring that light of miraculous joy into our own life and the lives of those around us. It’s a choice we make, to look at our world with eyes of forgiveness, gratitude, joy, and peace. Let’s spend this holiday season living the truth that we are miracle makers indeed!