Don’t Let the Light Go Out!
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
December 2, 2018
We are not celebrating Hanukkah this morning so much as framing it. First, the feast itself doesn’t begin until tonight. Another name for Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and in the Hindu tradition we also have a Feast of Lights, called Diwali. We are of course UUs, neither Hindu nor Jewish. To try to celebrate another religion as the people in that religion celebrate feels to me like appropriation; it cheapens the religion by treating it as one item on a smorgasbord. To actually celebrate Hanukkah we would we would light the candles of the Menorah after dark, one each night for eight nights. And it would be in the home. Rather than adapt a Jewish celebration to UU needs, I want to offer here this morning some thoughts about light as a religious and spiritual value, to set a context for Hanukkah. My thoughts will be draped on the skeleton of the song we’ve just sung.
“Let There Be Light” are the first recorded words of God in Genesis, and in the New Testament the Gospel of John asserts that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It is common in our thought to use light as a symbol of goodness or knowledge and darkness as a symbol of evil or ignorance. But there are definitely undertones of racism in this distinction which I want to note at the outset so that we don’t go there. Light and dark as I am using it here is not referring to shades of pigmentation of people, but to illumination that allows us to see truth.
Your order of service has three graphics on the cover because I see a parallel between the lamps lighted at the Hanukkah celebration, the chalice lit each Sunday in our UU congregations, and the torch held by Miss Liberty over New York Harbor. Each represents a whole panoply of hopes and wisdom. Are you fired up?
Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn't die.
Who were the Maccabees? They were a family of Jewish rebels who refused to give up their religion when ordered to do so by a pagan king. In the second century BCE, Alexander the Great had united much of the known world into a Greek empire. When he died, he parceled out the empire to his generals. The two important ones for our story are Antiochus III in Syria and Ptolemy in Egypt. Both were from a dynasty called the Seleucids. Some of the Seleucid kings allowed the Jews to continue to worship their God, but some of them didn’t.
At that time some of the Jews in Judea kept the faith, kept kosher, and some of them became Hellenized, that is, they adopted the ways of the Greeks. They spoke Greek, ate pork and quit circumcising their male babies.
Antiochus III in Syria was a Seleucid king who allowed the Jews to practice their faith, but he died and his son Antiochus Epiphanes made war on Ptolemy down in Egypt, and once he had defeated Ptolemy, he ordered the Jews to worship pagan gods.
The Jews are known as People of the Book, the Book being the Torah, and in Exodus the story is told of Moses conversation with God on Mt. Sinai which lasted forty days and forty nights. This was before the Jews entered the Promised land, when all the real estate they controlled was miles and miles of Sinai desert. Among other things God ordered in that conversation was to construct a tabernacle, a movable dwelling for God to inhabit. There were very detailed instructions as to how to construct the tabernacle, and how to purify all those who went in and out. A priesthood was set up to conduct the elaborate rituals of the tabernacle.
One of the features of the tabernacle was a lampstand made of solid gold with a main member and six branches, the ancestor of the modern Menorah. It burned olive oil.
Many centuries later, when the Jews had settled in the Promised Land, King Solomon built his temple in Jerusalem, and the priesthood and all the ritual associated with the tabernacle which God had described to Moses on Mt. Sinai became located in that Temple. It was the omphalos, the navel which connected the heavens above to Sheol beneath the earth. It was God’s home on earth.
Centuries later the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple when they overran Judea, but after the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they rebuilt it. That was called the Second Temple, because King Solomon’s original one had been destroyed centuries earlier. It was again the most holy spot in Judaism.
So when Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid king, entered the Second Temple with his armies and desecrated it by offering a sacrifice to the Greek God Zeus, it was a calamity for the Jewish faithful. A man named Judah Maccabee, or Judah the hammer, raised a Jewish force which then defeated a much larger force of the Seleucids armies in numerous battles, and finally took back Jerusalem and the temple.
They then set about to purify it from the defilement. They went back to the book, and decided to completely take down the altar which had been used for the sacrifice to Zeus and reconstruct an altar using unhewn stones as God had instructed Moses to do with the original tabernacle.
All this is told in the two books called Maccabees, which are not in the Bible but in a special section called the apocrypha. But you ask, what about the oil and the menorah? The miracle of the one day of oil lasting for eight days is not in the book of Maccabees but in the Talmud, the commentary on scripture.
See, you couldn’t use oil in the menorah unless it was ritually pure. And the invading armies had corrupted everything they touched, so the oil in the menorah itself was no longer usable. But they found a small sealed container of oil which had been purified by the high priest many years before. It was enough oil for a day, but it burned for the eight days of the celebration which allowed them enough time to prepare and purify a new batch of oil.
The light lighted by the Maccabees didn’t die, they founded the Hasmonean dynasty, a Jewish family of rulers, and this allowed the Jews to practice their religion unhindered until the Romans came in.
Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied.
Sometimes the threat is to the physical existence of a people, as in the holocaust when Jews, along with Gypsies, Poles, Communists and Gay and Lesbian people were actually murdered by the millions. But a people can also have their right to exist denied by denying them the right to practice those rituals which bind them together as a people. The English denied the Scots and the Irish the right to play their instruments or sing their songs. The Americans denied Native people the right to perform their dances.
Jews relate to the Torah, the book of law, which spells out the details of a covenant between them and the Almighty. Denying those ancient Jews the right to circumcise their sons, to worship in the Temple according to the prescribed rules, to keep kosher was tantamount to denying them the right to exist, and Judah Maccabee posed to his followers the question, would you rather live as non-Jews or die as Jews? They chose the latter.
The Maccabees were zealots. Having won freedom for themselves to practice their religion, they set about denying it to the people they ruled. They demanded strict observance of the law, but they also in later years compromised with the Greek
powers in order to maintain their own power.
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.
Under the leadership of the Maccabees, the Jewish forces militarily vanquished Greek forces much larger and better-armed than they. They made terrible sacrifices to be allowed to keep their faith. But their victory did not stay won. They kept the light burning, but they did not stop the clock of history. In the first century of the common era, the new overlords, the Romans, put down two Jewish rebellions and the Jews dispersed to the four corners of the earth.
But this is not just about the Jews. The light of the Menorah is also the light of our chalice. Our faith has its martyrs, from Michael Servetus in the sixteenth century to Nobert Capek in the twentieth. While European Unitarianism goes back to the time of the Protestant Reformation, the two halves of our American UU faith date from the period called the Enlightenment, which was a rediscovery of ancient philosophical traditions of reason and the disciplines of understanding the natural world we call science.
It is that Enlightenment, that flame of free inquiry, that skepticism of any proposition resting for its truth solely on ancient authority, that we are called upon to defend and keep alive today. It took terrible sacrifice in World War II for my parent’s generation to defend freedom and equality, but the result was a world order which brought stability, peace, prosperity and a greater degree of freedom than the world had ever known. Yes that war gave birth to terrible weapons which can wipe out humanity as we know it, but it also gave us a world where those weapons have never been used since that war.
...light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker's time is at hand.
We struggle to keep these lights burning because we care about the world. Judah Maccabee led his fellow Jews to death against superior odds so that the ancient truth of their religion would live on. But there is a time for fighting and a time for making peace, and the essence of wisdom is to know the difference.
Peace can come when one side in a conflict just runs out of steam, or it can come when there is a genuine reconciliation, where each side realizes that the things they have in common are more important than the things which divide them.
Give us the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand, but let us always in our struggles not to let the light go out keep the possibility of making peace in mind. When we become so enraged we demonize the other side, we are giving up on peace. Let us not go there.
Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe. Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” As we struggle to keep our light burning, there are dangers we can morph into our adversary. If they go low and we go low to fight them, what have we gained? We will have lowered ourselves in the process.
Have you considered what you look like to those who oppose you? Have you tried to get inside their understanding? Have you watched their TV channels or surfed their social media to understand their points of view?
Light one candle for those who are suffering the pain we learned so long ago. We are not the first generation of religious liberals to be opposed by religious forces more conservative than we; we are not the first generation of American voters to face nasty partisan campaigns. We are not the first Americans to see the dream of equality for all fade as the old appeals to fear and hate gain traction in the American soul. These are old conflicts and we are reliving them. Face that fact, and yet don’t let our lights go out.
Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger won't tear us apart. There is anger and there is anger. There is righteous anger which will motivate us to fight injustice and there is destructive anger which can tear us apart. I am glad to see bipartisan anger arising over the murder of Jamal Kashoggi. I wish that it would arise over the tear-gassing of asylum-seekers on our southern border.
And light one candle to bring us together with peace as the song in our heart. The peace of which my heart wants to sing is a peace infused with justice. Now I know from 25 years of being a trial lawyer that people have very different opinions on what justice is, and it usually depends on whose ox is getting gored. There was a famous civil case in which the lawyer, on being notified of the court’s decision, telegraphed his client “justice has triumphed.” The client telegraphed back “appeal at once!”
But peace does not mean an absence of conflict, it means having a system of resolving disputes short of actual violence.
The third verse of the song has these arresting lines:
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail? This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.
These challenge me because they make justice a simple binary matter. Either it prevails or it doesn’t. While my experience is that justice usually prevails in some sense but not in others. An example from our recent history dear to our hearts, the US Supreme Court constitutionalized the right of same-sex couples to marry. Justice prevailed, and yet there were counter-events which occurred in reaction to this decision, which made it clear that the hearts of everyone in the country had not embraced this step forward in fairness.
Many of the actions taken by the current administration which have struck me as inane at best and catastrophic at worst have also had the effect of rallying opposition and stiffening resistance.
Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian abolitionist transcendentalist of the mid-nineteenth century, may have been correct when he said the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice, but what I see is less of a smooth arc than a zigzag trail.
Will justice somehow prevail? We will have milestones to celebrate and victory parades and awards and yet when we wake up the next morning we will find that the old problems are still there but in a new form. Someone moved the goalposts in the stadium while we were out marching down Main Street.
It still bears repeating, friends: don’t let the light go out. Whatever light you live by, be it love, justice, equality, freedom, care for that light, tend that light, struggle for that light as long as there is breath in your body.
Jan Richardson is a Methodist minister and author from Florida. Let us close these reflections with her poem, “How the Light Comes”
I cannot tell you
how the light comes.
What I know
is that it is more ancient
That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.
That it loves
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.
That it has a fondness
for the body
for finding its way
for tracing the edges
for shining forth
through the eye,
I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the blessed light
Reading for Don’t Let the Light Go Out
1 Maccabees 4 Rededication of the Temple
36 Then Judas and his brothers said, "See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." 37 So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. 38 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. 39 Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes 40 and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
41 Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. 42 He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, 43 and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. 44 They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. 45 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, 46 and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. 47 Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. 48 They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. 49 They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50 Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. 51 They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 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. 55 All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 57 They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. 58 There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.