There is something sacred in the act of lighting a flame. This time of year brings many such rituals -- the Yule log, the Christmas candle and the Chanukah menorah, among others. Each, in its own way, reminds us that our lives need never be engulfed by darkness so long as we remember to kindle a light.
The Chanukah menorah dates to an ancient civil war, when after generations of strife within Judaism, the Maccabees went into the Temple, cleaned and purified its space, and lit the sacred lamp. There was only a small amount of fuel, but it lasted for eight days, remembered today in the Jewish Festival of Lights.
I have often wondered what is so significant about the lamp burning for eight days. Wouldn't three have been just as much of a miracle, if there were only enough oil for one day? The answer is lost to history, but it's worth remembering that the rededication of the Temple took place in the middle of fighting, when passions were high. There had been many wrongs on both sides, and the demands for retribution must have been fierce. Undoubtedly there would have been some who wanted nothing more than to get this Temple thing over with, go back out into the city and settle some scores.
But the lamp burned for eight days. For more than a week, the sacred light reminded the Maccabees what they were worshipping in the first place -- not a God of violence, vengeance and anger, but one who taught the people not to kill one another, who said that after a fight those who had been hurt should be given time to heal, who commanded the people to care for the most vulnerable. I wonder if it took eight days for the real miracle to happen. Maybe people who had known nothing but war their entire lives needed that long to rededicate themselves to something better and more holy.
This Chanukah I have been thinking about that kind of rededication, because there is a light that needs rekindling in our world. Witnessing near daily acts of mass violence has left us angry, frightened and confused. How emotionally and mentally damaged must a human being become to commit such an act, and how spiritually broken must a nation be to witness massacre after massacre and still do nothing about it?
It is time for a rededication. No task could be more important, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking it will be quick or easy. It will take many hands and voices to rekindle the flame, and each of us will go about it in our own way. Some will look to Congress and our state legislators, holding leaders accountable for what they do and what they fail to do. Others will support refugees through the UNHCR, or give to The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Whenever we teach non-violence to our children, build bridges between people of different faiths, ethnicities and classes, or care for those most wounded by war, we rededicate ourselves and our world.
We may not see the results of our efforts, but the light we kindle makes a difference whether we feel it or not. When the Maccabees lit the sacred lamp, the battle around them continued to rage. The rededication of the Temple was not an end to the strife and the war; that was going to take time. Instead, the miracle of Chanukah was the seed of peace.
Only a few generations after the Maccabees, the Rabbi Hillel taught that the whole of Jewish law could be summed up in one sentence: "Do not do to others what is hateful to you." All the rest, he said, is commentary.
I believe that Hillel's teaching is the soul of what is sacred, and that goodness will always be strong within the human heart. The impulse to love and not to hate our neighbors is more powerful than any violence. Whenever we kindle a sacred light, whether it is a Chanukah menorah, an Advent candle, or a chalice flame, we make a sacred promise. We rededicate ourselves to the service of humanity, reverence for what is holy, a life of understanding others and the way of justice. We kindle one more light of hope in the world.
A version of this post was originally written for a service at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.