The Feast of Lights by Emma Lazarus
Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine 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 takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.
Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.
Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."
They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,
Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.
Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!
With the eight days of Hanukkah beginning Tuesday evening, my mind turns to the Hanukkah celebrations of my past. As a child, I welcomed Hanukkah mostly as an occasion to receive gifts. Actually, to tell the whole story, my sister and I always received gifts for both Hanukkah and Christmas. Clearly, the seeds were sewn at an early age for the inclusive take on religious traditions that Unitarianism so values.
Hanukkah commemorates the successful Jewish revolt against the oppressive reign of the Seleudic emperor Antiochus IV. It is a joyous occasion, celebrated of with singing and games. One of the traditions is playing with dreidels – the traditional tops with a Hebrew letter on each of its four faces. I also particularly liked the chocolate coins that my grandparents always seemed to have in abundance.
But the primary focus of my view of Hanukkah back then was the story of the miracle of Hanukkah – that a small amount of consecrated oil lasted eight days when it should only have been enough for one. This is the story that lies behind the lighting of the menorah – the eight-armed candelabra that is the best known symbol of this holiday.
But really, the miracle of lamp oil lasting longer than expected is really a rather odd miracle to continue celebrating nearly two millennia later! In fact, it appears that the miracle part of Hanukkah was more of a late addition as the story of Hanukkah combined with the ancient urge to bring light to the darkness of winter and with other stories and celebrations. Of course, there are much deeper meanings to the holiday that account for this story’s longevity.
Stripping away the miracle story, the essence of Hanukkah that remains is the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it had been defiled by the occupying Seleucid armies. In fact, this is the origin of the word Hanukkah – it comes from the word ‘chanak’, meaning dedication or consecration. The miracle of the lights is fun and it fits well into this season where we long for light, but the restoration of the temple to holiness is the kernel of the story.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes ascended to the throne of the Seleucid empire. Under his reign, the relative tolerance that had characterised his predecessors became distinctly oppressive. Now, instead of permitting the Jews to practice their own religion freely, the holy temple in Jerusalem was looted and defiled. A statue of Zeus was erected in the temple and pigs – unclean animals under Jewish law – were slaughtered on the sacred altar. Jews were massacred and the practice of Judaism was effectively outlawed. But, as so often happens, the oppression designed to suppress the Jews had the opposite effect – it provoked the successful revolt led by the Maccabees.
After years of struggle, the Maccabees drove off the occupying forces and at last liberated the Jerusalem temple. Now came the work of rededicating and cleansing it. The temple had been defiled. The temple had to be cleansed. A new altar had to be put in place of the polluted one. New holy vessels had to be made.
Hanukkah marks this restoration and rededication of the temple.
In my mind, the image of the defiled temple is filth. There is debris and rubbish everywhere. Broken pottery, smashed bottles, rotting food. The remains of slaughtered pigs stain the stone floor and raise an terrible stench.
The temple was essential to the Jews’ connection to God, so to see their Temple in this state was much more than an inconvenience, more than an awful mess, more than an outrage… The desolation of the temple meant disconnection from God and separation from goodness and meaning in life.
When the Jews recaptured the temple and entered it, seeing it in this state, they were inconsolable. They screamed. They cried. They tore their clothes. They despaired. But eventually, they got down to work. They cleaned, they repaired. Most of all, they reconsecrated and rededicated the sacred temple that had been profaned. Cleaning and repairing would not be enough. It was only through the power of symbolic action and ritual that the temple could be restored to purity in their minds.
What if we think of the undefiled consecrated temple as a symbol? Perhaps we might allow it to represent the truest, most grounded aspects of our lives. We might call it wholeness or holiness, or our connection to that which we call God. There are the good times in our lives when we know that we are acting from this deep place within. At these times, the purity of our best, most sacred selves shines forth. At these times, we find it easy to be compassionate, grateful, generous, and forgiving, and we are able to offer love freely and easily.
And there are times when that sacred temple has become polluted and spoiled. Our connection to the sacredness of life seems lost at these times. We know as we reflect that we have been moved far away from our truest and best selves.
And it doesn’t require an occupying army with their idols and unclean sacrifices to move us away from the sacred.
Perhaps the false gods of materialism have been erected in the temple within – surrounded by sacrifices of the mountains of boxes and wrappings of the things that we think will bring happiness.
And the hurts and assaults that life can bring may have brought pollution into our hearts. As we struggled with this pain, our temples may have become stained with the blood of unwholesome sacrifices of busyness or of the many addictions to which we can fall prey. The stones of the altar of our hearts may reek with the corrosive decay of guilt, suspicion, mistrust, anger and hatred.
And seeing how far we are from wholeness, we may wail and tear at our clothes and despair of every moving toward wholeness. –
Despite everything – the unclean sacrifices, the destruction, the profane idols – the holy temple was purified and reconsecrated. Perhaps Hanukkah can be for us a time of purification – a time when we can cast off the debris that keeps us from being our best true selves. A time to mentally and spiritually remove the stains that isolate us from connectedness to all things and all beings.
As Unitarians, we tend to rely heavily on words. We like to use our intellect to examine and solve problems. But, as for the Jews after liberating the temple, there are times when words alone are inadequate – when symbolic action can move what words can not touch.
Purification rituals are common in many – if not most – of the world’s religious traditions. Today, I would like to invite you to participate in a ritual of your own rededication. The ritual involves two potent symbols: water and oil. If you choose to participate, you will first have water poured over your hands by another member of this community. Water is a symbol of purity and cleansing. As the water touches your hands, I invite you to imagine all of the debris and pollution that keeps you from being fully whole being washed away. And it is also important that this cleansing is something that we offer to one another, valuing as we do the sacredness of each life and the deep connections that run between us.
And after water, there is oil. Oil – just as it was for the Jews seeking to restore their defiled temple – has long been used in consecration and dedication. I will touch your hands with oil and when I do, I invite you to feel wholeness being returned to you and your connection to all things being restored.
After the music begins, I invite you to come forward to share in this ritual of mutual purification and rededication.
[Members of the congregation came forward to wash their hands with the assistance of other members and then to have their hands touched with oil and have a blessing offered by the minister]