Hanukkah 2009

On this third day of Hanukkah, my thoughts turn to the Hanukkah celebrations of my past. We lit the menorah on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah in my house. After that ceremony came the good part – the presents! So, Hanukkah was a very welcome holiday. Actually, to tell the whole story, my sister and I received gifts for both Hanukkah and Christmas. I suppose that was the perfect beginning for a future Unitarian… 

In an important sense, Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of freedom over oppression. We sang earlier about the Maccabees – the Jewish Guerilla fighters who somehow managed to defeat the army of the Syrian Seleucid empire twenty-two centuries ago. 

When most people think of Hanukkah though, they think of the menorah with its eight candles. Maybe they know about miracle of Hanukkah – that a small amount of consecrated oil burned for eight days when it should only have been enough for one. 

But really, the miracle of lamp oil lasting longer than expected is really a rather odd miracle to continue celebrating more than 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 longing 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 and drama of armed struggle, the essence of Hanukkah that remains is the restoration and rededication of the Jerusalem temple. 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 of his predecessors turned to ruthless oppression. Now, instead of permitting the Jews to practice their 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 a 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 cannot 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. 

Ritual of hand washing and anointing with oil.

And now, with rededication and restoration in our hearts, we once again focus outside of ourselves. It is the connection of this community that so sustains us. It is as part of the interdependent fabric of all life that we live. 

The miracle of the light can be ours too. We must let our light shine – the light of hope, the light of compassion, and the light of healing love. 

Please join in singing our final hymn – this little light of mine. We will sing it through multiple times. Please feel free to embellish and harmonize!