The Miracles We Recognize

Hanukkah is one of a whole set of holidays that takes place during the darkest time of year. All of these – Christmas for the Christians, the Pagan Yule, the Hindu Diwali, and the Jewish Hanukkah – address the darkness around us. In this cold, dark time of year, these celebrations ask us to engage in hopeful rituals. They offer stories and practices to raise the hope of the lighter, warmer, more abundant times to come. These celebrations bring light into the darkness. 

At Yule, there are bonfires. Christmas has the Christmas tree, and at Diwali, Hindus bring light in the form of the earthen oil lamps for which it is named. 

And as you heard earlier in today’s service, the story of Hanukkah recounts a miracle of light – oil enough to burn for only one day burned for eight. 

Now, if you ask me, that’s a pretty minor miracle. 

The Hebrew scriptures tell stories of parting a sea, bulls consumed by heavenly fire, water from stones, commandments chiseled into stone tablets by God, and various and sundry divine smiting – with that context, the miracle of lamp oil lasting longer than expected is a bit underwhelming. I think of a package of lamp oil labeled “Now burns 8 times longer!” Big deal! It’s sort of like the miracle of getting 25% extra washing up liquid for free. 

As I mentioned, I was off in the US to be with my mother while she had heart surgery and began what will be a fairly extended recovery. 

During that time, it would have been nice to have a miracle or two. If you have had heart surgery yourself or if you have known anyone who has, you know that it is very debilitating. Heart surgery leaves you terribly weak and often in a lot of pain. 

It would have been wonderful if my mother’s heart had been miraculously and painlessly repaired. Failing that, it would have been great if her recovery had been fast and free of pain. Those miracles did not come. Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I surely don’t expect miracles. 

The Israelites of the Hanukkah story also did not get the miracles they undoubtedly wanted – a victory over their oppressors without sacrifices or pain, a temple miraculous purified and undefiled, or even the sudden appearance of an eternally burning oil lamp. But no… they didn’t get any of those things. 

Did they get a miracle at all? 

Was it really only enough for one day? Maybe it was enough for three… Did it really burn for eight days? Maybe seven… or six… 

A powerful lesson of Hanukkah comes out of the fact that these oppressed people, heart-broken at finding the holy temple defiled – the very center of the faith contaminated and profaned, having suffered in the war they had just fought… these people, with all this were were able to find something they could see as wondrous – as miraculous. They found something to celebrate in a tiny, everyday miracle. They found the wonder in what they could just as easily have dismissed as a disappointment. 

My mother was blessed with many miracles over the past two weeks: wonderful doctors, amazing technologies that kept her alive while her heart was stopped for surgery. There were other technical marvels that minimized the trauma of surgery. There were remarkable drugs to assist in her recovery. There is the very fact that she is alive and recovering now. 

What is a miracle? I’d call it any beneficial occurrence that we do not expect and cannot explain. There are good and wonderful things happening around us every day. The fact that we don’t see them as miraculous is not that they are inadequately good, but that our expectations are too often set in a way that excludes the reaction of awe and wonder. It is not that miracles are not around us, but we have blinded ourselves to them. 

"Oh yeah, there goes another fellow walking on water… big deal."

In Walt Whitman praises the miracles of honeybees, birds, stars, the sea, fish, every inch of the earth… 

Wislawa Szymborska too sees miracles in the commonplace: in a cloud, in a reflected tree, in the wind, in cows, in cherry orchards springing from cherry pits… 

Look around you. Even in this place at this moment, there are miracles. Many of us would not be alive had it not been for medical technologies and pharmaceuticals that are so remarkable, wonderful, and astounding that it is quite fair to call them miraculous if we think about it. 

The wonder of the transportation that may have brought us here – buses, trains, or cars – that is a miracle. 

That we live in a nation with freedoms and equality that are almost unparalleled in the history of humankind – that is a miracle. 

The fact that this very special building remains here to hold us after 302 years – that is a miracle. 

That we are all here together, accepting of each other, prepared to support one another, and welcoming of the diversity among us – that is a miracle. 

That we have been able to advance the cause of justice with the work of our own hands – that is a miracle. 

Over the coming week, can you look for miracles? How many times in each day can you find and celebrate small joys and just note to yourself that you have witnessed yet another small miracle? 

Let us keep our hearts open to the presence of wonders – to the presence of the small everyday miracles around us. The day when we notice and celebrate every one of our blessings as a wondrous miracle is the day we will be filled with true joy, peace, and love. 

May it be so.