by Linda McMillan
When we light the Hanukkah candles we do not light them in the day time. We light the candles near the end of the day so that they will burn for at least half an hour after nightfall. Even though it is sometimes called the Festival Of Lights, Hanukkah also recognizes darkness, for without darkness, it’s hard to see the light.
Hanukkah itself was born in a time of great darkness. A ruler named Antiochus held power over the Jewish people and oppressed them by forcing them to worship pagan gods, desecrating their temple, and outlawing Torah study. It was the very worst time during a long period of oppression, the darkest part of night. During that time a group of Jewish soldiers staged an unlikely rebellion. Under the leadership of Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee they fought guerilla battles against the Seleucid Empire for about seven years, and finally liberated their temple and their people.
It may seem that the Maccabees — the army called “the Hammer” — chased away the forces of darkness with violence and war-making, and there was plenty of that. In fact, the clunky Seleucid army was continually caught off guard by the nimble maneuverings of the Maccabees. But, at the end of the fighting, the Maccabees had still not reclaimed their temple. In order to do that, they needed to relight the menorah. The thing is that it takes about eight days to prepare oil for the menorah and there was only enough oil to last for one day. At that point, they could have said, “Well, we’ll just wait until we have enough oil to really do it right.” But someone — some unnamed, unremembered, someone — had an idea! “Hey,” she might have said, “Let’s just light this little bit of oil and see what happens.”
Of course, you know the rest of the story. The smallest cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time to prepare more oil. Over the years people remembered the miracle of the oil and eventually Hanukkah was made into a more formal celebration.
You may wonder what that has to do with Epiphany. Perhaps not much, but, like Epiphany, it is a story about light. It reminds us that light shines in the darkness. It is not much use during the day.
In their search for the light of the world, the three wise men whom we remember today began their journey by noting a small change in the sky. There are several good stories about who they were and what kinds of signs they had. Most all the stories agree, though, that while they began their journey with an idea of what they might find, they did not have a clear map of how to get there. They could have said, “Well, look, we don’t really know all the twists and turns on this journey. We’d better just camp here until we have a complete map.” Instead, they looked into the dark sky for small signs, followed the clues they had, lit the oil that was there.
Just as they were running out of clues in the dark night sky, they entered into the very heart of darkness: Herod’s Court. “Tell me when you find the child,” said Herod, “so that I may worship him too.” If I were telling this story orally, I’d be tempted to use the voice that I might use for the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. “These eyes, my dear? …The better to see you with! Come closer.” For Herod did not intend to worship the child king of the Jews, he intended to kill him! Yet, even in the midst of this duplicitous darkness, the wise men still found light. It was Herod, remember, who pointed them towards Bethlehem. Yes! That fox Herod was the star that showed the way.
Finally, arriving at the house where Jesus and his family were staying the three wise men found the child king whom they had been seeking. The travelers who walked in darkness, at last, saw the light of the world (Is 9:2)
The other thing we observe today is the baptism of Jesus, and that can only set us to thinking about our own baptisms. It is a rite of initiation, the first step on a journey for which we do not have a map. Those who have started the trip ahead of us report that there are indeed some hair-pin curves, dark nights, and precious few clues along the way. You probably have your own tales from the trail to tell. There are times when faith seems all but gone, the oil burning low. You are left in the dark.
If you’ve been on the internet you have probably heard people boasting about what they will do, “If….” this or that political darkness should come to pass. Their future heroism is all laid out in glowing pixilated glory… Oh, the things they’ll do, “If…” It’s almost as if they are hoping for their chance to be gallant! But, it won’t be like that. Those kinds of heroes only exist on their couches.
In the actual darkness, there are choices, quiet compromises, decisions are made. None of us knows today what we will do tomorrow. It’s easy to lose the way. The good course may not always be clear, there may be forks in the path, blind turns… but, if today’s readings are any indication, there will also be clues. All we can do is remember to look for the clues, the small lights, and to travel in whatever light we may get.
You don’t have to read made-up stuff on the internet, though, the darkness is real enough. It is political and it is personal. It ranges from the global rise of white nationalism to the smallest among us battling for survival in a world that really doesn’t care too well for the poor or the vulnerable. There is trembling in immigrant households, fearful of deportation. There’s despair among women whose bodies are no longer their own, if ever they were. Quiet desperation permeates a million hearts which are hurting, and for more reasons than the internet can hold. Yet today I remember a small band of travelers, dreamers, and they had to be optimists, who took out on an epic journey into darkness with only the faintest light to find the light of the world. And in the midst of my own darkness, I remember the light of Hannukah and I choose to light whatever oil God gives me, no matter how little it may be.
As you think back to your own baptism today recall the dips and turns on your own path. And if things should get dark, look for a small clue, just a little oil. “Hey, look… this small amount… let’s light it and see what happens!”
Linda McMillan lives in yangzhong China — Home of the Pufferfish!
Image by NASA
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Maccabee is used adjectively here. It means hammer. It means that these were tough guys.
Let’s just assume that there were three wise men. I am aware that there may have been more or fewer, there may have been women among them, they may have been from anyplace east of Bethlehem… There is a lot we don’t know about “The Three Wise Men.” But, for today, let’s just let those questions lie and concentrate on the light.
Matthew 2:8… And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
Is 9:2…The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…