Two candles will be lit today: the first Advent candle marking the first Sunday in Advent and the first Hanukkah candle marking the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The story of Hanukkah has its origins in the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Greeks in 167 BC. That revolt was precipitated by the cruelty of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king. He had banned the reading of the Torah and the observance of Jewish practice, and in one great indignity, sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ensuing revolt, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee and his family, kicked out the Greeks and set up an independent Jewish kingdom that lasted until the Romans got involved a century later. When they captured the Temple, they rededicated it after its defilement by Antiochus. The Hebrew word for “dedication” is חנכה Hanukkah.
The early commemorations of Hanukkah (one of which is recorded in John 10:22) did not have any stories of miracles or divine intervention (the Maccabees had wanted to emphasize their own might). But as the years went by and the Maccabees’ reputation diminished, the rabbis found a tradition about the temple menorah and oil. In this legend, when the Temple was retaken, there was only enough consecrated oil to last a day. Miraculously, the menorah burned for eight days on one day’s worth of oil. To this day, lighting a candle for every night of Hanukkah and eating foods cooked in oil are essential parts of the Hanukkah tradition.
On some level, it’s easy to see the story of the oil and the candles as a rabbinic attempt to make the minor holiday of Hanukkah about something other than the crooked Maccabees and their descendants (I’m looking at you, Herod). And this little story from the Talmud about oil and candles fit the bill. But in another way, they were tapping into a more profound truth that that story, however legendary, reveals.
The oil of the lamps lasted eight days, against all odds, and therein lies the lesson. There are times in our lives when we feel we are on our last cup of oil. There is no more fuel for the fire, no more gas in the tank. We’ve endured all we’re capable of enduring, and that’s it. We’ve got nothing left. But then, miraculously, we do. We can persevere and make it through. We discover that we’re far more resilient than we’d realized.
When they found the Temple without enough oil, they did a curious thing: they lit the candles anyway. Why not just say, “Well, we don’t have enough oil, let’s put off the dedication for a week until we’ve got some more?” What often goes unnoticed in this story is the decision to kindle the light, even when everyone believed there was not enough oil.
This is the same light we kindle in Advent—the light of hope. For nearly two thousand years, Christians have been awaiting the coming of Jesus to complete the work he began: to establish justice, to end war, to restore the creation itself. We’ve been waiting a long time; we might have to wait a long time more. It can be easy to get disheartened, to get frustrated, to wonder whether we’re waiting for something in vain. But every year, we light that candle. Every year we begin the process anew of waiting, of expectation, of hope.
For in the declaration of hope, we find a resilience we did not expect. We find that we can burn for eight days with supplies only for one. And we can wait faithfully for however long we have to until that day when the world is remade.
Hope is a powerful thing, and claiming hope brings us a strength we might never have imagined.