It is no coincidence, I think, that so many cultures and religions celebrate festivals and holidays at this time of year. The days are growing short; the nights are long. It is the time of darkness in the annual cycle of the seasons. It is a time that turns us inward as we face the darkness within ourselves and yearn for the light. It is no coincidence that so many traditions for this time of year include the burning of lamps and candles, bright displays that fill the darkness with light.
In my own religious tradition, Judaism, this time of year is associated with the minor holiday of Chanukah. It is a holiday that remembers a rather unremarkable military victory in the 2nd century before the common era, in which a relatively small group of Israelites, called the Maccabees, overcame the mighty army of the Seleucid Empire. Today, only scholars of ancient history remember the once-great Seleucid Empire. The Maccabees are only remembered because, two centuries after this victory, their descendants were the rulers of Israel just before that land gave birth to two of the world’s great religious traditions, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
The story of the holiday of Chanukah takes place after the military victory had been won. The Maccabees celebrated by rededicating their Temple—the word, Chanukah, means “dedication” in Hebrew. According to a legend, the Temple had to be dedicated with the relighting of the seven-branched lamp that illuminated the Temple’s interior. However, only a small amount of the sanctified oil used for the lamp was available. It would take eight days to press and prepare more oil for the lamp. Still, the Maccabees lit the lamp and, miraculously, the one small container of oil that was supposed to last for only one day kept the lamp lit for eight days, enough time to prepare more oil to keep the lamp lit continuously.
Chanukah, as I said, is a minor holiday. If you think about it, the holiday commemorates a rather minor miracle. The parting of the Red Sea, the falling walls of Jericho, the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai—now those are some big miracles! A little container of oil burning seven days longer than it was supposed to? Little, tiny miracle.
So, what do we do to mark this little, tiny miracle? On one of the longest nights of the year, we light a candle to add a little bit of light to the darkness. Then, on the next night, we add a little bit more. Then, on the next night, a little bit more. And a little bit more every night until we have lit an entire candelabra to fill our darkness with light. With our acts of light, we proclaim that even when the world is at its darkest, we are filled with hope that the darkness will turn again to light.
Hope is the real miracle. We human being are puny creatures. We inhabit a universe that we did not create. All that we can do is to stare out at it—barely comprehending its vastness—and try to imagine that we hold some place of significance within it. Despite that, despite the futility of our ever truly comprehending our own unfathomable, improbable existence, we continue to hope. We hope to live lives that matter. We hope to gain some meaningful amount of knowledge and understanding. We hope that all of our strivings and aspirations will add up to something that will allow us to hold up our heads and proclaim that our presence in this vast universe will have made a difference.
It is a magnificent thing to hope. It is a miraculous thing that we have the courage and the character to hope for lives of meaning. It makes us—despite our puniness—into creatures of nobility. We dare to look out into the inky darkness of space and light a candle, and imagine that it matters. The very act, the hope for ourselves and for our future that this act conveys, is enough to ensure that we will matter.
This is a season of miracles. For every faith, every language, every culture, every nation and for every name that every group of human beings have ever called themselves—this season of lighting up the dark nights of the beginning of winter is a time for the miracle of hope.
I want to ask each of you here today, during this year’s season of miracles, to look beyond the barriers that separate one human being from another. Look beyond the boundaries of your neighborhood, your town, your religion, your nationality, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your birthplace and your personal interests and opinions—and see yourself as being part of the great experiment called the human race.
Know that you are bound to every person on the planet, every person who has ever lived and every person who will ever live, by the experience of hope. You—like everyone else the world over—you hope for a life of fulfillment, of meaning, of joy, and a life that really matters. That hope is what makes you human and it is what connects you to everyone else on this planet. Learn to see hope as the thing that makes us all the same, and makes us all the noblest creatures that could possibly ever be.
Two thousand years ago, a small band of fighters who called themselves the Maccabees, lit a lamp with enough oil to last a single day. Why did they bother? They could have waited. They could have decided that it made more sense to put off their sacred rededication until they knew that there would be enough oil to keep the fire lit. But they didn’t. Instead, they committed an act of hope. They lit the lamp anyway. The result was a very, very small, barely noticeable, tiny little miracle.
My hope for you, the students, faculty and staff of the Pine School, is that, during this season of hope, you will find the tiny little miracles within your own lives, and let them light up even the darkest moments with the brilliance of your own miraculous selves.
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