Is there enough light?

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

This evening, when we are gathered here for a service of Advent Lessons & Carols, some of our friends and neighbors will be lighting the fifth candle on their Chanukah menorahs.  Much bally-hoo was made of the confluence of Thanksgiving Day and the first day of Chanukah (which had begun the night before).  But among those not still celebrating the Jewish festival interest quickly waned.  This is a shame, since, to my way of thinking, the coincidence of the beginning of Advent with the on-going Jewish festival of lights is more interesting, and more fruitful for reflection.

Although you will find the historical context of the festival in the apocryphal book of 1st Maccabees – namely, the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, - you will not find any mention there of the miracle that is commemorated with the lighting of the menorah.  For that story - the story of the cruet of oil that miraculously kept the Temple lamp burning for eight days, when the Maccabeans re-dedicated the Temple - you have to look to the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud, where the miracle is asserted.  The rabbis tell us: “they searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 21b)

And so the blessing is said to this day:

Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam asher kidishanu b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu l'had'lik neir shel Chanukah. (Amein)

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who has sanctified his commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.  Amen.

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.  Amen.

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.  Amen.

When it came to Chanukah, the ancient rabbis showed little interest in the military victory of a small group of rebels over the army of an empire.  Their interest focused on the dedication of the Temple and God’s provision to keep the lamp burning till more oil could be prepared.  Perhaps the rabbis knew that men will always fight wars, and the victors will nearly always claim that God is on their side – this was not a matter that required much investigation.

If war is perennial, however, then so is the question of whether or not there is enough oil, whether there is enough light, whether God can keep the light burning, whether darkness will encroach and prevail, whether time is running out.  These questions were far more important to the rabbis than the military victory.  And perhaps they remain important to us today.

I have just finished reading a remarkable and heartbreaking account of one military unit’s experience in the Iraq War.  And the book does recount a few discussions about military tactics, etc.  But the concerns that it presents as foremost in the minds of the men who were fighting, and suffering, and bleeding, and dying are those same concerns about their lives, their families, their friends, and the world around them, that are prompted by the Chanukah prayer:

Is there enough light in the world?

Will God keep it burning?

Will darkness encroach and prevail?

Will time run out?

Of course, the questions the soldiers ask are not so abstract, they are more specific:

Will I ever be able to sleep again without these nightmares?

Will I ever be able to forgive them?

Will I ever be able to forgive myself?

Will I ever be able to see again?  Or walk again?  Or hold my child again?

Is my time running out?

But men at war are not the only ones who ask such questions.  The rest of us do, too – more often in the specific than in the abstract.  If some of you had not recently been wrestling with such questions, on your own terms, I would be surprised.  So let’s boil it down to one question:  Is there enough light?

I propose that if that is the Chanukah question, and if it is a question that pervades our lives in this difficult and dangerous world, then it is also the Advent question: Is there enough light?

How easy it is to feel as though we live in a world that requires eight days of oil, but we have only enough for a single day.  Of course, we live in a world that also wants to tell us there is no God to worship, so why are you worried about oil, which, by the way is a tradable commodity, for which there is an active and accessible market, so what are you worried about anyway?

Is there enough light? 

Advent seems to want us to sit with the question: to acknowledge it; to give it real space; to recognize it as a significant question that deserves careful consideration.  Advent does not seem to want to rush to an answer.  Advent seems to appreciate these shorter, darker days when flickering candles are both more suggestive and more vulnerable than they are in the long days of summer.  Advent wants to be your chaplain for questions about the pervasive quality of the dark, allowing you to ask these questions:

Does it seem this dark to everybody?

Why can’t I sleep?

Will things ever get better?

Will the pain, the grief, the memory, the sadness ever go away?

Advent hears the panic in your voice when you report that you have been able to find only a single cruet of oil, with barely enough in it to keep your lamp burning for a single day!

But Advent is not silent in response to these questions, to this worry.  Advent has something to say in response to all of them.  Advent has a reply to the question, “Is there enough light?”  Advent says:

Child, light your candle, and see.  Pour the oil into your lamp, and light its wick, and behold.  The warfare has been long.  The night has been long.  The darkness has been with us for a long time, it’s true.  But now, lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Advent says, the night is far spent, the day is near, and there is oil in this cruet; who knows what God will do?

The rabbis allowed for the possibility that instead of lighting one candle on the first night of Chanukah and lighting an additional candle each night thereafter you could do the reverse: begin with eight candles and light one less for each night of the festival.  But Rabbi Hillel maintained that the former pattern should be kept because “we increase in matters of sanctity but do not reduce.”  I am thankful that Hillel’s pattern prevails most often, and I am thankful for his reasoning, too.

And if I am to borrow the flame of Chanukah this Advent, I am doubly grateful, since the Advent light does, indeed grow stronger and stronger as the days progress.

And the answer to the question becomes, I pray, more clear with every passing day, as God works his healing and acceptance in our hearts and souls, as he opens our eyes to see paths that lie before us with hope and expectation, as he banishes fear, despair, and loneliness from us, and begs us make room for him – for the Child who is coming, the Friend we have waited for, the Love we so much need, the Master we might at last obey, and the Savior who finally shines with brightness to overcome the darkness, and who is himself the Light.

Advent promises that the light is coming – coming again.  But about that day and hour when it shall finally come, no one knows.

Till then, we could do worse than to learn from the prayers of our brothers and sisters for these eight days.

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who has sanctified his commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light.  Amen.

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.  Amen.

Blessed are you Lord God, King of the universe; who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.  Amen.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

1 December 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on December 2, 2013 .