When Our Own Strength Failed Us

Hanukkah, which begins this year on December 12th, has lessons for all people about overcoming adversity and understanding who we truly are.

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


There are a lot of ways to think about Hanukkah. It is a holiday on the Jewish calendar (this year, it begins this Tuesday evening) which commemorates an event in history; it can be a time for a community to reflect on its collective past. Passover extends a similar invitation to think about a different ancient story, although we can’t be at all certain if all or hardly any of the events in the exodus narrative that Passover commemorates actually happened. Hanukkah, on the other hand, gets us into the annals of history, and history can be an even more complex enterprise than myth and legend. Every culture has its stories — whether that culture is ancient or current, whether it is the culture of a vast empire of millions or of a small family whose members can be counted on one hand. History is a form of storytelling, and we do not know the past that we have not experienced; we only know what others have told about that past.

Hanukkah is a familiar story, even if the cast of characters aren’t all household names in our time and place. Only history geeks like me remember the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV, who called himself Antiochus Ephiphanes — “Antiochus the god made manifest.” Hubris in leaders is nothing new and is no respecter of hemisphere or continent. He’s the villain of the Hanukkah story — the invading foreigner who desecrates a community’s most sacred space and makes it into a shrine to a deity unknown to the downtrodden indigenous people. Judah the Maccabee is the hero of the story. He leads the uprising that repulses the invaders and becomes the leader of a newly liberated people. He’s the George Washington of the Hanukkah story, and Antiochus IV is George III. Or so we might think. Maybe we should think that; maybe the analogy is an apt one. Historians and theologians and all sorts of interesting people debate the meaning of the Maccabean revolt. We Americans love a good freedom-fighter story, a good heroes-defeating-evil-empires story, and it’s not unusual in the American psyche for Hanukkah to be regarded in this vein. There are others who compare the Maccabees to figures in our world like the Taliban — rigid religious zealots who despised anything they regarded as impure, who fought militantly against any assimilation or cultural blending or syncretism. Who is to say what “really happened?” It’s hard enough for those who actually experience an event to sort out what happened. Future generations will probably ask us about 2017 and what the hell was going on in our country and in our world. Can you imagine me years from now fielding a question from a li’l one bouncing on my knee: “Grandpa, is it true that bigots marched in Charlottesville with tiki torches?” Hanukkah commemorates something that happened almost twenty-two centuries ago. What sense can we make of it? What do we do with the storytelling that is this history? What do we do with the storytelling of any history?

And yet every year I find myself pondering this old holiday, this fairly minor holiday which probably became more prominent thanks to its chronological proximity to Christmas — which is a delicious irony, given that Christmas is where it is on the calendar for entirely un-biblical and pre-Christian reasons, but what about it? Human beings have commemorations, and we think about the past and what it might mean for us, and we tell stories — we tell stories in our endless effort to make sense of life, and the fear that life actually might make very little or no sense at all doesn’t seem to stop the storytelling. Good thing, too.

Human beings tell stories. Storytelling does not imply lying — though of course it can involve that. I’ve often thought it unfortunate that in modern parlance, the word “myth” has the meaning not only of the collective storytelling of a culture; it’s also a synonym for lies or nonsense or stupidity. “That story that we only use ten percent of our brains is just a myth.” Mythology is a powerful means of understanding the human psyche. Hanukkah is a story of something happening that didn’t seem like it could happen. A ragtag rebel band should have been no match for their formidable enemies, but in the Hanukkah story, they prevail. The famous myth of the miraculous oil, as far as I know, didn’t first get told until some five or more centuries after the events, so my personal inclination (for whatever that’s worth) is that the telling of that story might not have been an homage to assiduous historical accuracy. I don’t know. I can’t help but think that grumbling and grousing about whether or not something “really happened” is sometimes missing a far more important point. If the miraculous oil story was the work of some imaginative rabbis, what was their intention? To deceive and manipulate? That’s not impossible. I much more strongly suspect it was for quite different and far more benign purposes. It’s a story. What’s the point of the story? Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true. How many people worship in how many sacred spaces all over the world doing obeisance to some divinity or to some transcendent ideal, whether or not they’re convinced that what they worship is real? We Unitarian Universalists tend to make a fetish of the idea that everything we say and everything we hear has to square in a very precise way with our consciences. No doubt there is wisdom in the notion that we should worship with integrity, but I fear we often miss the nuances of the human experience if we think that everybody (including ourselves) has to take everything literally. Hanukkah tells a story: a temple of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel was forcibly converted for a time into a temple of Zeus by Antiochus IV. Did “Antiochus the god revealed” believe that Zeus really existed? I don’t know what Antiochus IV believed, or what was believed among the peoples of any other Hellenized culture in the centuries after Alexander; I don’t know what Sophocles or Homer believed. Was Zeus real to them? Was Zeus an idea, an ideal, a personification that made a nonsensical world a little more bearable and maybe a little less meaningless? The God of Israel is an idea and an ideal, interpreted in countless different ways by unnumbered generations all over the face of the earth. How do we make sense of those stories? Reading or hearing anything is a work of interpretation, and we all know there are innumerable interpretations of any story. When we read or hear history, we interpret it differently. When we experience events that become history, we interpret those events differently. The history of any human community can be a very complex enterprise — even very recent history.

Hanukkah is a story of restoration: it is the tale of a community traumatized by unforeseen events yet coming together again to build a new future. I can’t be the only interim minister who finds resonance in these themes. They certainly seem relevant here and now. Certainly no foreign army desecrated this space, but what human being alive can fail to relate on some level to the theme of a cherished thing being suddenly changed or broken or taken away?

Hanukkah commemorates a re-dedication, a re-sanctifying of a sacred space that was defiled, the rebuilding of a holy house. This church has been focused intently for years on rebuilding this house. The language of these efforts speaks to the sanctity with which they have been lifted up in this community: the capital campaign brochure was called “Answering the Call;” it articulated a “master plan,” the furtherance of which has been entrusted to a group of leaders called the DreamBuilders. These are chapters of the story, the stories of this congregation. There are many ways these stories are interpreted. What are the many ways we can rededicate this sacred space?

I love that old Hanukkah hymn:

Rock of Ages, let our song
praise thy saving power.
Thou, amidst the raging foes,
wast our shelt’ring tower.
Furious, they assailed us,
but thine arm availed us,
and thy word
broke their sword
when our own strength failed us.

One way to interpret the story this hymn tells is that it makes a theological statement: ancestors who overcame insurmountable odds were able to endure and ultimately triumph because a divine power upheld and sustained them. Stories are meant to be told. Certainly we have stories that we keep to ourselves, but human beings have an irrepressible impulse to share stories. If our own strength fails us, can we derive strength from the stories of our ancestors? Are we ever availed by the stories of those around us, if we have the strength of heart to listen and to think deeply about what each other’s stories might mean?