The Oil of the Maccabees
By Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, Executive Director
Early in the second century BCE, when the Jewish people went to rededicate their temple after it had been plundered and desecrated by pagan oppressors, the principle act was to rekindle the eternal flame that hangs above the Ark of the Covenant. This flame is always kept burning as a symbol of God's presence. It also represents the pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews on their freedom journey in the wilderness.
When the Maccabees who led the revolt reclaimed the temple, the sanctuary lamp fueled by oil was all but empty. There was only enough to burn for one day at best. More oil would take time to secure. They went ahead and lit the flame, not knowing how long it would last, or how they would keep it burning.
The Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, celebrates the miracle of this rededication of the Second Temple, beginning with the lighting of the eternal flame. The glorious impossible happened, the small amount of oil fueled the flame for eight days, the time it took to secure more oil.
As people of the spiritual path, rededication is a way of life. We are always, always beginning again. We are always being rekindled. It is the sacred path. Every morning, every week, every year we rededicate ourselves. As a young person, this used to frustrate me. I thought it meant I wasn’t getting it, or that it wasn’t getting me. Now I know it is the way. It is why 1,500 years ago St. Benedict named his rule, A Little Rule for Beginners.
We are the ones who are always beginning.
And in life, plundering happens. Desecration happens to what we hold dear. We begin again. In my Centering Prayer practice, with each awareness of a thought, I begin again. It is the way.
The Hanukkah story reminds me it is about the oil, the unbelievable oil, and that I must tend to this part. I must keep my eye on it. The oil will keep the flame because we keep the oil. I know when it is low, and I know its reservoir is much deeper than I think. The oil of the Maccabees lasted longer than anyone dared hope. And now we know that oil has lasted two millennia.
On a Sabbath in late October this year, L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh endured what no people should ever have to endure. Eleven people were gunned down during Sabbath prayers. As they celebrated Hanukkah, I prayed they could feel the power and presence of every candle, of every menorah around the world, and the candles of centuries past and centuries yet to come. Their temple was desecrated and lives plundered. They are rededicating again.
In this painful journey, when all seems lost, we learn about the oil.
My spiritual director helps me listen to how it is going with the oil. When I fear the flame is out, she helps me in my soul’s rededication to what I know is true.
We need those who will be here with us. And more than ever, our listening presence is also needed.
I give thanks for your work in the world.
Blessings for the Rededication Journey,
I Remember, I Believe
I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don’t know how my father stood his ground
I don’t know how my people survive slavery
I do remember, that’s why I believe
I don’t know how the rivers overflow their banks
I don’t know how the snow falls and covers the ground
I don’t know how the hurricane sweeps through the land
Every now and then
Standing in a rainstorm, I believe
I don’t know how the angels woke me up this morning soon
I don’t know how the blood still runs through my veins
I don’t know how I rate to run another day
I am here still running, I believe
My God calls to me in the morning dew
The power of the universe knows my name
Gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way
I raise my voice for justice I believe
Songwriters: Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock
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