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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Light One Candle

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, XXX XXX, 2006


There is a wonderful story about Hanukkah that concerns two old friends named David and Joseph.

Both of these men were old now; they were survivors of the Holocaust in Poland. They had come to America after the war, had worked hard, retired, and had settled into the same neighborhood in New York City.

They were dear friends; they had so much in common; and they agreed about everything—except: how to light the candles of the menorah for Hanukkah. Joseph believed that on the first night of Hanukkah, all of the candles of the menorah should be lit, and they should stay lit for all eight night. After all, Joseph reasoned this was the way God had done it at the original Hanukkah so many years ago. “The Holy One, blessed be his name, didn’t make the lamp burn brighter as the week went on.”

“You’re full of it,” David replied. “You know nothing!” No, instead, he said, following the more common practice, each night you light another candle—the first candle on the first night; the second one on the second; and so on. That’s to symbolize that each day, as the week went on, the faith of the Maccabees gets stronger and stronger.

They just couldn’t agree on how to light the menorah. So, each year they argued, and each year, Joseph would light all the candles on his menorah on the first night, and David would light one candle, then two, and so on. And as they passed each other’s windows, each would shake his head, and mutter what a stubborn fool his dear friend was.

So, one year they argued as ever, each night for the first four nights. But then, on the next night, it got a little more heated than usual. Joseph got so angry that he turned to David and said, “By all that is holy, you cannot even call yourself a Jew!”

A chill came into the room. The friends had never spoken to each other like that before. David turned to Joseph and said, “Get out of my house.” And Joseph did. He left.

On the next night, Joseph stayed home, too. He didn’t call; he didn’t walk by in front of David’s house that night. On the following night, he went out, and as he passed David’s house, he noticed that only five candles were lit. “Stubborn fool,” he said, “he’s waiting until the last night to light them.”

But then, on the sixth night, no more candles were lit. Nor on the seventh, and Joseph started to get concern. When no more candles were lit on the eighth night—the last night—he knew that something must be wrong. So, he went to the door and knocked and knocked, but there was no answer, no response. So he used the spare key to the apartment that David had given him years before (just in case). And there sat his old friend, David, slumped in his old chair in the living room, his chin down toward his chest.

“Oh, my dear friend, what have you done?” cried Joseph. His heart filled with remorse: They had been through so much together, and now, at the very end, they had allowed this silly argument about how to light the candles separate them. How could he have been such a fool, Joseph thought.

So, he walked to the window, and taking matches out of his coat pocket, he lit the sixth, and the seventh, and the eighth candles on the menorah—so that on this, the last night of Hanukkah, the candles burned brightly. He stood at the window, and through tear-filled eyes, gazed at the candles burning brightly.

Then, he heard the voice behind him say: “I told you that the eighth candle can’t be lit until the final night!”

It doesn’t really matter how we light the candles. What really matters is the spirit we have in our hearts as we light them.

There are many different ways to light candles—and many different reasons for lighting them. But even more important is that there is something deep in the hearts of all us which causes us to light candles in the dark—and in the dark of winter, especially.

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” the old saying goes. We were discussing that little saying at a gathering of our “Bridges to Contemplative Living” discussions sometime this fall, and someone asked me who had said it originally. This being one of the few questions I couldn’t answer right off the top of my head (ha!) I told them I’d get back to them the next week. Certainly, if I didn’t know the answer, then Google would.

Funny thing, but Google wasn’t sure either. According to one source, it might be an old Chinese proverb (which seems likely, but there’s no actual evidence to back that up). Other sources say the phrase was coined by Eleanor Roosevelt; certainly, Adlai Stevenson did much to popularize the saying when he used it in the eulogy he delivered for Eleanor back in 1962. Other sources say it was the motto of the Christophers, which is a Catholic missionary society. It’s still the motto on their website, where it’s put underneath the picture of a single candle. It’s also on the website of Amnesty International, and there it’s put beside a single candle, wrapped in barbed wire. The first person I remember using it was Richard Cardinal Cushing, archbishop of Boston some years ago(my age is showing now). It probably made more of an impression on me back then, though, because of the unmistakable nasal quality of Cardinal Cushing’s voice rather than because of what he was saying.

So, whoever said it first, the important thing is to ponder what it means. Why is it better to light one candle than to curse the darkness?

For the same reason that so many of the world’s peoples celebrate their festivals of light at this, the darkest season the year: to give us hope. Hope, without which, we well might perish.

As we discussed last week, there is great power and beauty in the image of darkness, and the darkness need not always be our foe:

The dark is the place that nurtured and protected us before our births.

Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor.

Night signals permission to us to rest, to come home, to be with those we love, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, and to remember our dreams.

The dark of winter can be a time of hibernation—of going a little slower—for us, as much as for the plants and animals with whom we share this Earth. Seeds grow in the dark and fertile ground. So do our deeper thoughts and inspirations.

The darkness of death, too, is but part of the long, seamless season of life. It is a time for peace and relief as well—especially from lives where there has been too much pain and suffering.

There is much power in darkness, and we ought to say—and we do often say—blessed be the dark.

But at this cold December time of year, when the sun seems as though it has been snuffed out of our lives altogether, and even the days seem to be all twilight, let’s be honest and admit that we grow a little weary of the dark. It is easy at this season to bemoan the fading of the light. Perhaps, in many of us at this time, that winter tiredness, that wearing of flesh and spirit that winter brings—those old “winter blahs”-- starts to set in.

So, our ancient forbears said, this seems a good time to light a bonfire. To huddle together in front of its heat; and remind ourselves that the light is less, but that the darkness has not overcome it. The light has not been defeated, and it burns still, as much within as without, perhaps.

Our winter festivals offer us rescue from the despair and depression and lethargy which winter inevitably brings. Our winter festivals, with their rich symbolism of darkness and light, offer the possibility of freedom, of a return to our fuller selves, of emergence from the dark pit of despair. Our winter festivals invite us to a flurry of activity—oftentimes too much activity—which can connect us with life, reconnect us with friends and family.

As Greta Crosby wrote: “Winter dark tends to warm light: fire and candles; winter cold to hugs and huddles; winter want to gifts and sharing; winter danger to visions, plans, and common endeavoring—and the zest of narrow escapes; winter tedium to merrymaking.”

As one writer has put it: “This blessed madness, this human urge to thwart the dark, can draw us back into ourselves. We defy despair.”

We light candles in the darkness to proclaim our hope in the return of the light.

We light candles in the darkness of time to proclaim our hope in the better world that can be.

It is easy to see the face of evil in human history. You have to be blind not to see it. But one needs to be just as blind to deny that in our own lives, in our history as a people, and in our common human epic, we have also seen the many blessed faces of hope. Evil can depress us, and there is much in the world about which we can despair. But hope can take out breath away, too, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected places all around us.

Yea, though we walk through the darkest valley, hope abides.

In the bleakest, gray years, hope abides. Amidst our deepest disappointments, hope abides. In the midst of winter, we light our candles.

Just as it is we human ones who light the flame, so hope is also always borne by men and women—and children, too—like us: human beings, no more than that—but mark this well, as well: no less than that; no less than fully human, fully alive; no less than fully open to the potentialities of the Spirit working, moving, transforming each and every moment of human history; each and every moment of our living; all the years of our days; transforming the often-dull and turgid prose of human existence into the vibrant, dancing, singing poetry of hope.

In spite of persecution and prejudice and pogrom and even unspeakable Holocaust—the Eternal Light of faith rekindled by the Maccabees still shines.

In spite of greed and selfishness and exploitation and tyranny, the Eternal Light of hope still illumines the path of human history.

In spite of dreariness and depression and despair, the Eternal Light of love still burns in our hearts, and lights our days and fires our nights, and reminds us that we are created in the image of the Divine.

Hope is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face. “Hope is a breathtaking dimension of the human spirit,” Vaclav Havel once said. “It is a dimension of our souls.”

Hope is a Divine gift passed down by fragile human hands—by our hands—when we light our candles, and when we reach out to do something to meet the world’s many unmet needs. Hope is a gift from God, but it only comes alive if we live it.

Hope lights the lamp,
which is kept burning
only through the oil of love.
Hope lights within us a holy fire,
which reaches consummation
only in our love for this Earth
and all its blessed creatures.
Faith lights life’s lamp.
Love keeps it burning.

Don’t let the light go out,
it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out,
let it shine though our love and our tears.

Light your candles of hope at this dark and blessed season. And let the glow from your souls, truly, light the world.


 


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