(#221 in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition)
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah happens about this time each year. It’s a minor Jewish festival compared to the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which typically occur in September or early October. However, because of its calendar proximity to Christmas, in many Western countries the holiday has been adapted to include some Christmas-like traditions. Even some non-Jews make respectful references to Hanukkah.
Hymn 221 is the first of three hymns in the UU hymnal for the Hanukkah season. It’s somewhat contemporary, having been composed in the early 1980’s by Peter Yarrow, member of the former folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. I probably first heard Peter Yarrow when he, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers performed the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. As I grew up and later attended college, songs sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary became part of the soundtrack of my cohort.
This hymn begins with a reference to the Maccabees, a Jewish sect in Palestine during the 2nd century B.C. Depending on which sources you reference, the Maccabees may have been dedicated and self-sacrificing revolutionaries fighting an arrogant Syrian conqueror, or religious bigots bent on enforcing their narrow interpretation of Jewish law, or some combination of the two. Religious observances by Jews of that era ranged along a continuum that placed mostly rural more traditional Jews near one end of the spectrum and urbanized/Hellenized Jews near the other. Sounds vaguely familiar.
The story most of us hear about the Maccabees is that they reconstructed and then rededicated the main temple in Jerusalem after it had been converted for Hellenistic worship. They wanted to celebrate the temple’s rededication using sacred oil, but had only enough for a single day. Miraculously, this oil lasted eight days, enough time for the worshippers to obtain a further supply. Modern Hanukkah celebrations often use a candelabrum called a menorah, with a central candle and eight surrounding candles, one for each of the eight days that the sacred oil lasted.
Yarrow, of Jewish background if not active religious practice, asks us first to “light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.” As the verse continues, it gets more generic: “Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.” Then it offers something of a sop: “But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.”
The second verse offers more reasons to light candles; the third asks mostly rhetorical questions about why to light the candles at all:
“What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?”
And then the zinger:
“This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.”
All three verses share a rousing chorus:
“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.”
Several performances of the hymn have been posted to YouTube, among them a 1988 holiday concert the trio performed with backup chorus, which you may find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ.
I had an idealized impression of Peter, Paul, and Mary, so was dismayed to learn when I researched this piece that Peter had much earlier been convicted of taking “indecent liberties with a minor” in 1970 and had served three months in jail. He later got a presidential pardon as Jimmy Carter left office. A legal case has recently been filed accusing Yarrow of a different incident in 1969.
In typical human fashion, I find it harder to deal with immoral behavior on the part of people I generally hold in high esteem. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of tribalism, condemning bad behavior by those of a different political persuasion or religious denomination while trying to excuse or rationalize such behavior by those I consider “my team.” From what little I can tell, Yarrow is repentant, reformed, and perhaps at age 83 somewhat hazy on what did or did not happen back in 1969. He still performs occasionally with grown daughter Bethany and/or grown son Christopher. Perhaps Carter was wise to realize how far short of the glory of God all of us can fall at times.
This year’s Hannukah celebration will end well before Christmas, but it’s after Thanksgiving already. Home dwellers, commercial establishments, and religious sites are gradually festooning their venues with candles and lights.
Because of the part of a time zone I now live in, physical darkness comes early in the evening this time of year. Not a big fan of the dark, I’m counting the days and minutes until our evening light eventually starts lengthening again. In the meantime, I can enjoy illuminated walks in our neighborhood, thrilling to the lights from many more than one candle.
Now can seem a dark psychological time in our collective history as well, tinged by a pandemic, civil unrest, intermittent resource shortages, and a variety of societal ills. Through it all, may I remember to keep my own candle burning. Please trim and tend yours, too!