It’s the time of year for thinking about miracles. Solstice marks the sun’s wondrous return for lengthening days. Christmas marks the virgin birth of God’s son. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but it celebrates a miracle we can all learn from in these times.
Under oppressive Syrian rule in the second century BCE, the Temple in Jerusalem was filled with idols, and Jewish customs were outlawed. Eventually, resistance fighters – the Maccabees – defeated the Syrians and liberated the temple. After removing the idols and building a new altar, they sought to re-light the Eternal Flame that burns in all Jewish temples, but they found only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, this small flagon of oil burned for eight days, until a fresh supply arrived.
This story provides a powerful allegory for modern times. The temple of our planet has been desecrated and filled with the idols of hatred, greed, and fear. The world’s people are increasingly oppressed and forced to subsidize the wars and opulence of the rich. Today’s people, particularly in the global South and in the increasing underclasses of the North, are offered fewer and fewer choices about how to live and what to value, just as the Jews were forced to live like Syrians or face death. The customs and beliefs that allowed them to live as Jews were threatened, just as our ecological and social life-support systems are being threatened today. Today’s martyrs are not voluntary, though: they are the victims of war, poverty, cancer, AIDS, and a thousand curable diseases.
In the midst of this suffering, those of us who seek to cleanse the world of hatred, greed, and fear, those of us who seek to reverse the desecration and destruction are met with another challenge. As the Maccabees found only enough olive oil to bless Jerusalem’s temple with light for a day, we’ve got perhaps a decade of cheap petroleum to provide the energy, transport, textiles, plastics, and other technologies that form the basis for our way of life.
But the story of Hanukkah tells us that oil can last much longer than expected – and in our case, no divine intervention is required. This is a miracle we can create ourselves, by recognizing oil as a precious substance that is far too valuable to burn recklessly. Through conservation, efficiency measures, and recycling, we can simultaneously extend our current oil supply, slow environmental degradation and global warming, and make space to develop new energy sources to take over when the oil does run out. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. And it would definitely be a miracle worth celebrating.