My guess is that relatively few readers of this blog celebrate Hanukah, but most are familiar with the basics of the holiday: that it’s Jewish, that it involves lighting candles for eight consecutive nights, that it commemorates a miracle of light.
A slightly more detailed version of the story goes like this: in the years between the Old and New Testaments, Alexander the Great took over as much of the world as the Bible mentioned and then some. Jews were allowed to stay in their land and worship their God, though, so they didn’t think that was too bad. After Alexander died without a clear heir, though, his empire was split up between rival generals, whose heirs fought each other for another hundred years. The Jews eventually ended up under one named Antiochus IV who considered himself a god. He tried to replace Judaism with his own state religion, which did upset many Jews, who ran to the hills and started a long guerilla rebellion. After some time, these rebels managed an upset victory in a pitched battle and retook Jerusalem.
At the time, they had no idea whether they’d be able to hold it long. Would the Empire send reinforcements to drive them back into the hills? Could they hold on to the city of their temple and their God? Tradition says that in this uncertainty, they took action. They cleaned up the temple. They decided to rekindle its eternal flame. Since they didn’t know if they’d be able to keep the temple long, they didn’t dare wait the eight days to make new oil for the light. But tradition tells us that the one day’s worth of oil they had miraculously burned eight days until new oil could be prepared and the light kept burning.
Part of the enduring power of the story of Hanukah, I think, is in the ways it speaks to difficult, deeply tenuous transitional situations.
No one knows for sure whether a lasting economic infrastructre to support the production of exceptional Mormon literature, drama, and film will ever emerge. Writers and artists who dream of working within our culture typically have to do so without confidence that they will be able to successfully do so for any significant length of time. The resources simply aren’t there. And so we get days jobs. We spend most of our time on other projects. And when we acheive dreams, they always seem on the verge of collapse. The theatre company that produced all of my Mormon plays continues to hold workshops, but is on a producing hiatus. There is nowhere else I know of, at this point, for my best plays to be produced. Periodicals and small publishers who deal in Mormon work live and die by the passion and energy of their creators. No one gets paid much, if anything, and we all know that the whole operation could be over next year or even next month. Even organizations with substantial history, like AML, sometimes seem to be running out of fuel. Publications become irregular. It seems every bit as conceivable that hoped for events will not take place as conceivable that they will. And there’s always some lively debate about whether the work that all these individuals and organizations put out is ultimately more shadow or light.
And yet–we continue. No one waits for stability to come; we just write. And do our best, against all odds, to make sure that someone, somewhere, has a chance to experience our writing. Often, we get tired, selfish, frustrated. Writers have quit writing; believers have stopped believing–but never has the fuel completely run out.
Hanukah, I believe, is not celebrated simply to commemorate a single ancient miracle. We continue to light candles to express our belief that such miracles must and do fill the transitory days of our lives.
And so this Hanukah, my thoughts turn to Mormon letters. The future is uncertain; it’s cold outside, more often than not–but the past holds a succession of softly burning lights, works that have helped us keep spiritually alive, works that have made us more whole.
I’m looking for some candles for this night. And when I find them, I’ll do as my ancestors did and publish the miracle by putting them in the window.