Sarah carefully brushed the hair of Esther, her favourite doll, before placing her on a cushion close by the comfortable armchair. Moshe turned from the window and called, “Grandfather is here!” The twins glowed with excitement as they heard those familiar footsteps coming toward them. Grandfather would be lighting all the candles of the menorah tonight. It had been such a busy week; all their relatives were busily packing, for a census had been called and each family needed to return to their own tribe’s birthplace so they could be counted. Of course to parents it was apparent this was simply a ruse designed to enable the ruling authorities to increase the already crippling taxes, but to children it was a time of excitement. They would be travelling in groups and would have the opportunity to become acquainted with family members who lived far from their own homes.
But before their journey commenced, each household was observing the festival of Chanukah, the wonderful festival of light. It was a time for all the Chanukah stories to be told. Entire families would lay aside their chores and listen once again to the tales of heroes of old who had defeated the Greek invaders. There was also the amazing miracle in which one container of oil had burned not for just one but eight days. As the door opened Moshe and Sarah paused in mid-flight. Assuring himself the whole family had assembled, Grandfather led them in the recitation of the first blessings of the evening.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
He then lit a spill from the fire. Tonight was the eighth night of Chanukah, and all those gathered watched him light the center candle — the servant — before he lit each of the other candles of the menorah from it. The servant candle, or shamash, always stood either higher or lower than the other candles. Grandfather carefully lit the rightmost candle of the menorah from the servant light and then proceeded, one by one, till he reached the last candle on the left side of the menorah. With all candles alight the menorah was placed in the window, and Grandfather recited the Hanerot Halalu prayer.
“Why do we place the candle each night in the window?” asked Sarah.
“We do this to show passers-by that in the midst of darkness, light continues to shine, and so conquer darkness. Whether the darkness be caused by hate or intolerance, whether it is the darkness known by those people who are not free, or the darkness in the hearts of those who hide from truth, our lights will always proclaim freedom and love,” replied her father.
As everyone settled themselves to hear the Chanukah stories this evening would produce, he continued, “Our Chanukah menorah has eight branches, unlike the one used in the Temple in Jerusalem, because seven candles speak of the natural and finite world, whereas eight candles bring us an image of the infinite and supernatural world, the era of Moshiach (Messiah), far beyond the limitation we know in this world.” Grandfather spoke quietly, “The lights of Chanukah also give us the strength and courage to remain alert, no matter how long the darkness that surrounds us lasts.”
And so, in his deep and resonant voice, Grandfather began to retell the exciting stories of Judas Maccabaeus who, with his followers, determined never again to submit to the unholy demands of the Greek occupational force. As his story drew to an end, Mother spoke softly from the shadows: “Now tell the story of why we eat cheese each Chanukah, so that we may remember and celebrate the bravery of Yehudit, for it is not only men who are courageous.”
Grandfather smiled; each year this was the final Chanukah story, one that had been repeated generation by generation. And as he spoke, the candles burned lower on the menorah. Finally taking his grandchildren by the hand, he rose to blow out the candles, each in its turn, first the eight holy lights, and finally the servant light. But as he paused before the shamash, the flame lifted slowly into the air and rose above his head. Moshe and Sarah stood transfixed. No one had ever seen such a thing happen! Mother and Father looked askance. What was happening this night, of all nights? The flame moved toward the door, with the whole family in pursuit. And then, before their eyes it flowed out the door and rose even higher. Higher and higher this one flame moved, until finally it disappeared from their sight.
Not even Grandfather could offer any explanation for this new miracle, a flame that moved from their menorah high into the sky without being extinguished. Not even the holiday food, doughnuts and potato pancakes, could stop their questions one to another across the table that evening. To Sarah and Moshe, not even the Chanukah money, given so they could share their good fortune, could distract them from the queries that tumbled from their lips. It was certain that this occurrence would be the principal topic of conversation during the journey they were about to commence. It would be good to hear the opinions of the rabbi, once he learned of this errant flame.
Higher and higher into the sky moved the flame from the servant candle, as it traveled consistently on an easterly path. Finally it paused over a courtyard in a country far away. There in the courtyard, discussing the movement of the planets in conjunction with other celestial bodies, stood a small group of wealthy men. Among them were three of the court astrologers, or magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
As they gazed skyward there appeared a flickering light, almost as if it were a candle. But a candle aloft and burning despite the breeze that had sprung up at sunset? Surely this was a sign, but who had ever heard of such a sign? They hurried inside, debating fiercely with one another as to the meaning of this light. Scrolls were opened, servants were sent to the homes of other astrologers, even the vaguest whisper of a long-forgotten memory was pondered. Still, nowhere could an answer be found; the light became an unsolved riddle, the subject of court discussion and bewilderment. And now, to add to the confusion it had caused, the light began to move westward.
Plagued by insatiable curiosity, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar decided to pursue this light, for they would know no peace until its riddle had been solved to their satisfaction. Quickly they assembled a small caravan and departed, travelling by night when the light burned brightly and resting by day. Over national boundaries it led them, across sweeping desert plains; they climbed ranges of hills and crossed river frontiers, all in pursuit of this light. Finally they arrived at the borders of Israel, occupied at this time by the garrisons of Rome. Why, they asked, would the celestial light be bringing them to this land whose occupants had no life but that which Rome would allow? As they moved through thoroughfares leading to the capital, Jerusalem, they stopped members of other caravans to inquire about the light. But no one, it seemed, had noticed the flicker in the sky, so engrossed were they all to arrive at specific destinations decreed by Rome.
It seemed the only solution to this mystery could be contained among the records kept by astrologers in the royal Jewish court. The Magi travelled to the court of Herod, appointed king of Israel, and sought audience before the king. Seeing such distinguished guests, Herod was determined to assist them and perhaps assist his own cause. He invited them to rest and hurriedly assembled the court astrologers. “Where,” he demanded, “is there a foretelling of a light, a star it would seem, that has brought astrologers from the east? What does such a star signify?” The astrologers disputed heatedly among themselves, and finally one of them approached Herod. “It would appear, your majesty, that such a star has been predicted, a star that will herald the coming of the promised Messiah. If this is the expected star, it will herald the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, the city of David.”
Early the next morning the Magi were summoned before Herod and told the news that a light such as they had described could be the star heralding the birth of the promised king of Israel. This King would free the country from the domination of other nations and restore Israel to its rightful sovereignty. Taking note of the directions to Bethlehem, the Magi departed, certain now that their quest had not been in vain. As the road wound toward the rocky limestone ridge on which Bethlehem was situated, they appraised the news of the Messiah. High in the sky above their heads the faint flicker of light persisted, though its pace seemed to have slowed considerably.
Then finally it stopped. Not over one of the inns lining the road, but to the rear of the furthermost inn, over the caves holding provisions and sheltering livestock, it paused and finally stopped. The Magi slid from their mounts and moved forward to discover in the manger lined with straw a newborn baby. They turned, seeking to unpack the gifts they had brought with them, when a movement from their guiding light caught their eyes. Down over the cave, hovering almost above the baby and its parents, flickered one small flame, almost as if it had been birthed from a candle. This light from the shamash, servant candle of the menorah, seemed to ponder over this child, born to be the servant of God and of humanity. And then in an instant the light was gone; yet the glow it had cast illuminated the cave so that all could see clearly the faces of this unique family and the animals sharing their shelter.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.