The miracle of the oil on Hanukkah is a relatively minor feat in terms of divine intervention. Compared to the might-and-smite miracles found in the Torah, the oil trick is actually pretty tame.
It’s not the overwhelming show of force that God displayed in Egypt or the awe-inspiring smoke and fire witnessed at Mount Sinai. It’s nothing compared to the fall of the walls of Jericho at the hands of Joshua or Samson’s absolute decimation of the Philistines with nothing but a jawbone and the strength of God and his convictions.
Some might ask why it is that we make such a big deal over the Jewish equivalent of making it to the next gas station on an empty tank of gas? But it’s this ordinariness that makes the miracle of the oil so monumentally important for us.
We no longer live in an age of manifest marvels of the divine. Our acts of God these days are rarely so apparent. All we have left are the ordinary miracles and the everyday wonders. Left to our own devices, we fly right past these small-scale events without even noticing them.
Seeing the miraculous in the ordinary is an everlasting message embedded into the story of the oil. But it’s not the only one.
Miracles in Scripture seem to follow a fairly common script: a leader prays, and God does all the heavy lifting. Joshua and Samson fit this mold. Alternatively, God communes with a leader (like Moses or Abraham), tells them what to do, they do it, and then God backs them up when they face opposition.
Hanukkah, in contrast, has the human protagonists taking the lead in the story of the oil. Unprompted by God, the Maccabees take it upon themselves to clean up the Temple and relight the Menorah.
In fact, the Maccabees don’t even seem to be looking for a miracle. Like an innkeeper after drunken hooligans have trashed his establishment, the Maccabees sighed, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work as a community, in contrast to the solo protagonists found in other stories of our faith.
Without being told to do so, the Maccabees attempt to serve the Lord by rehabilitating His Temple. Alternatively, they attempt to unite the fractured Jewish community around a common symbol of hope in a savvy political move. In either case, God gives His blessing to the endeavor by prolonging the life of the oil.
The lesson here is simple enough: we make our own miracles. We do not make them alone, but we do make them all the same.
Like the Maccabees, we need to take the initiative and create the circumstances in which miracles can occur. And when they do, I hope we have the ability to see them for what they are. Perhaps we’ll even see them by the light of our oil lamps.