Britain tends to think of itself as a pretty secular society. So it was interesting to see that this year, like last year, the X Factor was won by a song about faith: this year, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, rooted in biblical imagery about King David, last year Steven Schwartz’s song about Moses and the exodus, “There can be miracles when you believe”.
And there’s real religion in these songs, about how faith is something you can’t prove; it’s something you have to take on trust. Schwartz’s song begins with the words “many nights we prayed with no proof anyone could hear”; and Leonard Cohen’s tells about what went wrong when “your faith was strong but you needed proof”.
And both are a kind of commentary to the Chanukah lights we’ll be lighting for eight nights, beginning this Sunday. Read the books and they’ll tell you that Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks 22 centuries ago, when Jews won back their religious freedom, reconquered Jerusalem, cleansed the desecrated Temple and rekindled the lights of the Menorah, the great candelabrum that stood in that holy place.
Yet that victory didn’t last long. Two centuries later Jerusalem was conquered again, this time by the Romans, and the Temple set on fire. And there were rabbis at the time who said, let’s abolish Chanukah. Let’s forget the whole thing. What we won, we’ve now lost. There’s nothing to celebrate any more.
Yet Jews continued to light the lights, even though they’d lost their land and were scattered across the earth, even though everywhere they were a minority facing some of the worst persecution any people has ever known. Somehow they still believed that God would hear, and one day bring them back to their land. Jews kept faith alive, and faith kept Jews alive. It was their unprovable but inextinguishable source of strength.
I think we’re going to need faith in the coming year. Things will be tough, with people losing their savings and their jobs, things that shake your faith. But we can still light candles together. We can still love and laugh and thank God for the things we have, even as we shed a tear for the things we’ve lost. We too can sing the secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord. And it doesn’t matter who wins because when we share our gifts we all win. And for that let’s say “Hallelujah”.