I’ve been staring at the screen, sipping coffee, for longer than is entirely comfortable, feeling empty and lacking in anything of substance – humorous, snarky, historic, theological, musical, or otherwise – to say.

Perhaps in a different time and place, when there is a sense of pride in who we are as a nation, this might feel a little more inspiring. And even then, I might find this somewhat frustrating – inasmuch as I find any kind of nationalism and belief in chosenness frustrating.

This hymn, with its very German folksongy tune, celebrates the military victory of a nation and a temple at the hands of a strong-armed god. I know it is popular in many synagogues around the world, and there is biblical precedent for singing a song of victory – see Exodus 15, a song of victory led by Moses and the guys after the Egyptians die in the Reed Sea.

But, well… I don’t know. It feels strange to follow up Light One Candle and Mi Y’Malel, with their broader vision of justice for all, with this song of Maccabean military triumph.

Rock of Ages, let our song praise your saving power;
you amidst the raging foes were our sheltering tower.
Raging they assailed us, but your arm availed us,
and your word broke their sword when our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, unbowed by suffering,
purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And in lands surrounding hear the joy abounding,
happy throngs singing songs with a mighty sounding.

Children of the prophet’s word whether free or fettered,
wake the echoes of the songs where you may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
which shall see nations free, tyrants disappearing.

I suspect some of my gentle readers will have a different perspective on the hymn, which I wholeheartedly welcome. I suspect they’ll put this in context, they’ll talk about right over might, they’ll see this as celebration of truth and freedom.

And perhaps if we weren’t bingewatching this bizarre thing that’s part House of Cards, part Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and isn’t fiction at all but actual international crisis and possible treason, I might feel willing to celebrate a bit more.

To say “I have nothing interesting to say” – which has happened – is a misnomer. I have something interesting to say…it’s just not very happy or perhaps even helpful.

It is apparently old folky week here at the Far Fringe… because I first learned this song a million years ago through a recording by The Weavers:

Yessiree, that’s Pete Seeger on the banjo, along with the incredible Ronnie Gilbert on lead vocals, along with Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. I remember once in my twenties hearing Holly Near, whose music I had learned at Girl Scout camp, singing with Ronnie Gilbert, and it was an embarrassingly long time before I connected Gilbert as the female singer in the Weavers.

I know I’m hardly writing about the songs these last few days, because I suddenly find myself swimming in the deep blue waters of memory. I suppose some of it is that I’m at the end of a ministry and ready to launch a new one, some of it is that I’m just a couple of weeks away from my ordination, but certainly some of it is that the Hymnal Commission had the good sense to include in our Living Tradition music that resonates beyond its immediate meaning. For just as Light One Candle is about Hanukkah but so much more, so is Mi Y’Malel. And these songs carry with them lyrical meaning but also the meaning of a time, when folk exploded in the American consciousness as a gentle, familiar form to help us enter the difficult sideways.

Anyway, this is a traditional Hebrew song for Hanukkah, given life by our familiar and beloved folkies, and now preserved with all its meaning and memory for us.

Mi y’malel g’vurot Yisrael Otan mi yimneh?
Henb’chol dor yakum hagibor, Goel Haam.

Sh’ma! Bayamin hahem baz’man hazeh.
Makabi moshia u fodeh,
Us v’ya menu kol am Yisrael,
Yitached, yakum v’yigael.

Mi y’malel g’vurot Yisrael Otan mi yimneh?
Henb’chol dor yakum hagibor, Goel Haam.

Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.

Ah! At this time of year in days of yore
Maccabees the Temple did restore,
and today our people, as we dreamed,
will arise, unite, and be redeemed.

Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.

Who can retell the things that befell us? We must preserve the stories and write the histories and make sure future generations – and we in the present – know what happened. This is important, certainly today in this weird time of alternative facts and fake news. Who will be our heroes and sages….and bards?

The first time I remember knowing who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, I was about 8 and was watching my brother and his first wife singing the song “Lemon Tree.” Karen had long chestnut brown hair and a rich alto voice, and while I often associated her with another alto brunette named Karen – Karen Carpenter – my sister-in-law had the Mary Travers sound down too, and the song sounded great to my young ears.

Peter, Paul, and Mary – along with so many other folksingers – became part of the rich tapestry of music that filled my childhood, and they are in part why I pick up on harmonies so easily and tend to blend my voice well with whoever I am singing with. But it wasn’t until adulthood, really, that I learned about the political meaning behind their (and so many other folksingers’) lyrics.

I wonder in part if that’s because I liked so much music I didn’t pay attention to it, or if my growing up the child of Rockefeller Republicans kept me from that analysis, or – as I realized in my undergraduate course on Vietnam – the issues were so current and so present there wasn’t language or resources to teach it. I remember sitting in that college class in my early 30s with the professor doing the first-session litany of “of course you know” facts; and while the students 12-15 years younger nodded at basic information, those my age sat with puzzled looks. We recalled to the class that history went up to the Korean War and we talked about current events only after Watergate – thus shining a light into a significant gap in our knowledge.

And it was only in that class that I really came to study and understand the anti-war, civil-rights, social justice meanings of so many songs from the folksingers I had loved throughout childhood.

Which brings me to today’s hymn – written by Peter Yarrow. Sure, it’s a Hanukkah song… sort of. But wow, is it really an anti-war, pro-civil-rights song.

(A quick musical note here – please, for all that is holy, please use guitars when singing this! It just clunks along on piano, and it needs the sense of urgency and freedom that guitars provide. )

Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied.
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.
But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.

Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.
Light one candle for those who are suff’ring the pain we learned so long ago.
Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger won’t tear us apart.
And light one candle to bring us together with peace as the song in our heart.


What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?
This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.


What’s amazing to me, reading this the day after FBI Director James Comey was summarily and indelicately fired, just how resonant these lyrics are to Literally Today. “Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.” Holy cow. “Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail? This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail” – not “must not”, by the way – “WILL NOT”.

Wow do we need this song today.

Don’t let the light go out.