Opening Words: Mary sings a lullaby to her little one in the manger, his cradle, his bed…a soothing song to bring a sense of calm, after the long journey, after the uncertainty, after the anxiety, the fear; like our own long journey; like our own uncertainty, anxiety and fear.
So she’s singing to us: “Sleep my dear one…let thy light shine in the manger. Promise of the ages in the arms of mother, sleep while she sings a gentle lullaby.”
We come here tonight as travelers in search of a place inside…a spiritual place, where we’re accepted as we are, ‘wanderers, worshipers, lovers of leavings.’ We’re here because we discovered a place that works for us, that encourages spiritual growth in an atmosphere of responsible freedom; we approach this hour with humility and hope to heal a heart that has ached through difficult times in our own lives and hearts that have ached as we’ve watched victims of the tsunami, and seen those dealing with the devastation left by Katrina and other storms, natural disasters and man-made tragedies. May this be a place calm the inner storms, minds that have worried through the days and nights of the year now ending. May we learn to unburden ourselves from things we need to let go of so we can be better prepared to enter the year that lies ahead with whatever challenges it has in store.
Let ‘the promise of the ages’ sing its lullaby to the soul that sits in the stable so that our light can shine through the dark night allowing us to follow the star of hope, the star that stands for ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all.”
E. E. Cummings writes:
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
See i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
Oh but you’ll be very proud
And my little sister and i will take hands
And looking up at our beautiful tree
We’ll dance and sing
It wouldn’t sound the same if he called it a holiday tree; Cummings would cringe if he could hear that controversy.
This year Joyce Kilmer might have written: “I think that I shall never see a poem as controversial as a tree.”
There are always some, like Scrooge, who complain about the way we celebrate this season, trying to bring some light into the dark time, some warmth into the cold time.
In seventeenth century Massachusetts the Puritans passed a law against celebrating Christmas at all, saying that it’s a pagan festival meant to celebrate the winter solstice.
There has been a battle over Christmas ever since the date of Jesus’s birth was chosen in the middle of the fourth century.
The truth is that we don’t even know the year that Jesus was born, nor the precise place—archeologists are digging into it; we’re here to dig into the spirit of the season.
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, summarized it in his response to his Uncle’s Ba, Humbug; you remember. Scrooge said, “You keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine…Much good it may do you! Much good it has ever done you!…it’s just a time for paying bills…finding yourself a year older but not an hour richer…”
Fred responds: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” Bob Cratchit applauds.
It’s no coincidence that the words and sentiments in that wonderful old story were written by a Unitarian; we’re more interested in the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him; we’re more interested in worshipping with Jesus by trying to live a decent life, which include the things Dickens has Fred say because they are the things that Dickens himself wanted to promote, and he was in the same age category as the Fred character when he wrote those famous words…that Christmas is meant to be a kind, forgiving, charitable time…a pleasant time…when we feel a deeper connection to all the other people on the planet
We Unitarians can’t help smile a little at all the fuss. In a very strange twist, the Christmas tree in America was introduced by Unitarian minister, Charles Follen, who was a radical reformer in his native Germany and had to get out of town, going first to Switzerland, then to America in 1825, the same year that the American Unitarian Association was formed.
Follen was the first professor of German at Harvard, and in 1835 he invited his colleagues to his home in Cambridge to celebrate Christmas with a lighted tree, the way he had always done as a boy. He decorated the tree expressly for his five-year old son, Charley.
You see, Follen had become an abolitionist, and the same folks who wanted to free the slaves wanted to be supportive of another powerless group – the children.
It’s difficult for us, living in such a child-centered culture, that children were thought of as powerless and in need of helping them become liberated; to be protected from cruel and abusive treatment; to be educated; and, for the poor, to be protected from child labor, a prelude to a lifetime of hard labor.
The only point is that we Unitarians have played a major role in the creation of Christmas customs in America; I say this at the risk of sounding like bragging, as if we’re somehow better than the other guys; we’re not better, but we are different in the sense that we understand all the stories in all the religions of the world to be in the category of mythology – that all the religions of the world have grown out of our shared human experience – the experience of being born and having to die.
Now, let me ask you a question: what do the following Christmas carols and stories have in common?
“Oh Holy Night,” Christmas Song,” “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” “Silver Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “The Grinch that Stole Christmas?”
I’ll give you a hint – it came from the same people who gave us the babe in the manger: right. It’s all Jewish.
Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote an op-ed piece for the Times yesterday, taking credit for much of the Jewish influence on the cultural celebration of Christmas.
We Unitarians like to take credit for Christmas – but the Jewish influence might have us beat!
Christmas is pure mythology – from start to finish. A good myth is the story of every person ever born on this earth.
I love Christmas. Let me tell you why: Christmas at its best is about humility—the humble stable is the symbol – no palace for the Prince of Peace; the story is a reminder of the interdependent web of all existence, symbolized by the birth of a baby surrounded by farm animals.
Christmas is about that thing in us which is the source of all healthy worship – a sense of wonder, a sense of awe – symbolized in the story by the story of the star shining down from the heavens and the angels coming to announce the birth.
Christmas is about compassion, summarized by Dickens in Fred’s speech.
Christmas is about the little or big epiphanies that keep happening on this journey through the years, the journey we call life; symbolized in the story by the wise men or the three kings…who left their old, known worlds, carrying gifts – just in case they find the newborn prince; then falling on their knees and worshipping him…that is to say, worshipping the divine spark that is in every person, when you see with Christmas eyes.
Just as Scrooge was changed by his experience of the visits from Christmas past, present and future, so were the kings changed, symbolized in the story by having a king on his knees, reversing the usual relationship…then having them ‘return by a different way,’ not only to avoid Herod’s questions, I think, but the symbol of ‘returning by another way’ is the idea that we have the potential to change; it’s never too late; we keep learning, and the most important learning comes from our own direct experience of life.
The kings could have sent others on such an arduous journey, but they had to see with their very own eyes; and so do you, and so do I; that’s why we Unitarians assert that your true theology isn’t about repeating things you’ve been taught to say you believe, but reporting what you have experienced, first hand.
What have you learned, so far?
I hope you’ve learned to forgive yourself so you’re not stuck in the past but hopeful about the future;
I hope you’ve learned that you have the ability and responsibility to bring a little more light into the world;
I hope you’ve learned to celebrate religious diversity – it’s one of the challenges gifts left under the human tree.
When we’ve learned these things we can lives that are truly loving, compassionate, caring and kind; it’s as simple and as profound as that.
Peace be with you.