Christmas Eve: Opening
We have gathered from our separate homes to this common home, this place made sacred by our thoughts, our hopes, our promises one to another.
We welcome our guests-those who are visiting family, those who are in search of a place to touch the holy, if only for this evening. There’s room here at the inn.
With our special music, shared singing, and in the quiet of this hour may we touch that which is sacred, which is holy.
Let our hearts prepare a place as we give the rational mind a rest so we can allow the deeper spiritual meanings to emerge.
We welcome the opportunity to heal the wounds, to cleanse the heart of lingering irritations and indignations, so that we might find room for memories that heal the parched spirit and nourish the soul.
What Really Counts — Reading w/Barbara Fast
Twenty years ago I drove a cab for a living.
I drove the night shift…my cab became a moving confessional. Passengers climbed in, sat behind me in total anonymity, and told me about their lives. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, some who ennobled me; some made me laugh and some made me cry.
But none touched me more than a woman I picked (at the end of a shift) one summer (at 5 a.m.).
When I arrived … the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs some assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute.”
It was a frail, elderly voice. … After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.
By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she asked. I took the suitcase to the cab then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the cab. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”
“Oh, you’re such a nice boy,” she said.
When we got to the cab she gave me an address written on a piece of paper, then she asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly.
“Oh, I don’t mind…I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
“I don’t have any family left. The doctor says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?”
For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow down in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
Then, the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon.
“I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They had been expecting her.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living.”
There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking I bent and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly.
“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy. Thank you.”
I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?
What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? As I look back over the years I’ve come to realize that I haven’t done anything more important in my life. It’s as close as I’ve come to understanding the story of the three wise men who had an epiphany after that long journey to that simple stable.
I guess the Prince of Peace is born any time we’re able to offer little acts of kindness.
We Unitarian Universalists are often asked what we believe about this or that…what do we believe about Christmas, and if we don’t believe that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Messiah, or the Son of God, or some combination of the two, why do we celebrate Christmas…and how do we celebrate this season?
You may remember Carlyn’s question. (My nine-year old step daughter who attends Hebrew school at Temple Israel.) Frank, she asked, is Christmas a religious holiday?
I answered, “No, it’s a cultural holiday,” and we talked about religion and culture, the similarities and differences.
I gave her that answer for a couple of reasons, the most important is that I didn’t want her question to end with an answer, as too many important questions do.
A sense of wonder begins with a question, and ends with an answer.
The deepest, most important questions are never answered, once and for all.
What makes this a holy season?
What’s sacred about it?
It’s what makes any day or moment in a day holy or sacred: little acts of kindness and love.
There are wonderful symbols in the season. I appreciate them all, more and more.
For example, I love the symbolism of the three wise men, or three kings, or the magi, who left their kingdoms to venture in search of the Holy Child.
Wisdom is not the same as knowledge, is it.
Wisdom is in a separate category. It has to do with insight. It has to do with understanding–with a depth of understanding. It has to do with a sense of appreciation, a sense of appreciation for Life itself; a sense of appreciation for our differences, as well as those things we have in common.
To become wise–one of the wise ones–you have to leave home, which is to say, you have to be willing to ‘withdraw from the barren world of hard, cold, tedious facts, if only for a season,’ as Rhys Williams put it.
To become wise–one of the wise ones–you have to be willing to take a risk…you have to have a vision…you need courage…imagination.
If you look for religious meanings in the hard cold facts you will, I think, be disappointed, though many of the so-called hard, cold facts of Nature are enough to stagger the imagination.
To find the religious, or spiritual dimension, you have to be wise enough to leave that part of the brain or mind where all the information is stored, and venture forth into new thinking…venture forth into a feeling level.
I find it in poetry, and if it’s not poetry, but it touches me soul, it suffices.
A cab driver who realizes that the Prince of Peace is sitting in the back seat of his cab on her way to the hospice…now that’s a wise man.
The three wise men, or three kings, or the magi, we are told, arrived at the stable on the 12th night, celebrated in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Epiphany.
An epiphany is when you have a new insight, a deeper understanding.
An epiphany happens when you turn off the meter, stop worrying (at least for the time being) about how much money you have, how much money you’re making, how much you’re ‘worth,’ and touch that holy or sacred place where all value is concentrated in a single birth…a baby lying in a manger–where the animals feed; a child for whom there was no room in the inn.
No, we Unitarian Universalists do not believe that there were three wise ones, or kings, or magi, who took a twelve day hike following a fabled star.
However, we hope to have wisdom enough to realize that the cab driver in our story joined the ranks of the wise ones when he shut off the meter and paid attention…when he discovered a savior in his cab.
The doctors told her that she didn’t have long. He didn’t have long, either, and he realized it. He allowed himself to realize that ‘this is not dress rehearsal.’
He allowed himself to be present to those moments with this woman, to share her memories. He took the opportunity to bring her to familiar places, which is what the Christmas season does for us.
Yes, we celebrate Christmas, for religious reasons. Not because Christmas is a religious holiday–it doesn’t matter whether we call it such or not.
We celebrate Christmas because it offers the opportunities for us to venture forth from the hard, cold facts of life and enter that place, that special, spiritual place which is deep within each of us…that place of appreciation…that place of memory and hope…that within us which allows us to love, and encourages us to reach out, to take the risk of being changed by leaving the old kingdoms where we have power without strength, control without sensitivity, knowledge without understanding. Let me conclude with a special Christmas message of appreciation to you:
Thank you for what you have done to transform this place by your financial contributions.
Thank you for helping our religious education program by volunteering to teach, lead children’s chapel, or help out in other ways.
Thank you for your encouragement to our shared ministry–for being supportive of Barbara, Ed, Jamie, Bob and me as we do our best to serve you.
Thank you for your trust. Thank you for the card and note; for the exchange of glances, eye to eye, tonight and on Sunday mornings.
Thank you for sharing the journey, for leaving the old, safe kingdoms from which you have come and to discover, together, what is truly holy, what is sincerely sacred.
May that sense of the sacred and spirit of holiness enter this place and each of our hearts as we share our candle light service, singing silent night.
I will light a single candle to represent the One Source which we share with all the people’s of the world–indeed with all Life on this planet. Barbara and I will light candles at random and you will pass the light until all are lit.
(And please be very careful with lighted candles.)