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; a place inside…a spiritual place, where we’re accepted as we are. 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, hoping 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 economic problems thrust upon us.
May this time together help to calm the our anxious minds so we’re better prepared to enter the new year that lies ahead, able to face 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.”
Sermon: They Returned By a Different Way
In his poem, Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot says:
“. . .such a long journey:
the ways deep and the weather sharp,
the very dead of winter.
…and so we continued
and arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”
Eliot’s poem is about his own personal struggle with spiritual uncertainty, confusion, leading to his experience of discovering the deeper meaning in the story of the ‘journey of the magi.’
It’s about what he referred to as his experience of a kind of spiritual death, or ‘dark night of the soul,’ leading to his sense of rebirth.
We grow. We change. Without growth and change we risk losing our passion for life – what Eliot later refered to in his poem The Hollow Men.
“Journey of the Magi” was written in a time of his personal unhappiness – an internal struggle which led to a deeper, more dramatic understanding of the Christian story as the story of Everyman.
We all struggle, physically, emotionally, spiritually, moving toward deeper understandings and a more highly developed sense of appreciation for our lives and for the lives of loved ones, and a sympathy for suffering we see or hear about around us, even with those we don’t know but for whome we feel a human kinship.
When we enter this ancient legend, using our own imagination, our intuition, then it’s a story of hope, full of miracles that remind us that this life itself is an unfolding miracle; each of our lives is a work in progress…a long journey, ‘the ways deep and the weather sharp.’
In the older Jewish story the Messiah is called; Wonderful Counselor; the Mighty God; Everlasting Father; the Prince of Peace.
Later, some said that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the savior.
It’s a very human and humanizing story – it’s about the human journey from birth, like the birth in the manger, all the way to the other end: ‘did we come all that way for birth, or death?’ the poet asks.
The Messiah represents what we need: peace of mind – the need to come to terms with the inner forces that wage an eternal struggle toward wholeness.
The Messiah represents our need for ‘a wonderful counselor,’ a partner or friend who knows how to listen; someone who will not dismiss our concerns, even if they don’t sound as earth-shaking as the concerns of those whose suffering is more obvious than ours; someone who will not be afraid to find out ‘what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone;’ someone who will not reject us once they find out who we really are, flaws and all. Human!
This long-awaited Messiah represents what we need from one another, and what we need to become, for ourselves…to move beyond blame and guilt, remorse and regret.
No wonder this long-awaited Messiah is called by many names — he represents so many aspects of what it means to be human; and the many things each of us needs: The Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, The Redeemer, The Messiah, the anointed one — these are aspects of what it means to be human, what it means to struggle through life from day to day.
The legend of a virgin giving birth to a god in a manger comes alive for us rational types only when we realize that it’s a poetic way of expressing what it’s like to be you and me, and to be in relationship.
It’s the human story, too deep for biographical or historical facts; deep enough to dig way down into what we call our potential — the potential for each of us to grow and to change, to deepen our understandings, to participate in the process of one another’s salvation, to be redeemer, to be the Prince of Peace.
Stanley Kunitz captures this idea about the ongoing journey, the sense of engagement in one another’s lives, in his amazingly telling poem, The Layers:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
The ancient legend says that the three kings, wise men, magi, ‘returned from the stable by different way,’ being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who wanted to destroy this newborn king.
The idea of being ‘warned in a dream’ is a reference to the messages that come to us from the unconscious mind…insights, or the little epiphanies that help us to move from some stuck place to a place of newfound freedom.
For some it means the freedom to stop some addiction that’s doing us in; the addiction to alcohol, drugs, eating, gambling, spending, worrying; or the addiction to anger, resentment and fear.
We need to return by a different way, suggested by the notion that the kings became ‘wise men’ because they returned by a different way…they were changed by their experience, as we are. We may be moved by the account of another person’s experience, but it’s not likely to change us, unless we can relate it to our own experience.
The Biblical story, or T. S. Eliot’s poem, or Homer’s Odyssey, or the simple story in Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping By Woods on a Winter Evening…it all amounts to the same thing…this journey we’re on; it’s about stopping to pay attention and then getting back to work, the work of living a life, and the ‘promises we have to keep, and the miles to go before we sleep.’
We need to discover these truths again and again; we need to discover them for ourselves, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need to return to the old story so we can find new and deeper meanings in it. May we continue on the journey together so that we can ‘dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.’
little tree, e e cummings
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
May the deepest spirit of this season sink into the depths of the soul so that we can realize again and again that we are involved in a miraculous, magical, mystical world when we allow ourselves to fly above the hard, cold facts and to feel our connection with one another and with that which is eternal and abides in each of us and all of us.