We’ve entered the complicated season. The Christian Church calls it Advent—the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Advent is about the arrival of Jesus as the Incarnation. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it as, “The doctrine that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of Mary and that Jesus is true God and true man; a bodily manifestation of a supernatural being.”
Retailers define advent as ‘the make or break’ season, beginning with black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—the biggest shopping day of the year, when millions of folks participate in a frenzy of shopping.
The frantic frenzy of buying can be viewed in two very different ways. On the one hand, it looks like ugly consumerism—the eighth deadly sin: attachment to material possessions, otherwise known as ‘stuff.’
On the other hand, the enthusiastic shoppers, starting on black Friday, can be seen as a powerful and sincere wish to bring happiness to loved ones—to find the right gifts to give to our children, grandchildren, family and friends. Generosity—one of the great virtues!
On black Friday I walked over to Barnes and Noble and bought some books for prisoners to give to their children. I got picture books of Clement Moore’s wonderful poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas). I got books of the classic fairy tales, hoping that little kids visiting their parents (who are in prison through no fault of those innocent little children) will remember their father or mother reading it to them, and then keeping the book as a reminder of the story, and as a reminder of the love they felt in that special visit.
Most of the people who brave the crowds on black Friday are on a serious, spiritual mission, hoping to find appropriate, special gifts to give to someone they love. It matters, because love matters.
A friend of mine tells the story of little boy who made a ceramic dish with his hand-print in the middle of it for his parents. When he got home from school he came charging in the door, carrying his precious gift, knowing it would make his parents happy, and he tripped and fell, and he heard the breaking of his ceramic plate with his hand-print in the middle. He began to cry inconsolably and his father, wanting to reassure the boy, said, “That’s okay, son, it really doesn’t matter, it was the thought that counts.”
The boy’s mother sat on the floor with him and hugged him as he cried and the boy said, “It does matter, doesn’t it Mommy,” and she said, “Yes, it matters,” and they cried together.
We learn from our children; they remind us of things we knew so well when we were their age; they remind us of the vulnerability we feel, even if we pretend not to feel it anymore. They remind us that we risk having something broken in us on the inside—something with our own hand-print on it. They remind us that we can be transformed by our experiences. They remind us that it matters.
We learn about love from the children, by loving them. They remind us about the importance of humor, of simple pleasures and spontaneous joy and happiness in all its forms.
“Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom.” (Matthew 18)
If we’re not careful we get caught up in the seriousness of it all; we take ourselves too seriously, in the sense that our own opinion or our own idea is so very important—the ego gets in our way; we become overly self-focused. Humor helps to get us out of that trap; humor generates humility.
Children remind us; they remind us that there are no inappropriate questions; they remind us that we don’t have all the answers; they remind us to lighten up.
Children also remind us that “it matters.” They cry easily. The Christmas season prods us by pushing certain buttons. We don’t need a complicated doctrine of the Incarnation, but we do need to affirm something; to say ‘yes’ to something.
Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
To what do you say, ‘yes?’
Our congregation’s Statement of Affirmation begins: ‘love is the spirit of this church.’
How do we bring the spirit of that affirmation to life? How do we love our children and grandchildren; our spouses and partners; our parents and friends? What does it mean to ‘love yourself,’ as another Bible passage says: ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’
To love a child begins with taking responsibility for the newborn, portrayed in the Nativity scene as a ‘babe in the manger.’ The infant is completely vulnerable.
My children and grandchildren did not lay in the hay, but I watched them as they slept in their bassinets, or the little cradle in which I rocked my daughter and son those first few months; I saw something in them that was as close to the Incarnation as I could get—as close to the Incarnation as I feel the need to get. I can’t explain what that feeling was, but it brought a new, deeper meaning to Christmas; a new, deeper meaning to what it means to bring a child into this world–to assume the responsibility inherent in that decision.
So, year after year I’ve joined the Christmas shoppers. In the early years, like my parents, I got into December debt that sometimes took many months into the next year to pay off.
It’s not my intention to tell you what you ought to believe about Christmas and gift giving, much less to tell you what you ought to believe about the theology of the Incarnation–how God takes on human flesh. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “The Incarnation is the mystery and the dogma of the Word made Flesh.”
My Unitarian translation of the ‘word taking flesh’ is simply practicing what you preach; the word takes on flesh when we put into action what it is we say we believe; when we live the love we’ve freely declared.
Love is the first word in our affirmation—the closest we Unitarians come to having a creed. For believing Christians, Jesus is the Word made flesh, and the word is love. The Bible says God is love: “Beloved, let us love one another, for God is love, and everyone who loves knows God. No one has beheld God at any time, but if we love one another, God abides in us. (1 John 4)
You don’t have to believe in some sort of supernatural being, out there, to assert that God is Love.
As I see it, the miracle is not the Virgin Birth, the miracle is love, expressed in all kinds of ways, including finding and buying those presents or sending the card, or making the ceramic dish with the hand-print in the middle.
The miracle isn’t the theological idea that God is willing to enter the world as a person—the miracle is that we are able to actualize our human potential, our capacity to love. Maybe that’s as much theology as we need—maybe it’s as much as anyone has, anyway.
The real miracles are going on all the time in this very real, down-to-earth world. In every act of love, in every act of human kindness, God takes on human flesh, in the here and now.
So I’m not moved by complicated theologies about an Incarnation story that happened 2000 years ago, but I’m deeply moved by memories of the love I got from my parents and siblings and my children. That sense of appreciation is real; it’s alive in me, right now. I can assure you that every act of love you show, every kindness you give, to any person, is as much about the Incarnation as you need to know.
Like General Electric, love brings good things to life; love brings God to life. The Resurrection is the reality of the ways that the love that was loved into us lives long after parents and others from whom we’ve received love have gone. That’s a faith statement.
Faith is a sense of confidence in knowing that you understand, in a deep way, what it means to be a human being. It’s about forgiveness: giving and getting it. It’s about being involved in the process of living a life; about struggling toward some kind of maturity that might have a hint of the thing we call wisdom, as opposed to all that information so quickly available by Googling on the internet. (How does that work, anyway?)
The Shakers song reminds us: ‘Tis a gift to be simple.’
‘When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.’
It’s a gift. How do you receive it? Thoreau reminds us: “Our life is fritted away by detail…simplify, simplify.” (Walden)
It’s a ‘gift’ to be simple, but in some ways it’s the most complicated task—we have to work at all our lives. Someone told me about lyrics from the Indigo Girls: “The hardest to learn is the least complicated.”
We admire Gandhi, for example, who wasn’t attached to worldly possessions, but found meaning, purpose and direction in his life by working to liberate India. It’s easy to be simplistic about Gandhi and Thoreau. Simplistic is the opposite of simple, just as certainty is the opposite of faith.
Advent brings us into the complicated season, in an increasingly complicated world. If we’re not careful, we might just give our children and grandchildren too much stuff, making it difficult for them to develop the simple things we all value—things like a deep, genuine sense of appreciation for the basic things in life. To be spoiled is to lack a sense of appreciation—one of the tragedies of our abundance. How many of our children appreciate a warm house in the winter; how many of our children appreciate having enough food to eat, or having adequate clothing to wear?
How should we respond when they complain that we don’t have their favorite flavor of ice cream, or when they demand having only the brand-name jeans, ‘like all the other kids have?’ It isn’t easy!
It’s easier to know what the little ‘babe in the cradle’ needs from us; it can be an enormously demanding, of course. It’s not complicated, however.
But do we know what the five-year old needs? Don’t they need to assume some responsibility—to pick up after themselves; to express appreciation, not merely by saying ‘thank you.’ (Politeness needs to be nurtured.) But they need the opportunity to give something to parents, grandparents and siblings, like the little boy who was so enthused about giving the plate to his parents. It broke. It mattered!
Some things about this holiday season are very complicated; my purpose in this Advent sermon is to acknowledge the complexity, the difficult time we have with it, and at the same time to suggest that it helps to lighten up; to enjoy it. ‘Tis a gift to be simple!
You need not feel guilty for doing your Christmas shopping—indeed, our economy depends on it! The retailers are offering mixed reports, so far. We want and need a strong economy, and the health of our economy requires our willingness to spend money, and maybe even to go into debt. (Does that sound like some kind of heresy?)
My rabbi friend likes to tell the story of how his son, Seth, wound up on Santa’s lap one day. He and his wife had managed to avoid the shopping-mall Santa, but one day they walked into Filene’s and there was Santa, plopped down in a chair at the entrance. Naturally Seth wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.
He was about three years old, and Santa said, “So, what do you want for Christmas,” and Seth said, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m Jewish.” Santa winked at him and whispered in his ear, “So am I!”
I’ve told the story of dressing up as Santa for a surprise wedding I did over Halloween weekend this year, and how complicated it got. I stepped outside for a breather, not only because it was hot in my Santa suit, but because I was feeling surprisingly uncomfortable.
Dinner guests, who were not part of the Halloween costume party that would soon turn into a surprise wedding, walked up to the front door of the restaurant where I was standing and a woman snapped at me, “It’s too early for that!”
I wanted to explain, or to say, “It’s too late, now!” I didn’t. I simply said, “You better not be naughty or Santa won’t bring you a present.” She wasn’t amused. She was clearly bothered by the premature Santa, or maybe she was feeling like Scrooge and simply wanted to say, “Bah, humbug!”
I’ve dressed up as Santa many times, for children of all ages. Years ago, when I was having one small child after another sit on my lap, I did a minister-like thing. After asking their name I would say, “So, Billy, what would you like…to give someone for Christmas?”
It never failed to get a response—usually a very enthusiastic response: “Oh, I’d like to get my Daddy a brand new car…I’d like to get my mommy a beautiful new dress.” When I was visiting Beardsley school in Bridgeport the children told me I looked like Santa, so I talked like Santa and asked what they would like to give to someone, and one little girl touched me deeply when she said, “I’d like to get a pair of brand new shoes for my little sister.”
Giving empowers the giver. It means we have to step away from the golden rule and give someone what we know they want—not what we decide they should want. It requires that we pay attention to them.
I illustrate the simple truth of that by recalling my own experience. My mother always put a can of tuna fish in my stocking at Christmas, but she never put a can of tuna fish in my brother Bill’s stocking. She put a can of fruit cocktail in Bill’s stocking.
She knew I loved tuna fish, and she knew that Bill hated tuna fish, and all forms of seafood. She knew this because she knew us; she had to know us and accept us as we are in order to love us; she had to pay attention to what we liked and didn’t like, and she wanted to please us, to make us happy. There were eight of us and she knew each of us as individuals and gave us unconditional love.
She could easily have gotten into the typical parental mind-set of trying to convince Bill that he should like tuna, that he should eat seafood because it was good for him. We do that to one another, all to often; we try to tell someone what they ought to like or to do instead of paying attention to what they actually like and want to do.
We always had enough to eat in our house when we were growing up, but we also knew that it took significant effort on my father’s part to provide that food. At a very young age in a working-class family you learn such things. No one was ever told to eat everything on your plate, or that you should try eating some particular thing; no one ever complained about whatever food was put on the table. If you didn’t eat it someone else would! ‘Twas a gift to be simple
The old Shaker song reminds us to ‘come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.’
Nearly 25 years ago, during a visit to Central America, I was with a group that went to a barrio in Nicaragua; people living ‘on the margin,’ in tiny, dirt-floor houses. We happened to be there during an Advent holiday when people went through the neighborhood in groups and would stand outside a house and yell, “QUIÉN CAUSA TANTA ALEGRÍA?” The people inside would respond, “La Concepción de María!”
You were invited into their humble home—what a gift that was! Those who had it would give you a piece of candy. At one of our stops a little girl walked up to me and handed me a small gourd hanging by a string she had tied around it and painted blue with a small corn cob sticking in the hole at the top.
I can picture her to this day, barefooted with a tattered little dress, looking up at me with a big smile and handing me this precious gift, a gift of spirit in one of life’s passing moments. I started to reach into my pocket for money, but she was gone (thank God!) before my shaking hand emerged.
That gourd has been hanging in a prominent place in my office since I brought it back from Nicaragua; it hangs there as a reminder: ‘Tis a gift to be simple!
Postscript: I found a version of the song, Simple Gifts, that includes stanzas I’d never seen:
Simple Gifts was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. in 1848.
‘Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right
‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,
‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.