Posts Tagged Christmas
This sermon was first preached for our 7pm Christmas Eve service in 2013.
When I was a child around Christmas time, I remember getting into my pajamas at night and laying down on the carpet of our den and listening to the 24 hours of Christmas. It was a radio station in my area that was taken over by the holiday – probably the same in many areas – that would play Christmas music straight through with no commercials. It was so important to me that I would ask my parents to record it on cassette tapes – a relic now from another time. Each year, I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of Christmas, and the little kid in me was sure recording the sounds of the holiday would help me to hold onto the spirit of the holiday a little bit longer.
There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from my childhood that is just a single panel long. The picture of the boy and his tiger shows them curled up asleep in front of the fire. The words read, “Christmas Eve — On window panes, the icy frost – leaves feathered patterns, crissed and crossed, but in our house the Christmas Tree is decorated festively, with tiny dots of colored light that cozy up this winter night. Christmas songs, familiar, slow, play softly on the radio. Pops and hisses from the fire whistle with the bells and choir. My tiger is now fast asleep on his back and dreaming deep. When the fire makes him hot, he turns to warm whatever’s not. Propped against him on the rug, I give my friend a gentle hug. Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” That closing line sums up the childhood feeling for me. I’m waiting for tomorrow to happen, but I’m also happy being here now – waiting.
In some ways I was already experiencing nostalgia alongside the childhood joy. But mostly I just didn’t want it to end before it began. I was excited about the toys, but I was also looking forward to the religious services. Midnight Mass was a powerful thing for me as a child. I felt like it was opening up sacred doors to view a glimpse again of something I was not here for – the first time around. Maybe you could call it the opposite of nostalgia – hoping to witness what had already happened. Pining for a time or an event we had never seen for ourselves.
As an adult though, I wonder if each of us doesn’t witness the scene at the manger after all. Maybe we touch the spirit of it, in between the silly and the serious, as our children reenact it at our pageants. Maybe we glimpse the Star of Bethlehem in our own way, as we light our candles to Silent Night. The rituals and our traditions bring us back to a time we didn’t get to see ourselves.
Sometimes though, we relive this moment in unexpected ways. I feel like some of us witnessed the Christmas miracle again just this past weekend. From Monday’s New York Times, “Like Black Friday shoppers, Ms. Campolucci and dozens of others began lining up on Sunday night, bundled up with sleeping bags, hand warmers and down jackets to fight the snow and wind. They huddled together with hot tea and coffee, ducking into running cars to warm up before reclaiming their spot in line.
“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant and spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this — it’s not happening.”
Ms. Wilson said a marriage license would mean that she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the legal parents of their daughter, with each of their names listed on the birth certificate. In case they could not get a license, they had been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure that they would both be the girl’s legal guardians.
After a cold night, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Eresuma married at 8:20 a.m. It was a quick ceremony in a stairwell, with Ms. Eresuma’s brother performing the rites.” For this modern family, a miracle occurred in the most mundane of places, a stairwell. The most fitting Christmas present I could imagine.
Those are the stories that give me that warm Christmas glow now as an adult. In essence, it’s the messages of hope and perseverance we encounter in the most unexpected places – and for the most unexpected people. Christmas is not about the risen Christ – that comes later in the Christian story. It’s not about power or privilege – unless we’re talking about how power is overcome or or privilege is let go of. It’s not about the heroes or the rulers. Unless by hero you’re looking to a mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road. It is in exhaustion and insecurity that Mary and Joseph show the world a different path to follow.
That’s the part of the story that resonates the most for me as an adult. Maybe it’s the opposite side of the coin that we get in the Calvin and Hobbes touching cartoon, but they’re both true. Sometimes we approach Bethlehem from the story of compassion, and sometimes we come to the manger from a place of loss – of hoping for hope. Both are there – both are worthy.
Our earlier reading, “The Shepherd Who Stayed” is yet another way to enter this story. “Thieves in the wood and wolves on the hill, My duty was to stay. Strange though it be, I had no thought to hold my mates, no will to bid them wait and keep the watch with me. I had not heard that summons they obeyed;
I only know I stayed. Perchance they will return upon the dawn, with word of Bethlehem and why they went. I only know that watching here alone, I know a strange content. I have not failed that trust upon me laid; I ask no more — I stayed.” Sometimes we’re not called to goto the manger. Maybe we’re born of another faith, or no religious tradition at all. Maybe we see Jesus as a great teacher, a holy man, or a prophet, but not the son of God – or at least not any more a child of God than the rest of us. I don’t believe that keeps us outside the heart of the Christmas story. The story is not about believing any one thing. It’s not necessarily about being ready to travel across the world with our gifts of gold or myrrh. Sometimes it’s just about seeing, as the poem says, “The hillside seem(ing) on fire”, it’s about feeling “the sweep of wings above (our) head(s).” It’s leaving space in our lives for wonder, for awe. It’s about living our lives as we feel we need, with integrity, but making room to witness the moments of sacredness between all the moments of busy and fuss. And in those moments of sacred wonder, allowing the message to infuse our being. Allowing the message to teach us that salvation, or peace, does not come from power, or privilege. We find it when we value what the manger scene shows us – A mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road.
In the year to come, remember this night; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in tonight’s story. And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night.
Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
At the close of one week and the beginning of a new,
Remind us to pause, to remember all the faces around us,
the faces that we cherish,
and who cherish us in return;
for the family we may be far from – in distance or in connection,
may we find moments that bring freshness into withered connections,
or closure where there is no way forward.
Teach us to love, wherever we can,
especially when it’s hard,
In this holiday season of cheer and expectation,
some of us are celebrating the birth of light in the world,
or hope in our hearts,
or grateful for a long-sought rest at the end of a year.
Others are mourning those who are gone,
or mourning the dream of a family they never knew.
May we hold each of these in care,
Holding them in our hearts,
holding them in our coffee conversations,
holding them in our phone calls and Facebook posts.
For we are the ones who create the world around us.
Whether it be for love or despair,
we have some part in its creation.
Remind us to pause – before we act.
With generosity of spirit.
And a day will surely come,
where we know a world,
so full of these blessings.
We remember this hour the people of Newtown, Connecticut. May their families know peace. And may our nation find a spirit of determination to act in the face of apathy and political interference.
We so to hold in our hearts the families of Littleton, Colorado this morning who are grieving losses of their own. May we support our leaders in building a world of peace.
We gather this hour to celebrate the most extraordinary story birthed in the most ordinary of moments.
Where we find the promise of life within the face of a baby.
Where our heroes, a mother, a son, and an adoptive father are travelers, homeless, and resting for but a night.
We can imagine all too well a time, where the powerful fear a message of compassion, of peace, of simplicity -
when it is wrapped in dirty swaddling clothes, sleeping in a food trough among the animals and the mess of poverty.
A child born of a yet unwed mother, a father whose ties are solely love, and a lifestyle that can only be called migrant.
From the midst of vulnerability we learn a new way.
A love that moves our hearts,
a vision of peace in an age of violence,
and hope where one would never expect to find it -
begins in the quiet solitude of family,
with the meek of the earth,
with the people that must find another path,
knowing the principalities and the powers
can never satisfy the least among us.
May the Christmas story birth in all of us a sense of possibility,
a renewal of faith in the breadth of the human spirit,
despite all the failings of our world.
That with every child that’s born,
this wonder is made known:
We are given a gift that is our own.
This kid-friendly homily was preached for First UU of Brooklyn’s 3pm Christmas Eve service in 2012. The portions in parentheses suggest the answers our kids gave to questions they were asked during the homily.
Our service this afternoon is a special one. It’s not happening on Sunday morning like our worships usually do. We’re telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We just heard a few readings from Christian Scriptures talking about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the story) traveling to find him and give him gifts. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth? Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?
(love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)
He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.
But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.
If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. It’s also about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.
Can we look at the manger scene behind me now? Dawn Elane, June Wohlhorn and a whole lot of kids, youth and adults helped to make it this week out of felt and love. There are all sorts of farmyard animals on it. There are people, shepherds, wise men, angels and Mary and Joseph (mom and dad.) But who’s missing from the scene? (the baby!)
I’d like to invite folks to come forward with whatever baby photos of yourself, or your kids, or your parents that you brought with you. We’ll be going forward pew by pew in a moment, to place our pictures in the manger scene. Each child that’s born is another redeemer. As you come forward, I want you to think about something that you want to work toward making better in this world. If you feel comfortable – say it aloud as you put your photo in the manger. If you didn’t bring a photo, feel free to come forward anyway and say aloud what thing you want to work toward making better in the world. You can also keep that hope silently to yourself if you would prefer.
The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and one Abundant and Transforming Love,
We celebrate this hour the hope of peace in our lives,
joy where ever it is found,
and the blessings of family and friends, both near and far.
We are grateful for this religious community,
the stories, the songs, and the silly amidst the serious.
May our congregation be a house of warmth,
when we are cold,
a foundation when we are on shaky feet,
and an inspiration when it’s hard to find a way.
Spirit of Peace, teach us to model compassion in our lives,
over the dinner tables,
on our way to school,
when the subway doors close in our face.
May we be the steady force that brings your way to life.
We hold in our hearts this morning all those who are missing loved ones,
family members who have passed,
soldiers who are serving abroad,
and those who don’t have the luxury to travel for the holidays to see their family.
And for those who build up their family, one friend at a time,
may this season be a cause of celebration for the many sources of love in our lives.
Check out my latest blog for the Huffington Post on Universalism, Consumerism, Christmas and OWS. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-g-jude-geiger/occupy-heaven_b_1175708.html
This call to worship, inspired by the classic Christmas hymn, brings us into the Christmas Eve worship, 2011 at First UU in Brooklyn. As a Christmas treat, I’m posting this ahead of the service. Merry Christmas!
Come all those with faithful hearts,
longing for the birth of hope.
Come all those with questing souls,
seeking once more a fullness of spirit.
Let go of the the thoughts of work and duty.
Attend to the miracle in this hour.
It is in the quiet of this still night,
it is in the pause of breath,
it is in the ordinary,
that we welcome this new life into our arms.
Prepare your joy.
Ready your exultation.
This time last year we had already been enjoying about two weeks of snow, blizzards and a general sense of the classic wintry wonderland. This year I think it was December 5th before I realized that October was over. On my way to my parents for Thanksgiving, I was dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seemed a bit mixed up, and neither I nor that bee had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green in my neighborhood well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves falling outside my studio only two weeks ago. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays (and this blizzard today) sneak up on me unprepared. Although Duane Reade had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I didn’t hear a Christmas tune until Glee’s holiday special.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in. Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we just crossed through Yule, the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that held onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are finally once more just bare bones outside my studio, outside our windows and along our walks. If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come late December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons. A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces. To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe realized.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself. The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990?s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
I believe our community choir this evening is a really remarkable example of this religious expression. The community choir can also be one more answer to all these questions I just laid before us. As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. As this vespers service is a bit different from our traditional Sunday morning ritual; allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song, meditation and prayer following this shorter homily. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”