This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember 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 seem 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, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…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. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
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 will soon be crossing 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 were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones 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 jolly-old 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 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. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. 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 just didn’t realize as a kid.
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.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
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?
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. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”