This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas Eve, 12/24/16. It celebrates the conjunction of Christmas Eve and the First Night of Hanukkah while looking at the role of the Vassal King, Herod in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Merry Christmas everyone! And Happy Hanukkah! It’s a special night – with both holy days celebrating as one. The last time Hanukkah began on Christmas Eve, I was 3 years old. In Unitarian Universalist houses of worship, we traditionally have an annual service we call the Festival of Peace and Lights – which draws from the spiritual message of these holy days. Earlier in the month of December we reflect on the teachings of hope, and peace and miracles in the face of despair; the spirit of the holidays is realized in those virtues.
This year, I keep finding myself being drawn to the stories – or the early history of these Holy Days. Jesus was born into a world, into the small town of Bethlehem, whose nation was wracked by war, and revolutions, and invasion, and the occasional periods of independence. The miracles told in the story of Hanukkah occurred only just over a 150 years before his birth. Jesus was born under the rule of Herod; a vassal king to a foreign power. Herod was a convert to Judaism and went out of his way to be liked – beginning massive building projects like expanding the Second Temple. But he often misstepped – by building golden statues, lavish spending on gifts and used taxes as the means to glorify himself over the nation he ruled through his pomp.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance. The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.
Our image for this short homily flips the nativity scene on its head; it depicts the story with no one who is Jewish, or Arabic or African. We see only the manger and the animals. The absence of the heart of the story is the lesson for this year; a year where so many in our world, rail against the disenfranchised, pretending they are the enemy. With anti-semitism on the rise here in Long Island, and the KKK openly leaving out flyers in parking lots, kindling our Menorah as we light our Christmas Trees, is a holy blessing reminding us to ever look for the Star of Wonder to lead us from worldly arrogance – away from the baseless fears that are disguised as vicious hate.
Herod was a fearful ruler who lashed out with vicious hate, and Jesus was born to lead us away from such a small-hearted world. This empty nativity scene reminds us that we have no Christmas story without all of us; in our full humanity, and in all our difference and diversity. We offer sanctuary to the refugee fleeing oppressive rule. We keep the lights in the inn warm, and the doors unlocked for the migrant who needs a place to stay. It is in this spirit, that we remember to keep our Fellowship shelter open on Christmas night – tomorrow. We thank Joanne, and all the families and individuals who will spend Christmas night tomorrow here, celebrating the holy day by ensuring shelter is always available. There is no greater spiritual obligation we have than to care for our neighbor in the hour of their need; humbly knowing that we all come to times of great need; and in the times of our strength we are called to share that strength.
As we move from the spirit of Christmas into the acts that inspire healing and change in the world, we remember the great poet Maya Angelou’s words we heard earlier in our service. “It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time….. We jubilate the precious advent of trust. We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope. All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices; To celebrate the promise of Peace.” So friends, this Christmas, loosen our voices and speak that great Peace “without shyness, or apology, or hesitation.” For this is the great message of Christmas; this is the true reason for this holy season.