Christmas Reverence for Unitarians

Rev. Ray Drennan

Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton

December 17, 2006

The nativity story may be poetry and not fact, but then again, it may be something else. Perhaps it is not so much that the stories are untrue but that our own lives are untrue and the nativity reminds us of who we really are. (David Cole)

Christmas is just around the corner. It's a season that makes most of us a little crazy. For many Unitarians entering fully into the celebrations of the season is fraught with difficulty. I would venture to say that not many of us here, and a lessening number in the larger society around us, still believe literally in the virgin birth, the Trinity, in eternal damnation, or even in angels - well, maybe angels. They're having a renaissance among us. Even belief in God today has become more complex and nuanced. It would be safe to say that most of us here this morning are not attracted to Christmas because of its theology or its triumphal and exclusive claims to truth and meaning. Yet, here we are. Nativity scenes dot the landscape, complete with baby Jesus, shepherds, angels and magi, most looking rather Anglo-Saxon though. We shop our wallets dry as Christmas carols drone on in the background, expressing the worst of Christian triumphalism. To top it off we add a few elves, reindeers and a jolly, fat, un-healthy Coca-cola Santa Claus. It's enough to turn any sane human being into a Grinch or a scrooge, or maybe simply a crusty, curmudgeon-y Unitarian.

We Unitarians have tried many ways to "deal" with the absurdity of the season. We have tried ignoring it, watering it down, sentimentalizing it and, in our worst moments, haughtily ridiculing the Christmas story and the Christian Faith. Maybe every year we simply need to get it out of our system before moving on to deeper issues. Maybe we need to poke a little fun at ourselves and to laugh at our own foibles; particularly of taking ourselves far too seriously and at times confusing our truths with The Truth. If you wish, or dare, please sing along with me this song called, "God rest you Unitarians". It's all in fun and what is the season if we cannot enjoy ourselves. The words were written by Rev. Chris Raible and it is sung to tune God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.

God rest you Unitarians, let nothing you dismay.

Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day.

When Christ was bom just is not known, no matter what they say.

Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact; Glad tidings of reason and fact.

There was no star of Bethlehem; there was no angel song;

There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long

The stories in the Bible are historically wrong.

Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact; Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Much of our Christmas custom comes from Persia and from Greece.

From solstice celebrations of the ancient middle East

We know our so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.

Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact; Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Now, do we all feel better? On one level the song is simply humorous. Some would take offense at it and we Unitarians enjoy being offensive sometimes, don't we? The song also carries a not-so-well-hidden sharp edge. All in all I don't believe that it express the best of who we are. Rather than ignoring Christmas or sentimentalizing it or commercializing it to death, this morning I want to suggest another way that we as Unitarians can enter the Christmas season, more fully. I want to suggest that we could reverently approach the season and enter into the wisdom of the story. Obviously, the problem with the "Reason and Fact" version of the season is that we miss out on the spirit of the season all together.

Let's get one thing straight. We can take it as a given that the story of Christmas, in fact the whole Jesus Story is more poetry, more myth than fact. This is becoming common belief in many circles today, including among many liberal Christians. When I was growing up in Toronto Tom Harper was the champion of conservative Christianity, yet even he today preaches in his book, The Pagan Christ, that the story is myth, containing little history. Harper says that Christianity made a fatal error in taking an historical approach to truth. The CHRISTOS is potentially in everyone. Sadly Christianity made only the one man Jesus The Christ. What has been taught in seminaries for centuries is now being discussed openly in Chapters Book Stores. The Jesus myth is more important that the historical Jesus.

Does this now mean that Unitarians have won and that everyone is going to join us in the singing a chorus of "Glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact?" I don't think so. I hope not. Very early on we Unitarians declared that the Christmas story was not historical. The problem was that we went on to say that therefore it was of no value. This was our mistake. The Christmas story IS mythology and poetry, and yet what amazing poetry! The Christmas story is among the richest mythical poems that has emerged from human consciousness.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph ... The virgin's name was Mary... you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, ...the child to be born will be holy... {Luke 1:26ff) ...On entering the house, the magi... knelt down and paid him homage. (Matthew)

Obviously we have grossly misunderstood the meaning of myth. Joseph Campbell tried to tell us years ago. He said, "Myth is what never was, yet always is." - What a Wonderful way to put it. "Myth is what never was, yet always is." More recently in a thought-provoking article in the current winter issue of the UU World, William Murry says," / believe that myths were never meant to be taken literally but were probably understood even by a pre-scientific people as metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and mysterious to comprehend in any other way."(UU Worid, Winter, 2006, AReason and Reverence@, William R. Murry, p19-23)

Wouldn't our world would be a sad and cold place with only reason and fact? Where would we be without the warmth of story, and myth, and sentiment, and make-believe, and wonderment and love? Not one of us would be very real.

This brings us back to David Cole's. "Perhaps it is not so much that the stories are untrue but that our own lives are untrue and the nativity reminds us of who we really are. (David Cole) In what ways are our lives untrue and how does this epic story "reminds us of who we really are?"

Living Reverently

(Luke 2:1-5) "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. ... Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, ... with Mary ...who was expecting a child ...In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, ... Do not be afraid; for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour... you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

Firstly, the nativity story reminds us that we are most human, our best, whole and holy selves not when we pontificate and declare our superiority over other humans or the planet or other beings with whom we share this spaceship earth. No, the nativity scene reminds us that we are most our true selves when we are in a position of reverence toward the most ordinary blessings that surrounds us. They all knelt in awe and reverence before a newborn in a simple stable. Somehow the story got twisted around and we focussed too much on the baby. We should have looked at the gathered crowd and their attitude of reverence. How can we not stand in reverential wonder and awe at the birth and at the life of another human being? Albert Schweitzer once said, A/ cannot but have reverence for all that is called life. I cannot avoid compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality.@ (A Schweitzer, Reverence for Life, Compiled by Harold E. Robles)

In that UU World article, William Murry said," A viable religion for the twenty-first century... will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished." (UU World, Winter, 2006, AReason and Reverence@, William R. Murry, p19-23)

Paul Woodruff said it this way (Reverence: Renewing a forgotten Virtue) AWe may be divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence. If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent."

Jane Bramadat, our Unitarian minister in Victoria picked four words to

describe what happens when Unitarians gather. The four words she came up with were, "Variety, thoughtfulness, laughter and reverence." Reverence in my books, is the very depth of spirituality. It is our centre. Rather than arrogantly destroying the earth or each other, the nativity scene encourages us to be true to our whole and holy selves by living lives of reverence.

Living Peace:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!" When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. (Luke 2)

Peace was not present in those days, nor is peace our daily reality now, quite the opposite. The nativity story says that each one of us, from the tiniest of babes might bring us closer to peace and justice. The nativity calls us to become agents of peace in our world. Such peace doesn't mean meditating in your room alone, chanting OM. It doesn't mean feeling good. It doesn't mean simply the absence of war. The peace that the Christmas story spoke of was called "Salvation." It is a word that we don't use very often today. Salvation meant, not personal peace, but rather a societal transformation brought about through justice. Remember Mary's song.

My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior ..For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden, ...He who is mighty has done great things for me ...He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away." (The Magnificat,(Luke 1: 46ff)

In other words Salvation would bring a realignment of right relations among human beings. The mighty, oppressors would be brought low and the oppressed would be raised up. It is a message that we might not want to hear as we sit comfortably here in Canada. We, the world's first-class passengers on this Space-ship earth, perhaps we are the mighty and the rich who will be brought low and sent away empty. The nativity encourages us to be true to our whole and holy selves by living justly and creating peace.

Living the Holy Quest:

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, we (have) observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay homage ...When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy... (Matthew)

Thirdly, that wonderful nativity scene included Zoroastrian magi from the East. They were perhaps Persian kings or astronomers. According to the story they were stargazers who had seen a new star in the sky and believed that a new king had been born. They set off to find him. (They probably thought it would be a "him" back then.) In Matthew's account when the magi finally arrived they came not to the stable but to Mary and Joseph's "house." It was a long, long journey, a long quest they were on. Charles Pasternak, a biochemist, in his book called Quest, argues that the essence of humanity is certainly not wisdom - most days it is easy to agree with him -. He believes that the essence of humanity is the need for Quest. More than anything else our innate propensity for quest is what makes us human. Remember those two Voyager space capsules that were launched in 1977. They carry with them "greetings in many languages, 117 pictures of Earth, a drawing of a man and a woman, the sounds of wind and rain and elephants, a kiss and all types of human music from Senegal drummers to Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty years later Voyager is 9 billion miles from earth nearing the edge of the sun's magnetic domain. Ten years from now it will reach interstellar space and 6,000 years further into the future when we are all long, long dead it will reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud. - talk about a questing spirit-

We cheapen our nature when we spend so much of our time questing and lusting after what has no value or meaning. The nativity encourages us not to be dumbed down by TV or our electronic gadgets but to be true to our whole and holy selves by living lives questing after what is worthy.

Celebrating difference:

Fourthly, the nativity brought together quite a diverse group. There were poor Hebrew shepherds, Zoroastrian magi, animals, and even angels. They didn't argue about who had the right to be there. They seem to take for granted that the other should be there. Federico Mayor, once executive director of UNESCO,said, "Respect for life, that fundamental requirement, implies among other things that we are conscience of the uniqueness of each individual and for his or her irreplaceable potential. It means that we have also understood the universal message taught in all religions and throughout all human societies, namely the respect for difference, whether of race of belief, or sex or culture."( Paroles de Tolérance, Albin Michel )

The nativity encourages us to be true to our whole and holy selves by celebrating difference.

Living Hope:

The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them ...(Isaiah 9) The shepherds ... went with haste... the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2)

So, the nativity story, that beautiful poem, teaches us that if we are to be true to our whole and holy selves we must live reverently, live justice and peace, venture on a worthy quest, celebrate difference and finally, the nativity story encourages us to be a hope-filled people. Couldn't our world do with a lot more hope-filled people? Could we survive, would we want to survive, without hope? The easy path is to give up on ourselves and the human endeavour and become cynical or bitter. There is so much in the news and in the world to encourage us to give up hope. The nativity encourages us to be true to our whole and holy selves by living lives full of hope. One of the best readings of hope that I have found is this one. I will end with it. It is called The Possibility of Hope and was written by Howard Zinn.

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (or from any one saviour) but as an endless succession of changes, moving not in a straight line but making its own zigzag way towards a more decent society. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that the history of the human race is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to act. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, it gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of making the world spin in a different direction.

May the nativity story always remind us who we truly are and bring us closer to living our human-divine potential in its fullest. May this be so among us and our world this Christmas time and long into the years ahead.