The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
The Christmas season and all its associated activities can make the people on the margins of that holiday--whether they are on the margin for religious reasons or for personal ones--feel isolated, and pressured, and left out. Religious customs and ceremonies reveal a religion's view of the cosmos, of humanity, of good and evil, of right and wrong. Thus even for the wholly secular person (like me) the Christmas story has interest and meaning. So that's where I want to start.
To think a little further along that line, one reason the Christmas story is interesting is that it's a good story of the fairy tale type. You may remember the book The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. In that book, Bettelheim makes the point that fairy tales have psychological value. They allow us to confront existential dilemmas in simplified form and they loosen the grip of rationality, opening up the unconscious imagination. Like many fairy tales, the Christmas story has some pretty ghastly parts in the original telling that have gotten sanitized in its contemporary version to make it more suitable for children. Today's Christmas story doesn't usually include the aftermath told in Matthew Chapter 2: the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents. Here's what Matthew says happened after the wise men decided not to report back to Herod on the location of the baby Messiah: "Then Herod was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old or under." That's too scary for our modern Christmas celebration. As if the idea of someone giving birth in a barn isn't scary enough.
But to strip away the mythological elements of the Jesus story in order to get at the "real Jesus" is to miss the point, so too does restoring the sense of peril and even terror to the Christmas story in order to arrive at a "real Christmas story" also miss the point. For most people, Christmas nowadays is not the story of the rupturing of the fabric of the known world, the imposition of God into human affairs in a way that is so upsetting of the settled order that the governor feels he must initiate a campaign of genocide in response. We don't take that element of the religious myth all that seriously, even committed Christians. I suspect that if I went down the street to the Madison Park Christian Church and raised the question of why God inserted Jesus into human history at that particular time and place--I suspect that the best answer I would get would be simply, "Well, he just did."
For theologians, this is actually a very significant question; they call it the "scandal of particularity." The scandal is why an all-powerful God would choose a Jewish peasant family to carry out his divine plan. What was so important about right then and right there--that particular time in history, that particular place on the globe? For those who put their stock in the traditional Christian world view, the scandal of particularity is a real problem. It raises questions about the souls of those who died before Jesus came or those who lived in other parts of the world, and, not least, the question of why God chose to stick his nose into the world with an act that, if we are to believe Matthew, had the consequence of causing the deaths of thousands of little babies. These kinds of questions have plagued Christianity since its beginning, and the typical answer to the scandal is that the arrival of Jesus in a backwater Roman province in the first century is that it's all part of God's plan, which we are not privileged to know--a fancier version of "Well, he just did."
But nowadays we prefer our scandals to be less cosmic. The physical facts of Christmas, and their implications, are just not all that important to us, except for the semi-idle discussion among astronomers whether the Star of Bethlehem was a comet or a super-nova, assuming that there really was a Star of Bethlehem, and among historians whether there really was a time in Roman history when everyone had to go to their birthplace to be taxed, and if so when it was, and whether shepherds would be out in their fields at night in the winter or in the summer. The "real Christmas story," whatever it may be, is not the point. For most people--including me--the real Christmas story involves babies and hope and the possibility of greatness coming from humble circumstances, and it doesn't matter all that much whether it happened in the winter or in Bethlehem or not.
Unlike most fairy tales, though, the Christmas story has become the focal point for a whole constellation of activities and attitudes and expectations: gift giving, family get-togethers, end-of-year parties, fancy clothing, acts of charity, and on and on. Christmas is not merely a day; it's a social industry. I'm going to guess that it's this social dimension that people who say they don't like Christmas are objecting to. As an outsider to Christianity, I look at the purely religious aspects of Christmas with curiosity, appreciation, and respect, even though I don't share the underlying beliefs of the story--just as I can appreciate the unique ceremonies of other religions without necessarily believing that the Angel Gabriel made Mohammed read from a scroll or that Lord Krishna sported with the cow-maidens of Brindaban.
But it's the social aspect that gets to people--the trappings, the messages that flow from the technological pores of our culture. Last Sunday I spied one of our members wearing a Grinch sweater, and even with tongue in cheek I think the Grinch is surely a symbol of Christmas soon to take its place alongside Rudolph and Santa. Most of us have a little bit of the Grinch in us at this time of year, and perhaps we need to get in touch with our inner Grinch in order to understand him and give him some rest.
I think one quality of the season that awakens my Inner Grinch is that of obligation. Remember when Ebenezer Scrooge repels those two charitable collectors at the beginning of "A Christmas Carol"? Well, I'm not going to hold Scrooge up as a model, but certainly I do think all of us get a twinge of Scrooge-ism when we receive that forty-ninth junk mail charity solicitation, that invitation to a function from someone we really don't like all that much, that darn calendar from the Herald-Whig carrier for which we are morally obligated to give a fat tip. Things seem to get on a sliding path from desire to duty at this time of year, and nobody likes to be made to feel obligated to do something they meant to do in the first place. We want just want to be the first to think of it.
The second ghost that visits us this season, as long as I'm following the Scrooge analogy, is that of hypocrisy. Let's face it, it is hard to be continually kind and generous and loving at any time of year. Throw in a few TV specials in which a crusty old man gets his heart warmed by some orphan, and you've got a situation in which the message is that if you don't join in the general gush, there's something wrong with you. We sometimes find ourselves covering our private thoughts with a public mask, not a situation anyone likes to be in. I'm reminded of the story that the minister from Eliot Chapel told us last year, about the Unitarian minister who nervously erected a creche in his church one year, aware that many in his congregation--as in ours--had "issues" with the celebration of Christmas. More issues than a magazine stand, as Bill Burton likes to say. When he discovered after church one Sunday that the baby figurine had been taken from the church's creche, and replaced by a hand-printed note that said, "We have Jesus," he feared that someone in his congregation had gotten one too many doses of oozy piety and had finally snapped. Turns out the kidnappers were his own children, who were holding the baby Jesus for ransom to get him to turn up the thermostat in their house. Well, all too often at this time of year, I get the feeling that there are people all over the place with signs that say, "We have Jesus" "No, we have Jesus" "No, we have Jesus." It's hard to disagree with these various claims without being, or seeming, disagreeable.
Then finally there's the ghost of overactivity. I took the title for this talk from a short story by Raymond Carver that has nothing to do with Christmas. I just always liked the title--that doubling of "please" giving such an understated sense of desperation to the plea for quiet. If I had Christmas music coming out of all my heating vents, and that just about seems to be the case whenever I venture to the stores, I think that would be the moment when I would find myself standing very still in the middle of my house, saying to my heating vents, "Will you please be quiet please?" There is always one more thing to do at this time of year, and when you've done that thing there is one more thing, and one more thing. The news articles are part of the standard Christmas ritual now--how to de-stress your holidays, how to have a loving family get-together without killing each other. When an electrical circuit overloads, the breaker switch flips so as to prevent the house from burning down; so perhaps it's natural, and understandable, and even sensible, to throw our good-cheer breaker switch when the fattening-snack count goes too high.
But here's the twist. I don't want to stiff the paper carrier. I don't want to skip the party. Yes, Christmas can be a stressful time of year, and yes, to those on the outside of its belief system it can even seem downright oppressive. But it's nice to see friends and fix a meal together. It's nice to get messages from distant friends, even if they are those silly photocopied ones. It's nice to see the splendid outfits and pretty jewelry, and to wear my loud Christmas tie with the sequins and chains. All holidays, and Christmas is perhaps the premier case here, exist only partly for their own sake and partly for what they enable us to do that we would feel embarrassed or inhibited about doing the rest of the year. New Year's Eve allows us to play the Bacchanalian--to stay up late, to whoop and holler, to kiss a little indiscriminately. Independence Day allows us to thump our chests in patriotic pride. Thanksgiving, thinking back to a sermon from a few weeks ago, permits us to indulge in the fantasy that we are specially blessed, not merely lucky but chosen. And Christmas--Christmas lets us play Scrooge on the morning after, shepherd on the hillside--generous, childlike, indulgent, goose-roasting, wonder-filled, in tune with the heavens, in league with the angels even if the reality of our everyday lives would make such sentiments largely unsubstantiated.
I don't want to argue here that Christmas should become nothing more than an excuse for a party, like some sort of midwinter Mardi Gras; severed from its religious roots, the holiday would lose much of its meaning. But I think we can all recover and appreciate the cultural meaning of Christmas regardless of our religious opinion.
What does this religious holiday tell us about ourselves and our universe? Well, for one thing, it tells us that the poor and homeless have worth that can easily be overlooked by those who see them only through the conditioned eyes of status and status quo. It tells us that the human and the natural can intersect in moments of harmony. Like Thomas Hardy in the poem I read, I don't really believe that the oxen kneel--but if someone should say, "'Come . . . see,' I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so." And even beyond Hardy, while I may not believe that the oxen kneel to my God, perhaps I do feel that the oxen and I may perhaps share a mystery, and I am glad to be reminded of that sharing.
And the Christmas story tells us that holiness--and holiness is the word I want here, a little unusual for someone whose mind is largely given to the rational and the secular, holiness, that rare sensation of beauty and awe we feel when we know that we are encountering something truly sacred--holiness sometimes breaks into our lives unexpectedly, unasked for, and that if we are open to these moments the world can suddenly blossom and be transformed. Who doesn't envy those shepherds, minding their own business, getting surrounded by glory all of a sudden, and told of good news of a great joy which will come to all the people? And you know, that happens sometimes. You don't have to be visited by singing angels. You are minding your sheep, and all at once you hear music, or you see someone's face, or you hear words, see something beautiful, read something profound, or you simply become aware of the time and place you are in, and holiness comes jumping out at you out of nowhere, right then and right there, your own personal scandal of particularity. And if that's not reason to celebrate, what is?
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.