The Good that Christmas Is
A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon
Rev. Richard Venus (MVUUF Minister 1991-2005) – December 12, 2004
“She really is a very small girl, a darling little thing, with the cloud of golden hair and big wide eyes that almost cry out to have her named Mary in the Sunday School play. And so it was delightful a week or so ago, when it was this child who chose to come forward and volunteer, who wrapped herself in robes of blue and held the doll that was her baby with reverence and love. Tears came into more that one eye, I tell you, as this girl and an equally small, equally loveable boy played out the primary roles in the ancient nativity legend that centuries have shaped about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem those many years ago.
“And yet, when the religious education director was sitting at a Christmas concert at her own daughter’s school, she was not overly surprised to receive a solemn tap on her shoulder, and, turning around, to find herself eye-to-eye with a very small girl. Her eyes were wide. Her voice was solemn. ‘Can you tell me the name of that play? The one I was in last week?’
“‘It was the story of the birth of Jesus,’ Laurel said, her heart full. ‘It was the story about the nativity and you played Jesus’ mother.’
“Thank you,” said the child, seriously. “I just wanted to know.’”
The teller of that tale, my colleague Maureen Killoran, adds, “Ah, dear one, the truth be told, we all want to know.”
And so it is with many Unitarian Universalists; we ask with that little girl, “Can you tell me the name of that play?” We want to know what is behind the tinsel and carols, the hustle and the lights. We know the facts, but it’s the story that tells the truth.
We know that the reasons for Christmas come from early history, around the time when people faced longer and longer days of darkness. They had become acute observers of the world around them. They observed that summer gave way to harvest and as the leaves fell from the trees they knew that winter would eventually yield to spring, or at least it had always done so. But in the absence of exact knowledge as to why the seasons changed there must have been doubt that the sun would again bring its warmth and light. Perhaps, they must have wondered, would the days keep on getting colder and colder, shorter and shorter?
Into this world elaborate ceremonies were created, fires built with huge logs were lit to lure back the sun and when it seemed that the rituals were succeeding, celebrations began and rich and poor, lords and serfs would rejoice in the rebirth of the year. The ancient Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December to symbolize the triumph of life over death.
The festivals of northern people generally lasted for about 12 days near the end of December to the beginning of January, and the Celtic and Germanic tribes celebrated these days as far back as their history goes. Some decorated their houses with greenery, where evergreens encouraged the rebirth of the rest of nature that the Yule Log didn’t cover with the return of the sun.
The tree brought in from outside and decorated was a much later continuation of this ritual. The notion of green holy, ivy and mistletoe were other early reminders of the fruitful year to come.
It is reported that a German-born professor at Harvard wanted his young family to experience the Christmas tree of his childhood, so he surprised them with a fully lighted and trimmed tree. Word has it that Dr. Follen, who would become a Unitarian minister, was the first to introduce a decorated tree to New England.
The earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday because they didn’t know when it was and the celebration of birthdays was considered undesirable because it was a pagan custom. Later some felt obliged, simply because others were doing it, to celebrate his birth and they used numerology and astrology to try and figure it out. Maybe it’s March 28, or April 2, or the 19th or 20th of May they suggested. Certainly the spring seemed appropriate to the person who set down the idea of shepherds keeping watch over sheep. They would not have been doing that in mid-winter, but most likely spring and summer.
I’m not sure just who decided to move the birthday to January 6, but it had to do with other celebrations. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17. It was a winter feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. Two weeks later, on the Roman New Year–January 1–houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas, they also gave gifts. Then those Christians decided that because it was the custom to celebrate the coming of the sun on December 25 they would make this festival their own, co-opting it from the those heathen folk.
We, as rational Unitarian Universalists, can offer our scientific reasons and historical research to explain how Christmas as we know it came to be. We can explain how a star in the East standing over the place where Jesus was born was perhaps a comet, often tracked by wise men that routinely followed the stars in their courses. Or maybe it was a particular grouping of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which occurred about the time many estimate Jesus was born. This collection of planets could have appeared as a bright, shining star.
Anthropologists can trace gift giving to early tribal custom. Tribesmen in Tanzania, for example, give away giraffe meat and in return are praised for their bravery and generosity.¹ Offerings of pieces of animal flesh were given to enhance the hunter’s prestige and future rewards of different kinds were given in return by the receiver, which suggests that perhaps gifting is in our genes.
We pride ourselves on our rational approach to religion and to such holidays as Christmas. We UU’s can tell you about the Christmas story. We can tell you that we’re skeptical about virgin births, and a child born in a stable, and a donkey ride over many miles by a pregnant teenager. We can tell you that it is a mythological tale made to up to tell the truth. “What is the name of that play?” we ask. “We just want to know.”
When I go back in time, I imagine people sitting about a campfire, outside Jerusalem, or in a desert village somewhere near Nazareth, or folks meeting in some gathering they called church, and they began talking about this man Jesus they had heard of or perhaps even seen or known. And they tried to describe and remember what he said and did.
They remembered a man who was kind to all he met. He treated women as equal to men and some have suggested he may have even married. He taught as he traveled, with a few chosen friends. He never saw himself mingling with those in high places, in fact he made demands on those in power or with money, but chose not to join their ranks. He stood with the poor and said they would be the ones to inherit the earth. He didn’t own much more than the shirt on his back. He was a superb storyteller, a teacher of the truths he had inherited from his Jewish heritage and he lived what he believed and taught. He inspired the people he met. He had wisdom beyond anyone they had known. They didn’t know when or where he was born, but they tried to imagine what his birth must have been like, given what they knew of him. He seemed to have a special relationship to the God he called “papa,” but it is highly unlikely that he ever taught or believed that he was in any sense God.
Those early writers and story tellers thought that he surely would have been born poor and if he was the Messiah he must have been part of the Hebrew tribes and their lineage. And so the poets told a birth story to tell of this man they knew. As Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar notes, what we know of Jesus comes from an oral not a written tradition. In fact, it is likely that Jesus did not write and perhaps did not even read. There is an historical Jesus who is distinguished from the gospel portrait of him. Stories about him were collected over time. Different writers offered their own parts, and no one book has it all. As I can piece it together, from various books in the Christian scripture, the story goes something like this:
In those days a decree went out from the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world; this was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him was Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting their child. While they were there the time came from her to be delivered and she gave birth to their first-born son and wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger because there was no other place for them.
“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said to them, ‘Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ “After the angels had left them the shepherds said to one another, ‘Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they related what they had been told about him. All who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said, but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
“The king Herod sent wise men who had observed a star and were following it to Bethlehem. He said to them, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word that I may go myself and pay homage to him.’ After hearing what the King had said, they set out; there before them was the star they had seen rising, and it went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed and entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and bowed low in homage to him; they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they returned to their own country, for they had been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.
“After they left an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and escape with them to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child and kill him.’ So Joseph got up, took mother and child by night, and sought refuge with them in Egypt, where he stayed until Herod’s death. This was to fulfill what the Lord had declared through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
“When Herod realized that the wise men had tricked him he flew into a rage, and gave orders for the massacre of all the boys age two and under in Bethlehem and throughout the whole district, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the astrologers. So the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet were fulfilled.”
This is the story told at Christmas time. It isn’t true, at least not historically true. It is the kind of fiction that is filled with truth other than the facts. It is a way to describe a man whose wisdom and kindness pointed them to more than they had ever experienced. Note how the angel comes, not to kings and people in high places. He comes to the shepherds. The announcement is made to the laborers in the fields, the peasants, the least of these among us. This child had humble roots and it was to those of similar roots to whom he often spoke and deeply cared for. He is connected to his roots in Biblical history, for he was to be the one who would bring them out of their bondage.
His is also a story of intrigue and suffering and grief. Christmas is not just of love and peace, light and joy. It is a story that reminds us of all the parts of life. His life, according to this tale, was from the beginning connected with a lowly birth, in a barn, with the cows and sheep. It also connects him with the cruelty of the rulers of that world.
The beauty of the story for me is that it isn’t history, it is an invitation to see how Jesus came to see the world. I can’t relate much to this family and this fable, but I can understand that people who wrote of this man understood that his story was for all of us and that he experienced the same struggles that many in the world also experience. It is a story told to include us all. We can bring to this season our own stories, some of beauty and hope, but also of sorrow and distress. Stories can also tell us of what they don’t say as much as what they do say. This biblical tale can bring to mind remembrances of a loved one no longer with us, of a child not born, of a father who has not shared or given, but has abused and hurt. We bring our stories of being forgotten or neglected. Christmas can bring memories of a marriage that once celebrated joyously with tree and trimming, but is no longer.
A colleague of mine once said, “Real hope is born of darkness.” The Christmas story is a story of the poor, the filthy birthing room, a very dark place. That is why Christmas lives. It is a story of hope and love and justice amid the harsh realities of living. It is a story not of those who have it all, but those who have nothing, those who live life one day at a time.
As the Rev. Killoran puts it, “I can tell you the name of this play, my friends. The name is sometimes Jesus, Buddha, and Ishtar; and the name for me most often are simple words. The name of the play is Justice. The name of the play is Hope. The name of the play is Love.
“Come, listen,” she continues. “Come and sing. Come and let the deep truths of Christmas work their magic in your soul. For the name of the play is the name of our deepest longings made flesh, and the truth is that in these longings we are not, and we will never be, alone.”²
What makes Christmas Christmas is not the facts, but a story, a story of long ago that has been added to and subtracted from as other stories have been piled on and taken away. It is a tale of the impossible made real. It tells of how people saw salvation arrive out of impossible conditions, out of the darkest of times and places. It is a story of hope where none seemed possible. We have taken the story, buried it somewhere in the back corners of the season, and lost sight of what it means. We took the vision of some early Christians and made it a shopper’s delight.
There are two Christmases. One made up by Hallmark, Lazarus, Toys ‘R Us, and Hidden Valley Farms. The other is a celebration of hope as demonstrated by a family who overcame poverty and rejection to remind us that even in the darkest of times love and truth can be born.
We are the ones who make the meaning of the story real; the foolishness in believing we might be more kind, caring and generous to others, and that we can be more loving of ourselves as well. This is the wonder of this season: we can make real the love of self, of neighbor and even our enemy. That is what a story about the birth of a babe in a very cold, dark barn is telling us no matter how much Santa gets in the way.
1. Much of the factual information about Christmas comes from a delightful book by Roger Highfield, The Physics of Christmas. Little, Brown, 1998.
2. “More Lessons from Pageants.” M. Maureen Killoran. Quest. Church of the Larger Fellowship. December, 1998. P. 7.
© 2004 Richard Venus