a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, December 16, 2007
I was talking to a member of this church last week and in the midst of the conversation he said something like, “I don’t do Christmas or Hanukkah because those are just old stories somebody made-up trying to get people to give gifts to each other one time a year when that’s something we should do all year long.”
H-m-m. Made-up stories, designed to get us to give gifts to each other. I had to think about that a lot this week as I prepared for this Sunday, the day I had already set aside to talk about Christmas - I talked about Hanukkah a little last week and was all set to get into the spirit of Christmas this week. But my friend’s statement seemed to bring all that into question - why celebrate a holiday if it’s just made-up and they just want us to buy a bunch of junk to hand out to each other? I had to admit he had a point. How would I explain it to you, though, if I were going to stand up here and tell you to forget it, we’re not celebrating Christmas this year or any other year, we’re just going to try to remember to buy stuff for each other some other time?
So should we talk about Christmas or not? The whole thing seems like such a lost cause when you go to a mall to go shopping or when you’re inundated by commercials on television telling you what you need or what the kids have to have right now. How can you separate the commercial messages of the economic season from the real spirit of Christmas? Is there a spirit of Christmas, or is it simply an orgy of consumerist fantasies foisted on an unsuspecting populace to keep our global economic engine running full-speed-ahead?
First of all, let’s see if we can dispel the consumer notion of Christmas. I think it’s fairly simple. Look around. What are we doing? This frantic frenzy of having to buy, buy, buy is serving what need? Maybe it’s an emotional need, an individual compulsion to shower someone with gifts. I know in my own case, my parents treated Christmas like it was do or die: they went into hock for the rest of the year trying to get the biggest and the best-est and the most-est for their three kids. I was one of the biggest beneficiaries of their largess and I appreciated what they did - to a degree.
But then I grew up and had kids of my own and started trying to keep up with the visions they had handed me of what a perfect Christmas morning ought to be like, and I couldn’t do it. I had neither the creativity nor the finances to make the holiday feel like it had felt at my own parents’ house. And consequently I began to believe myself a failure, unable to provide properly for my family. And it wasn’t like I didn’t care - I wanted to be the best provider and parent I could be, but all those fancy gifts, all that plastic stuff was not within my reach.
Thankfully so, as it turns out. I now believe there simply has to be another measure of the meaning of the holiday, of the reason for the season, than how high the pile of presents is under the tree that one morning of the year. And I was forced by my own economic circumstances to accept this.
Don’t get me wrong. Gift-giving is important, but not to keep up with the expectations of the consumer culture, not even necessarily as a way of showing love, but mostly as a way of opening yourself up to the mystery that you do not own the things that surround you: all the things you call yours are borrowed, all your efforts impermanent, and - as Wendell Berry says - “All that I serve will die.”
Perhaps there’s a collective need that drives us to acquire so much so fast. Our economy seems to now be based on conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence - we could get off this roller-coaster if we didn’t care about all those folks involved in manufacturing and marketing and distribution and retail sales. You’re not buying for Christmas this year? Why, you heartless so-and-so.
Millions of jobs notwithstanding, I believe we have to separate the retail from the religious, the holiday obsessions from the holy day observances. In other words, go ahead and support the Christmas money machine if you must, but don’t confuse the economy of Christmas with the spirit of Christmas.
If we’ve successfully excised consumerism from the discussion, what do we mean then when we say “the spirit of Christmas”? Certainly the word “Christmas” is a contraction of the Old English Christ’s Mass, a worship service dedicating celebrants to Christ. But that doesn’t mean Christians have always celebrated in the same way. Early Christian commentators, the third-century theologian Origen among them, decried the increasing tradition of marking the birth of Jesus at all - that’s something you did for earthly kings, not for divine ones. But those arguments didn’t hold sway and as time went on, the tradition landed on the date of the ancient winter solstice, December 25, co-opting both the Roman holiday honoring the god Saturn and the festival of Sol Invictus when various sun gods had their day. The Scandinavian Yule, a celebration of the god Thor’s gift of abundance, is another winter festival that got absorbed into European Christmas traditions that evolved over the many centuries.
In this country, our Christian forebears, the Puritans, foreswore Christmas altogether, believing it to be a nefarious plot of either the Papists or the Anglicans or both, and the celebration of it was actually banned in Boston for a few decades in the mid-seventeenth century. But the holiday continued to gain steam everywhere else in America, until the increasing secularization of the twentieth century saw the shift of the religious observance of Christmas into the purely economic extravaganza we witness today.
So after centuries of the ebb and flow of the religious and the secular, we’re left trying to sort out what Christmas or Christ’s Mass could mean to us in our time in our place in our varied theologies. One thing I’ve had trouble with in my life as a Humanist is that word, “Christ.” Growing up in a Christian church, I thought maybe Christ was the family name - you know, “I want you to meet my friends Joseph and Mary Christ and their little boy, Jesus.”
I never understood what that word might mean, and it was always confusing to me when people used the names Jesus and Christ interchangeably for what I thought was the same guy. I was most grateful to Marcus Borg when he wrote about a pre-Good Friday Jesus and a post-Easter Christ, in effect separating the human being named Jesus who lived on earth until he was crucified by the Romans from the concept of a god-like, messiah-figure that some attached to the memory of Jesus after his death.
I still couldn’t quite get that Christ concept until I worked with ministry students at the seminary who kept using that language over and over. And it began to dawn on me that if I replaced the word ‘Christ’ with the words ‘Buddha nature,’ it began to make a little sense. As I understood it, Siddhartha Gautama (who became the Buddha), when he achieved enlightenment, was able to tap into a Buddha nature, what one might call “the consciousness of the universe,” something like the totality of all knowledge, all wisdom, all being, all consciousness. I know for all you rationalists out there that the concept of a ‘Buddha nature’ is pretty fuzzy, but then so is (I believe) the concept of a ‘Christ nature,’ and just because it’s fuzzy doesn’t mean it doesn’t point to something that’s actually genuine. If you haven’t quite tapped into it for yourself, you could either keep trying or simply remember that all language is metaphorical.
So where are we on this circuitous search for the spirit of Christmas this morning? Recapping, we’ve removed the economic nucleus from the center of the Christmas tradition. We’ve seen the evolution of the celebration from ignoring any supposed birthday of Jesus, to attaching the Christian rite to pagan holidays and the winter solstice, to the banning of the celebration in Boston, to an almost completely secular American Christmas. Then we’ve looked at the Christ concept, trying to imagine what a ‘Christ’s Mass’ could possibly mean to us here in a post-Enlightenment, post-Christian, Unitarian Universalist community of today.
I harken back to an earlier experience of mine for possible clues. When I attended a Christian seminary a few years ago, I remember being peppered by fellow students every year with the same question, “Why would a non-Christian Unitarian Universalist celebrate Christmas?” At first I was stumped and left the discussion feeling like I hadn’t spoken up for my chosen faith very well. And then I thought about Sophia Lyon Fahs and her words, “Each night a child is born is a holy night.” And I realized that those words, for me, captured the essence of the celebration of Christmas: most of us don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus as a remembrance of an exclusive, real-life event; most of us don’t worship Jesus as the one and only bearer of religious wisdom in the world; most of us don’t think of the life of Jesus as the one and only time the divine has ever walked among us. There is in fact no absolute and definitive practice among us, but I believe many of us would be able to agree that we might use the already-existing holy day of Christmas to celebrate possibility: the possibility within each child and within each of us, the possibility of new light and new life, the possibility of connecting with and tapping into the power of the universe that is larger than ourselves. But we can have a hard time accepting the wonder and the mystery of all this possibility.
In our reading this morning, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the ability of children to employ all their senses in ways that we adults have forgotten. Where we hurry through life seeing the world only as scenery on our paths to get somewhere else quickly, the children are seeing and hearing everything as new, as exciting, as chocked full of possibility and potential. Where we feel we have to take life at an arm’s length, in misplaced self-defense to remove ourselves from the raw experience of the world, the children are continually giving themselves wholeheartedly to whatever comes their way. Where we worry about whether the ‘facts’ behind the celebrations we take part in make historical or rational or cultural sense, the children let the sights and sounds and smells of the holiday speak for themselves. Where we intentionally limit our involvement in the possibilities of Christmas, the children’s imaginations are on overdrive, creating something new out of the old stories and the old hymns and the old traditions.
Does this holiday/holy day rely on an old story someone somewhere made up? Absolutely. Without any historical corroboration at all, it’s only a story, and a strange one at that: God coming to visit as a vulnerable infant, born to social outcasts in the poorest section of the farthest reaches of the empire; the divine made manifest not in the Temple or in the court of the king, not in the centers of power and wealth, not in any way you or I would have foretold, but in unexpected ways as an unexpected gift of the universe.
Is it a story about giving to each other on only one day a year? Absolutely not. It’s about the possibilities inherent in the gifts each of us receive every day and inherent in the gifts each of us should consider giving everyday. It is the giving spirit that frees us from the bondages of our hearts and that releases us from our attachments to the things of the world. It is the giving spirit that opens us to tapping into the Buddha nature, into the Christ nature, into our own consciences, and into the consciousness of the universe.
This is the spirit of Christmas: giving in to the giving spirit and allowing the imagination to roam free, letting the sights and sounds of the season wash over you, and experiencing life anew as a child might.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s final paragraph reads:
“To apprentice oneself to a child is to learn that the world is full of wonders, a world in which nothing is simply what it seems because everything is packed with endless possibilities of usefulness and meaning. To enter that world, all you have to do is surrender your certainty that you already know what everything is and is for; all you have to do is start over again, assuming nothing and learning to approach every created thing with awe.”
May the Spirit of Christmas come to you and yours.
So may it be.
Return to First Unitarian Church of Alton - Selected Sermons Page