Christmas for the spiritual but not religious

This is an excerpt of my sermon for Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marietta, Georgia this past Sunday, December 9. Many thanks to my friend Jeffrey Jacoby and the worship committee for the invitation! I found the congregation vibrant and friendly. For the bulletin cover I created The Centering Thought: “What if everyone had told me I had a spark of divinity in me when I was born?” For the Chalice Lighting, I wrote:

Light comes into the world

through every baby born.

May we do everything possible

to let that light shine,

openly, honestly, imaginatively,

so other lights may be inspired

with wisdom, compassion, and awe,

bringing our world out of the shadows

and into the rainbow that is light’s spectrum.

You don’t have to listen to me to recognize over and over again how Christmas has become culturally relevant—just watch the Hallmark Channel and Netflix Christmas movies, Christmas mixes on radio stations as well as media reports of compassion and kindness toward the under-appreciated and underprivileged that are more plentiful at this time of year to know that the spirit of Christmas can lift everyone’s boats, regardless of belief.

It’s believed that the observance of Christmas that we have come to experience in the West was expanded by Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” a favorite of mine—so much so that last year a commercially well-received film about Dickens’ creation of the story was entitled, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” In all his novels, Dickens promoted social justice and equality while casting a critical eye on the treatment of the poor in England. As a child, he himself had spent time in a poorhouse that incarcerated those without resources, and his writing of “A Christmas Carol” prevented him and his family from sharing a similar fate.

Every Christmas season there are some Christians who gnash their teeth at the “commercialism” of Christmas. “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” they say, verbally and on their bumper stickers, without realizing the success of Christmas marketing is that the story of Christmas is so universal. Its “good will to men and women” and “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” speaks to people of every faith and of no religion at all.

Christmas has become about more than Jesus. It’s about the lifting of the human spirit. It’s about kindness and compassion and the glory of being alive!

Years ago, the late sociologist, novelist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley reported from his scientific surveys that the reason Christians are more likely to attend church in this season is simply because they love the nativity story, not because they hold to the theological assertions of the church about who Jesus was.

This is a very important point—even Christians themselves are not necessarily drawn by theological propositions, but by how the Christmas narrative touches their hearts: an unwed pregnant Mary threatened with scandal, a reluctant Joseph, a sweet baby in a manger, whose life is threatened by the government and whose family has been displaced by governmental policies, a star of hope overhead drawing sages from afar, and more angels and dreams per cubic foot of any biblical story, influencing Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and still others. This was the original Christmas pageant!

Like all mythological stories, there are parts of the Christmas tale that are fanciful or exaggerated, unbelievable or unverifiable. Those who told these stories wanted to convey meaning rather than history. They were looking backward from their experience of what Jesus had achieved in his life and ministry, his extraordinary teachings, his healing touch, his compassion and grace, his humility and faithfulness. The Christmas narrative was devised in hindsight, what should have been the world’s welcome of one who would transform so much of the world.

Yet the few stories of Jesus’ birth are found in only two of the four gospels. Notably, the first gospel about Jesus written, Mark, included none of these stories—either because they were already well known or, more likely, because they were unknown to Mark or unnecessary to Mark’s story. The last gospel written, that of John, also contains none of these stories. John is the most mystical of the four gospels, and the author’s interest is in explaining the cosmic purpose and nature of Jesus. He grandly describes Jesus as God’s Word made flesh, an embodiment of God’s hope for the world.

It is the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke who give us the nativity stories of how Jesus was born. You will probably recognize parallels in this story to our world today.

Jesus was born in troubled times. As part of the Roman Empire, his people and his country of Palestine were not allowed control of their own land. His parents, though poor, had to deal with the unequal tax plan of a demanding ruler—Caesar Augustus—requiring their migration from the ghetto of Nazareth to Bethlehem, where his pregnant mother and doting father ended up homeless.

But they, like all parents, believed there was something special about the baby born to them in a cave used as a stable. Maybe he might be the one to deliver his people from bondage to Rome, like their ancestor Moses delivered them from Egypt in the exodus. Maybe he might be the one to unite his people from their partisanship, like their ancestor King David united the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Maybe he just might be the one to save the whole world. You know how parents dream!

So Mary sings of their vision for their child who might possibly transform life as they knew it:

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

[God] has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,

Bringing down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifting up the lowly,

filling the hungry with good things,

and sending the rich away empty.

Talk about ending income inequality! Talk about removing unjust, arrogant rulers! Talk about empowering the marginalized!

No wonder King Herod, a collaborator with their Roman oppressors, was terrified that he might be displaced, and tried to destroy the child. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have to flee for a while to Egypt, migrants fleeing the terror of their homeland.

No wonder that poor shepherds had a vision of an angel declaring, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Deliverer.” Then a vision of a multitude of angels singing, “Peace on earth, and good will among people!”

No wonder that astrologers from the East came from afar at the sight of a new star in the heavens! They believed the world’s fortunes were about to change.

No wonder that poor shepherds and privileged magi alike came to his crib to pay him homage, the latter with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Ultimately, what the Christmas story affirms is the vital importance and necessity of spirituality in our world. Almost every founder of a spiritual path has such stories told about them, either of their birth or of their lives. Those we might name as saints from old or saints of our own time have wondrous stories told about them as well.

And I daresay that everyone here has stories of wonder to tell—how you came to be here, in this world and in this congregation. If only we all had been told when we were born of our divine spark, of our sacred worth, of how we participate in divinity, what a different world it would be!

That, I believe, is the Gospel of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. You value all spiritual paths and everyone’s spiritual life.

As Tiny Tim, the most vulnerable and marginalized character in Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” might say in the spirit of Christmas, “Bless us, everyone!”

Visit Chris Glaser’s website here.

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