The Heart of Christmas

Rev. Furrer will preach on how to focus on the good stuff and ignore the commercial overkill of Christmas.

“The Heart of Christmas”

My message this morning: how to find the heart of Christmas. How to get beyond the commercialism and crazy hype, the overindulgence, and stress. How to achieve balance and equilibrium in the midst of so much that’s over-the-top about the coming holiday.

So… the heart of Christmas: The poem written by Reverend Rebecca Parker says it plainly: we are the unfolding Christmas story. It happens within us. As it says on the north wall beneath the rose window in the sanctuary of the San Francisco Unitarian Church, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” [Luke 17:21] Heaven, according to this passage attributed to Jesus, is nothing about pie-in-the-sky-after-you-die; it’s something else entirely. This famous passage is found in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisees—rigid literalists and orthodoxy freaks of their day—were demanding that Jesus tell them when the Kingdom of Heaven that he keeps proclaiming is going to arrive. “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” he says. “Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Biblical scholars point out that in the original Aramaic, the passage has a double meaning: both “within” and “in our midst.” Or—as it says in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas— “It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of God is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.”

In other words, paradise, redemption, return to the garden: it’s all happening right here and right now; heaven spread about earth for those with eyes—and the heart, the compassion, the love—to see.

Christmas is the same. The star in the night sky, the baby, Herod and his henchmen: all symbols for what’s happening now, in us and in our midst.

Unitarian Universalists have been enthusiastic supporters of Christmas since our beginnings.

Universalists were all Jeffersonians; they embraced Christmas for the folk traditions it celebrated, and the sheer joy it brought annually at the darkest time of the year.

Unitarians were more middle-class: they were involved in turning Christmas from kind of a rowdy holiday into more of a family oriented celebration embracing neo-liberal values, values that we all still approve of and wish to inculcate in our society and in our young: generosity, ingenuity, personal integrity, and decorum. Christmas became an occasion for moral instruction (rewarding the nice – not the naughty) and for the celebration of family ties. For it is within our families that we learn how to behave properly…and why we’d want to.

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For the Unitarian Clergyman William Ellery Channing[1] and Unitarians ever since, there’s no formula (no creedal statement, no church membership) that can guarantee inclusion among the saved: we choose that for ourselves daily by listening to our better angels and practicing morality, integrity, and courage; choosing repeatedly to, in fact, be generous, loving, modest, loyal, and all the other virtues exemplified by the adult Jesus and revealed in his life and ministry. In certain respects, William Ellery Channing was a self-help guru of his day: and what we would call self-improvement, he (and later Emerson, Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalists) called self-culture. Growing culturally and morally. In any case, for Channing and probably for most UUs today, the nativity scene isn’t about anything that actually happened. For me, like Channing, it’s a symbol for the birth and re-birth of Jesus again and again in our hearts and minds whenever we choose to follow our intuitive inner guidance and our nobler aspirations. Whenever we have a pure thought, a selfless instinct, or a loving impulse we are witnessing the virgin birth—and supporting it: i.e., we’re nurturing God in our hearts. Whenever we choose modesty and conciliation over belligerence and force, we’re the innkeeper offering room in our heart—our manger—for bringing to birth and nurturing the holy.

One must keep in mind—and as any parent knows—pure thoughts, selfless instincts, and loving impulses are not automatic. One’s nobler instincts contend with all those less-than-pure thoughts, selfish interests, and manipulative desires people also are familiar with. As free women and men we’re presented every day with choice upon choice. To choose the nobler course is to grow, in Channing’s words, in “likeness to God.” It requires practice. Just as we strengthen our muscles at the gymnasium by working out, we strengthen our moral fiber by practicing honesty, fairness, generosity, forbearance, and so forth. No cheating. Not cutting corners. Not passing by on the other side.

Even in tragedy the human spirit stands tall. The tragic massacre of little children in Newtown, Connecticut happened six years ago this month. Many staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School gave their lives trying to protect and shield students. First grade teacher Victoria Soto was one of them. Her instinctual immediate, unselfconscious heroism enabled some of her young wards to survive. She gave her 29-year-old life without a second thought that children she was teaching might escape. And no one who knew her was the least bit surprised. Live, laugh, and love: that was her motto, and she exemplified it to her last breath. Victoria Soto wasn’t born caring so deeply; she learned how to care—care as though her life depended on it—in a family that taught her what love looks like by way of daily example and repeated demonstration: love looks this way:

  • it looks after the weak and vulnerable;
  • it promotes self-respect and self-reliance;
  • it welcomes each person with all their gifts and all their foibles; and
  • it faces down craziness and destructiveness with unswerving resolve.

Universalists were much like the Unitarians; their theology was liberal, but mostly they didn’t think theologically all that much: for the Universalists it was all about how you treat one another, how you treat animals, how you treat people in your community. Love is as love does. (They were big on the First Letter of John in the New Testament that we read responsively moments ago – “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” [Reading #639 in Singing the Living Tradition]) It all comes down to how you treat people. How kind you are. How fair and reasonable. How respectful of others’ basic humanity, and cognizant of their indwelling divinity. As a rule, Universalists were less well educated than the Unitarians; they tended to be what today we’d call blue collar: farmers and mechanics who embraced folk traditions, including celebrations with music and good food. Most of all Universalist churches were places where everyone strived to treat one another—everyone—as equal manifestations of divinity.

So the heart of Christmas for UUs today? Bringing the holy to birth and nurturing it by choosing life, love, and laughter. And celebrating that way in our communities by supporting one another in living as lovingly as we can.

The heart of Christmas? I asked my college roommate, Jon, what constituted the heart of Christmas to him. “Connecting with others,” he said. “Christmas offers an opportunity—and a nudge—to re-connect with people you care about.” I asked my sister, Jeannine; for her the heart of Christmas was the music, which itself is a way of connecting: playing together, and harmonizing together singing well known songs. I asked my daughter and she said that for her the heart of Christmas is the celebration of hope: the hope symbolized in a newborn child. Who knows what one’s little baby will become? How fully she or he will grow into himself or herself: how completely they’ll fulfill their promise.

To me the heart of Christmas is all of these things: connecting with loved ones, celebrating their company, looking for the best of one another, and encouraging creativity in all we do. That we take time during the longest, darkest days of the year to intentionally mark these things out and act them out: this is what makes us human human beings. And this is what makes us happier and healthier and better people to boot. Better to the communities in which we live, and to the earth.

Let us then resolve, this year, to make Christmas a time of reconnection and creativity and hope. Why not? Why not celebrate the hope implicit in lighting candles to tide us across dark nights? Is hope not a good and precious thing? Is it not hope that enables parents everywhere to muster the courage it takes to raise children in an uncertain, often cruel and destructive world; to teach them loving, humane and generous values despite their oft repudiation by cynics?

“Each night a child is born is a holy night,” writes the legendary Unitarian Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs. “Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs feel glory in the sight of new life beginning. They ask, “Where and how will this new life end? Or will it end?” Such were the questions Mary and Joseph, like countless millions before and ever since, pondered in their hearts as they beheld their newborn child. And such, it seems to me, is truly the essence of Christmas: love and devotion to our loved ones and to their nurture. Making them into loving, gentlemen and gentlewomen, into people like Victoria Soto with the courage to live, laugh, and love to their last breath; encouraging them to grow into their full humanity, able to celebrate and make music even in the ever-present face of death; able to exercise one’s heart and to grow a soul.

In her poem “Nativity” Christina Rossetti asks

What shall I give him

Poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man

I would do my part;

Yet what can I give him—

Give my heart.

Yes. For, surely, this is the heart of Christmas: the giving of one’s heart. To love. To hope. To the future. To that which you adore (like music, delicious recipes, and loved ones, well-known and comforting rituals). To one another. Let this Christmas be all of these things for each of us. An invitation to give our hearts in hope and goodness and love: that the holy might be born anew in each of our hearts and all of our lives and in every one of our homes again and again this season—and the weeks and months of the coming year.

So may it be.      Amen.      Namaste.

[1] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology 1805-1900: Imagining Progressive Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) Dorrien considers Channing the originator of American liberal Christian theology.