A Christmas pageant replete with heartless innkeepers, barnyard animals, many little pagans, and favorite carols. Should be fun!
The Story of Christmas
Suffering under the Law
The Christmas Story is a long story. Wrapped in myth and legend, scented with seasonal aromas and familiar, lingering memories, it is a beautiful story—loved by children and wise men and women the world over.
It begins a long, long time ago. Centuries before Jesus there was in ancient Israel the Law: an arduous code of conduct. What started out as Ten Commandments grew to over 600: what to eat, how to bathe, what not to wear. The codes were designed, we are told, to help people know God. But there were many, and they grew in their demands on a person’s heart.
What began as a means of liberation became, first, a burden and, finally, a psychological prison. Until the religion of the Israelites had little to do with faith and a whole lot more to do with following rules. Where was Spirit?
The spirit suffers under a religion that’s nothing but following rules. Religion has got to be liberation and release; it’s got to be about transformation. It’s got to be about love.
Religion is written in the heart or it’s nothing. People know that. Deep inside they know it. Which is why, when a body “gets religion” they become such compelling personalities—like Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi.
The heavily codified religion of the Israelites was overbearing. In the decades before Jesus’ birth it had led to wars and factions: competing orthodoxies on every hand and darn little comfort. Something’s got to give, was the longing in everyone’s heart.
HYMN #224 – “Let Christmas Come”
Journey and Arrival in Bethlehem
Great prophets are rare: Women and men of faith, and wisdom; who grab you, who make such sense, who connect on such a radical, primal level that you’re changed—for the better—right there, on the spot. And right here, in the heart; in the heart of hearts.
The heart knows that such liberators exist, and longs for them: poetactivists who speak to the heart and make it whole.
When they arrive—legend tells us—such natural born leaders tend not to be of the manor born. They come instead from obscure outlying places; places like Porbandar, India, Hodgenville, Kentucky or Hibbing, Minnesota. And they come from loving, unpretentious families.
The Christmas story tells of one such family who came from Galilee; of a teenage mother married to an older working class dad. Decree from the Imperial capital far away had put them on the road. The mother, Mary, was late in her term as they searched for a safe and comfortable place to give birth. It was nighttime.
Musical Meditation I: “Las Posadas” (Traditional)
Later that night she gave birth.
The story of the birth itself is gilded with myth, as naturally such stories grow to be.
In a manger, surrounded by animals, visited by shepherds, the great prophet of Nazareth was born.
As the child nursed at his mother’s breast, Mary pondered many things in her heart.
Hymn “Silent Night” #251
On the eighth day of the child’s life there was a bris and naming ceremony.
Simeon, a devout loving man, and Anna, a prophet, saw him and exclaimed: this child is indeed special. He will grow up filled with wisdom, with courage and compassion, able to reveal to others their inner thoughts and remind them of their connection to the Spirit.
Four days later, the young family was visited by three wise men from the east, who came to pay homage.
Hymn #259 “We Three Kings” verses 1 & 4
The youngster showed great promise.
He had a keen and active mind, and a noble, stalwart heart. Even as a 12year old, he demonstrated depth and breadth of soul.
As he grew into a man, he became one of the greatest spiritual teachers who ever lived. He inspired people who met him, many of whom looked at him with enormous reverence. People said that he radiated peace, lightness and joy and that following his teaching made them feel closer to the Spirit. After knowing him, people began treating others with more kindness, especially the poor and the sick. Jesus never claimed a special status, but taught that people with pure hearts will come to know reality as he did, seeing God and beauty everywhere, and within the souls of every person.
Hymn #238 “Within the Shining of a Star”
Growing Communities of Faith
Jesus’ message that we are all equally blessed with divinity was considered subversive and revolutionary the Roman authorities. He was quickly executed. But his message was too hopeful and too empowering to be forgotten—or contained. Within a matter of decades it had spread across the Middle East and southern Europe. Roman authorities were threatened by this growing religion and persecuted those who practiced it.
But it grew anyway, as it gave courage and meaning to many who followed it. People like the 20year old Sicilian girl Lucia who gave her life supporting and helping poor people, and was put to death when she would not renounce her religion. The story of her courage, faith, and martyrdom inspired others across Europe as people everywhere heard about and adopted this loving, optimistic, and empowering new way of being. In Sweden, far to the north, Lucia’s heroism inspired the Queen, who became a Christian and celebrated Lucia’s courage with a special ceremony every winter….
Choral Tribute “Santa Lucia” Traditional [Severin]
A few years after Lucia’s martyrdom, Constantine the Great became Emperor of Rome. He stopped the persecutions and then suddenly made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
Europeans everywhere had been celebrating returnofthesun rituals around the winter solstice for thousands of years. Early Christianity, not surprisingly, first took hold among people living in cities. Rural folks (called pagans—the Latin word for people living in the countryside) continued to practice older Greek and Roman religions for many years.
Once Rome adopted Christianity, missionaries quickly appropriated pagan celebrations and rituals, adding touches of their own and infusing them with stories about Jesus and his teachings about love and justice.
Over the centuries, Romanized Christianity grew, until nearly everyone in Europe was a Christian. The old Empire collapsed, but the Roman Catholic Church remained. The Middle Ages were a period of great faith, but abuses of power and privilege among the clergy made the church increasingly rigid and authoritarian. People were again living—and suffering—under the law. The simple teachings of Jesus were ignored, especially his belief that all people were vessels of the divine, whatever their station—or religious belief. By the early 1500’s a renewal movement began, known today as the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation completely changed Western Civilization. Many types of less hierarchical Protestant Christianity emerged, including Unitarians and Universalists.
They and other Europeans began colonizing North America as the Reformation was happening. Some colonists—including many Protestants—came in order to practice religion in their own way. Intolerance of other religions was widespread until after the American Revolution and the adoption of our Bill of Rights. Following the resolution of boundary disputes with Great Britain and Russia in the 1840s the land making up modern-day Washington became part of the United States; freedom of, and freedom from, religion was extended to this area.
The Christmas Story continues into modern times. And, as there are many who would pervert it, continues to be up for grabs.
Unitarian Universalists believe that the heart of the story is Jesus’ message of compassion and inclusiveness, simple teachings that continue to inspire anyone who cuts through the many dogmas and doctrines that surround them, and surround the figure of Jesus. As the Unitarian John Adams wrote, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, another Unitarian: the whole of religion, philosophy, and morals can be summed up simply in the words “Be just and good.”
This is what we teach in our Religious Education program: how to be just and good. This is what our comingofage program teaches our youth. We are lucky this morning to have many of our young people with us this morning, along with their RE teachers. I’d like to invite any of them still in the audience to come join us on the stage.
Carol #241“In the Bleak Midwinter”
Freedom to Love and Grow in Wholesome Faith
Look to the children; that we may collectively gaze and ponder upon so much of what we hold sacred: We are thankful and feel blessed by their exuberance and curiosity, their emotional honesty, and their ceaseless get-up-and-go. By their clarity about what is fair… and what’s not fair. And by their sense of wonder.
We are thankful for the prophets, martyrs and reformers who have gone before us; their guiding of what real heroes look like and how they act.
We are thankful for patriots like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; for the democratic forms they established in America that is now in our hands.
Thankful we are also for the hard work and generosity of the many good people who have bequeathed to us this congregation;
Thankful, too, for the creative gifts of our our pianist, Music Director Severin Behnen, our young actors, and our religious education volunteers;
Thankful for our Sunday school teachers with their guidance and our young people with their eagerness to learn and grow.
We celebrate again this year the Christmas Story. We celebrate its heart: learning to love; We celebrate its magic; its childlike joy; and its capacity, year after year, to liberate us from the cold world of retribution, “bottom lines,” and prosaic fact.
And now, let us join together to sing our closing hymn.
Closing Hymn #245 “Joy to the World”
Merry Christmas to all! Amen.