Christmas Eve B, 2008
Luke 2: 1-14
LET’S KEEP CHRISTMAS PAGAN AND UNIVERSAL…
The modern festival called Christmas is a celebration
of story, myth, customs and ritual.
In reality it is an ‘invented’ celebration with a chequered history.
Indeed, it has a life of its own despite what the church
or evangelical preachers may want to say or do.
Since its inception it has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and reshaped.
And pious slogans such as “put Christ back into Christmas” do nothing.
While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth
may now provided the fundamental rationale for the festival
within the institutional church, for the most part
and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.
For many people today Christmas is just that... Christmas!
An accepted part of the annual cycle of events,
and something to be ignored or enjoyed.
At its best, the Christmas ‘spirit’ is a mirror in which we see reflected
the very best that life can be.
When we see ourselves moved by generosity,
encouraged by hope,
uplifted by love.
But this is Christmas Eve and we are gathered here in this sacred space.
So what’s this all about?
Let me offer some comments and invite you
to ponder them this Christmas Eve night.
The biblical stories are extremely brief... especially about baby Jesus.
So the church has tended to make up for the brevity of the story
with vivid imagination and word.
In ‘old-time’ religious language Christmas is about a sky God out or up there,
coming to us to dwell with us and within us,
to save us from our sin.
In the language of ‘progressive’ religion, Christmas reminds us
that we can discover a broader dimension for our ordinary humanity.
We can rediscover the sacred character of human existence.
And we can find all kinds of ways to celebrate it.
On the other hand, Jesus, as peasant baby, as refugee baby, has,
in shopping centre nativity scenes (if Centre Managers will allow such things),
become the loveable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing,
‘no crying he makes’. If only!
Such a sweet baby Jesus can be both unreal and dangerous.
The world-shaking message of Christmas gets obscured
by a sanitised religious sugar-coating, and a
middle-class faith in family and abundance.
But whether we are Christian or not, the world-shaking message
of Christmas deserves to be heard:
the ‘sacred’, previously perceived as holy other,
is incarnated here in this life, on this earth.
In November this year The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought
brought Revd Ian Lawton to Canberra.
Ian is an Australian minister serving in a large,
independent progressive church, in Spring Lake, MI, USA.
Recently he started his own Blog site. And on that site he is publishing,
among other things, sermons preached at Christ Community Church (now called C3 Exchange).
One recent sermon was titled ‘Bringing Christmas down to earth’
where he made this claim:
“The pagan Jesus offers a valid way to reclaim the Christmas story.”
Now maybe your first reaction is to screw up your face and say ‘What!’
But let’s stay with this statement for a bit.
When understood as either hedonistic or anti-religious,
we misunderstand this word. As Ian says:
“Actually, the word pagan comes from the Latin ‘pagus’, a country district. It has the same meaning as peasant. ‘A person of the land.’ The word ‘pagan’ had no negative connotations, until the Romans began using the word (with a sneer) to differentiate between a civilian and a soldier.”
Now, we are all people of the earth, the land, the universe.
And we have been reminded of that interconnectedness many, many times,
both in times past and in modern days.
The 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman.
A "first" in many fields. At a time when few women wrote,
Hildegard produced major works of theology
and visionary writings.
On one occasion she wrote this earth meditation:
“I am the one whose praise echoes on high.
I adorn all the earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.
I am the rain coming from the dew
that causes the greases to laugh with the joy of life.
I am the yearning for good” (Roberts & Amidon 1991:5).
And in our own days, in Robert Weston’s evocative poem:
“Out of the stars in their flight,
out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling
through time and through space.
“Out of the stars have we come, up from time;
Out of the stars have we come.
Time out of time before time
in the vastness of space,
earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of
mountains newborn, the boiling of seas.
“Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight:
This is our home;
Out of the stars have we come…” (Weston 1992: 530/slt).
Again let me share Ian’s take on our connectedness to the earth:
“You are a pagan, a person of the earth, a person who depends upon the cycles of the earth, a person who honors and respects the earth. You both measure the movement of your life by the seasons, but also find in the seasons a way to make meaning of your life. Isn’t that why Jesus so often used imagery of nature, the land and the seasons to parallel the human journey? Jesus was a pagan teacher.”
Now, while my colleague Ian Lawton is an ‘Aussie’,
he is talking out of a northern hemisphere Christmas experience.
Winter Solstice, the lengthening of days as earth
tilts into the sun’s warm embrace. And all that.
Our experiences are more often than not, not that.
Our southern hemisphere experiences are often a hot summer sun, dry north winds,
lengthy days, sun, sand and surf… and blowflies!
The dark and cold are gone. We do not need to lure the sun back into our lives.
Or decorate our houses with greenery to imitate the greening of the earth.
So what has the Christmas images and symbols of
‘light out of darkness’ got to do with us?
Reclaim the ‘universal’ within Christmas.
Again let me turn to some further comments in Ian’s sermon.
The quote is a bit long so stay with me…
“The story of Jesus was only ever intended to be read as a story, as poetry, as metaphor. The fact that most Christianity… has become a literal reading of impossible events must not distract us from the origins of the tradition… Let us reclaim the universal Christ. Let us reclaim the tradition that was begun in poetry because poetry was the only way the early followers of Jesus could capture their profound experience of their hero. They told the story of Jesus’ birth as if he was a pagan God, with all the details familiar to Egyptian mythology and Hebrew storytelling. That’s all they had; their experiences, their dependence on the earth and their storytelling.
“Reclaim the universal Christ because the story speaks to the Christ in you and in every person no matter what religion or background. The story speaks to a universal longing for rebirth in the midst of the darkest crisis.
"The universal, pagan, Christmas story has so much to offer the world in terms of unity and [the] healing… of the world, instead of division. There is so much at stake, and there is so much to be gained by telling the universal Christmas story. The Christ story is every person’s story. Reclaim that story and allow the celebration of Christmas to reenergize your life and heal the world.”
That’s the wisdom my colleague Ian Lawton suggested to his congregation.
Reclaim the story and allow the celebration of Christmas
to re-energise your life and heal the world.
May this too be why we are gathered here in this summer,
sacred space, this Christmas Eve.
Roberts, E. E Amidon. 1991. Earth Prayers from Around the World. 365 prayers, poems, and invocations for honoring the earth. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Singing the Living Tradition. 1993. Boston. The Unitarian Universalist Association.