Christmas Eve: Just for a Moment
Every year I find myself in the same situation. The year creeps along and the days turn colder and colder (or in our case, warmer and warmer) and suddenly you hear it. Sometimes sooner than you would ever want to. You might hear it on the radio, on television, or, as most of us have, at a store.
You’ll see it pop up in decorations and advertisements, it will seek you out. Christmas, it would seem, can’t wait to be here. And so it comes closer and faster every year. We are instantly swept up, whether we like it or not, in our checklists or the mayhem of shopping during this ever growing season. People who don’t celebrate Christmas can’t help but be confronted with the baby in a manger, as well as nearly getting trampled while trying to get a bargain.
It wasn’t always like that, though. Or perhaps it was and I just don’t remember. What I do remember is being a child and waiting patiently, counting down the days, and getting excited when the school Christmas party came along. It meant one thing, the countdown was almost over. Christmas was finally here!
And there was an exuberance about the whole thing. A rush of excitement instead of a rush for things. Sure, the presents and things were still a part of the equation, but the real rush of the holiday for me was seeing the half eaten plate of cookies in the morning and the empty glass of milk, seeing presents under the tree, and not having to leave my pajamas for most, if not all, of the day.
I wonder, how and when did it all change for me? For any of us? I know part of it was the transition to adulthood — a lot of the magic of life tends to escape us when that happens. We start to get caught up in the rush of the season, and the innocence of the world is lost when we gain more and more understanding about just how much our world is in need.
You can’t help but be impacted by it in some way. The days of pajamas and plates of cookies for me, at least, are over. Part of it, really, is my own fault, I chose a profession where holidays are working days.
But in that rush of the season something else happens. It isn’t just the magic of the holiday that is lost but, also, the meaning. And there are quite a few meanings. And for Unitarian Universalists it is a bundle of meanings paired with many other meanings. We like holidays — all of them.
We find ourselves touched by the history of Hanukkah, the lights of Diwali, sometimes the solemnity of Ramadan, and always the mother of this season, the Solstice. In fact, I know more Unitarian Universalists that take time to have a quiet, simple, day with friends and family on the solstice — before Christmas comes barreling along a few days later.
That practice itself tells me there is a longing for simplicity like that. It tells me there is a longing for a sabbath away from the rush of the holidays and a reminder of why we stop to honor these days in the first place.
But how do we, as Unitarian Universalists, tackle Christmas, a holiday celebrating new life, promise, an escape from darkness, and the birth of the Christian god — it becomes a lot to juggle.
There are a lot of pieces to put together. It’s hard to care about any of the story, the myth, that we are confronted with, when we are forced with making sure the menorah is set, the advent candles are lit properly, the manger is set up, and all the dazzling lights are put in place. Why care about a baby boy born in Palestine so long ago?
The meaning of Christmas, and most holidays, is far more than sitting in expectation, it is far greater than finding new life or celebrating a great teacher. For me, it is all about the joy of rediscovering hope — in having a day set aside where, for even a moment, I can kindle a flame in my heart.
In a culture where there’s an imagined war against Christmas — I can’t help but note the venom of the pundits and notice how it takes away from the very thing that makes Christmas beautiful — a moment to experience hope, to experience a solemnity, to experience the quiet of night and the returning of the light for all people.
Just for a moment. To have that sense of wonder and have no worries for one morning, one evening. But if we are realistic about the hope of this story we tell each other year and year again — we need only look around to see that the message of Christmas is something desperately needed.
When we tell ourselves the story, and so it goes: in a Galilee far far away — Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn, and so she gave birth to a child, the light of any parents world, with livestock surrounding them.
So foundational of a story for the largest world religion, so foundational a story that there’s a cadre of people seeking to protect it every year, so foundational a story for the culture of this nation — so foundational and familiar that it is being told again and again and being lived — perhaps not with Mary and Joseph, but Maria and Jose, Miriam and Yusuf — hundreds of thousands of people have come knocking, and again to this day, there is no room at the inn.
There is no room at the inn for the Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mall of America, there is no room at the inn for Syrian refugees, there is no room at the inn for the politics of compassion. Those who’ve been extinguishing the light of hope should fear the story of Christmas.
I need not say who they are — but they really should tremble on this night. They should tremble at the story because it tells us there is a justice that will be born in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps, this time, not in a baby, but unlikely still. And we who join in compassion with those who’ve been forced out of the inns will need to search for it ourselves.
We will need to find that star of wonder hanging in the sky and follow it. We will need to drop all that we are doing, all that we have, all that is sweeping us up in the distractions of the year and follow it in the spirit of service to our fellow human beings.
It is no accident that the three wise men were in all likelihood the shepherds tending their flocks who followed the star — they were common people, making ends meet, and they found themselves astonished with what they found.
While I yearn for simpler days where Christmas was about that exuberance and joy, about staying in my pajamas all day, I know and believe more than ever that this story — in all of its tellings, customs, and traditions — is a story that’s been told with different casts of characters, in different religions, in different places — for thousands and thousands of years — I believe that it is about justice, compassion, and searching for hope when we need it most.
So this Christmas, this night of waiting, the advent of the light — kindle a flame in your heart. Take a moment to pause, give thanks, to rest in the embrace of the evening — but let the flame spread like wildfire. The Christmas story does not end tonight.