Blog posts have been few and far between recently. I feel I have much to report and reflect upon, having been immersed in local politics these past few months alongside the challenges of the day job. Finer details about these things will have to keep for now - I am inclined to think they will just filter through rather than become standalone pieces of writing.
Christmas is now upon us and I've been called to help my good friend, Bob, with services at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. I am taking services for three consecutive Sundays which is certainly not something I have done before. Below is the sermon from my first service, taken Sunday just gone (20th December). The readings were 1 John 4:7-16 and a shortened version of Eberhard Arnold's 'Where love breaks in'. I should also add that the sermon was inspired greatly by the writings of John Lindell.
Here we gather today for our Christmas Carol service but I want to ask you - why are you here?
We are pretty certain Jesus was not born on the 25th of December - or at least certain enough to say that it could have been the 25th of December just as much as any other day.
What many people also do not know is that "Advent” and “Christmas" are based on traditions that are centuries older than Christianity. As the Christian movement ventured out into the diverse cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean, the movement encountered traditions which were both adopted and reinterpreted through a Christian lens.
In ancient Persian culture, the deity called "Mithra" was the "god of light" whose "birthday" was celebrated on December the 25th. Similarly, in Judaism, the holiday called "Hanukkah," or the "Feast of Lights," is observed in December, commemorating the Jews' uprising against their Greek-Syrian overlords in 168 BC and the renewal of their religion - symbolised in the re-dedication of the temple.
In the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, there was also a tradition of miracle births being ascribed to their leaders – there were many sons of Gods. It is likely that the miracle birth story was borrowed by Jesus’s followers after his death to give him extra prestige, to raise him up alongside figures such as Horus, Mithras and Perseus
From history we also know that there are two times of the year instinctively celebrated by human beings in lands north of the equator. One is in the winter, in December - the other is in the spring, around March or April. From their observation of nature in the Northern Hemisphere, human beings recognised that the longest night of the year occurs in December. After that night, the hours of daylight increases. This natural cycle came to symbolise the "coming of the light" in various religious traditions. A fatty, energy-rich feast around December also helped preserve our ancestors until the first crops of early Summer.
So, to speak plainly, it seems the time of year we call "Christmas" which celebrates the "birthday" of Jesus who is called the "light of the world” is actually, at surface level, little more than a mish-mash of borrowed mythology - matched with the ancient customs of peoples living in a time where the winter darkness and hunger, without electricity and supermarkets, was keenly felt.
So I ask you, why do we persist with Christmas? Is it just because it is something we have always done?
I ask this also in light of research which shows the family and financial pressures of this period can actually have a negative impact on people.
A Samaritans worker has been quoted as saying:
“Christmas can be a poignant time, bringing issues people face all year round to the surface, and can leave those normally strong enough to cope, struggling to do so.
"I listen to people telling me that they're alone, or that they've recently lost their partner, or that they're in huge amounts of debt.
"And it's even harder to deal with because it's Christmas, and the expectation that everyone is having a good time. It's so important that we're able to help these people through the festive season.”
So, if Christmas is all based on an inaccuracy and has the potential to inadvertently cause swathes of people to feel low, why do we Unitarians - we proud rationalists and dissenters - uphold it?
I put it to you today that although habit and conformity probably motivates much of our yearly Christmas, there is a deeper inclination that still exists within us. It is why we are stood here today in this chapel, rather than the Trafford Centre. It is that inclination within us to encounter that strange, stirring, warming force that seems to sit behind material reality, that which we call God – and to somehow know that force and what it means for us in our daily lives.
It is a remarkable fact that we find in the Gospels very little specific detail to the nature of God. The story and teachings of Jesus instead directs us towards considering the relationship of God to humankind, and by extension the relationship of human beings to one another.
And it all starts with a young woman giving birth to a baby in humble circumstances. The story of mother and baby then grows into the story of a Jewish prophet to the rich and healer of the marginalised before reaching a dramatic conclusion – unique amongst all of the major religions – with Jesus of Nazareth laying down his life for his people and, in turn, becoming a universal symbol - becoming an icon which has inspired billions over two thousand years.
The great statement about God that comes out of the Jesus story is simple yet compelling: God is Love, and to know God you must know love.
The ancient Greeks, whose civilisation developed along the lines of architecture and the arts said, 'God is beauty.'
The Romans, led by the Caesars on a thousand battlefields to victory, said, 'God is strength.'
The Jew, inheriting from Moses, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, said, 'God is law.'
Yet in the life of Jesus – whether we view him as God incarnate or as a human being who had found enlightenment – the message is, 'God is Love.'
We might not always sense this love so immediately and readily – it is easy to get caught up in the demands of our ego and that of others, it is easy to let our hearts become hardened. And at Christmas, we might well find ourselves journeying further away from this love rather than nearer to it, as we try to meet the cultural, secular expectations of this time of year. It is easy for this inclination towards something deeper to get drowned out.
This is not to say the present buying and the eating and drinking is all bad – for we see in Jesus’s own life that he was generous and enjoyed a feast. But if Advent is going to have any spiritual value, we also need to balance the merriment with reflection - considering once again the nativity story and what it means for our lives.
Let us look at it through the eyes of Mary – the young woman who didn’t feel ready, who felt confused at her place in the world - suddenly being handed a gift and responsibility.
Let us look at it through the eyes of Joseph – the man who wanted a quiet life, who wanted to maintain his status and respect according to the custom of the land, but was compelled to follow a dream.
Let us consider the stargazing Magi, nobles called from their speculations to set foot on a long, arduous pilgrimage.
Let us consider the shepherds; those with the seemingly lowliest of tasks who became the first witnesses to the King of Kings.
Let us consider the child, a fragile, seemingly insignificant moment in time that becomes an earthquake – to use a cliche, a little acorn that became an oak.
All point towards the movement of God in the world, to the ongoing creation being worked through humanity, the potential within each and every one of us. Jesus is ‘light of the world’ because he shows us the way. Right from the story of his birth and all the way to the story of his death, he shows us the way to our truest nature, and in doing so, reconnects us through love to that deep well of life we call God.
Let us hold onto this in the coming week, in the coming year.