Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of continuing insecurity and social upheaval,
When most of us are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short space of time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
At this one time.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning)
We light our chalice today
Remembering with gratitude all the front-line staff
Of our hospitals, shops and public services,
Who are selflessly carrying on,
To meet the needs of the people they serve.
We light our chalice in the hope
That our loved ones may be safe,
That all people may be safe,
Especially as the weather grows colder.
And in faith that normality will return,
And that we will return to normality
As kinder, more compassionate people.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
We hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By painful events, in their lives,
And in the wider world,
Of which we are all a part. Amen
Reading from Doing December Differently by Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles (adapted)
With its compulsive idolatry of money and consumption, and its idealisation of family life, the way our culture celebrates Christmas marginalises and excludes great numbers of people. These include anyone from any kind of broken or dysfunctional family (and that includes most of us); single people, whether by choice of circumstance; those who are divorced or separated; childless couples who long for children; …children who, for whatever reasons, do not fit the mould of active, acquisitive consumers; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk… the bereaved, and carers of the profoundly ill. All are ostracised from the mythical idyll of Christmas, unable to play happy families.
Christmas is also deeply problematic for all of us who cannot or do not wish to comply with the pressures of materialism that the secular season exerts. Poorer people cannot play this game; and many others of us don’t want to.
This book explores how people of faith and goodwill might mark the midwinter season and the Christmas festival… with integrity and simplicity, in ways that include others and celebrate difference, that do not put us all under intolerable strain, or perpetuate false and oppressive myths of the ideal family life.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading Some principles and guidelines for doing December differently Part 1 by Nicola Slee
Do what you can to make small changes. There is always the option of making some kind of change which can shift things, however small it may seem. Do not despair! Do not feel trapped.
Be compassionate – to yourself as well as to your relations, friends, etc. Be as gentle with yourself as it’s possible to be, and be realistic about what you can and can’t expect to ‘get out’ of Christmas. Give up the illusion of the ‘perfect Christmas’. Weave the wounds and flaws into the cloth.
Cherish and claim limitation, restraint, simplicity and ‘enough-ness’ as sound Advent principles, inasmuch as you can. Practice saying no. Stay in. Create small spaces for silence, rest, prayer, in whatever ways you can manage amidst the mayhem.
Plan ahead. Write yourself a note during or just after this Christmas to remind yourself of the things you need to remember next year. Stick it in your diary for sometime around the middle of November.
Communicate. Talk to family and friends about how you plan to, or would prefer to, manage Christmas. Explain what you are going to do and why. Expect them to understand; but even if they don’t, be clear and consistent.
Prayer Advent: Hope of Angels from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
The light of Christmas beckons
and we stumble towards it once again,
through doubt, distraction and despair.
Be with us on our journey, we pray,
Spirit of him who came and is to come,
give us hope enough to hear the angels,
and to help others hear them too.
Reading Some principles and guidelines for doing December differently Part 2 by Nicola Slee (adapted)
Make connections with people and places very different from yourself and your own context. Find some ways, however small-scale, of welcoming the stranger in your midst. This may be on your doorstep (social-distancing permitting) or on the other side of the world. Utilise links with charities and churches in other parts of the world to extend hospitality and concern to those who need prayer and/or material support. Assist the poor and marginalised in your own neighbourhood or city, or, at the very least, bring their names and stories into your preaching, prayer, thoughts.
Reclaim the positive yet critical engagement with culture from which the original celebration of Christmas emerged. Whichever tradition explaining the origins of the festivals of Christmas we opt for, it seems clear that the ancient Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25th was a robust way of engaging with their culture and challenging some of its most prevalent values and assumptions. Advent developed as an alternative to the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was marked by excess and debauchery. Christmas may have developed as an alternative to the Winter Solstice, proclaiming Jesus as the ‘Sun of righteousness’ who outshines all the pagan gods. In what ways can we celebrate Christmas today so that we engage with culture, yet also contest its hedonism, narcissism and myopia?
Try to keep a sense of perspective. Build in good recovery time afterwards. Give up on guilt. Laugh at the god-awful bits. Cherish the unexpected moments of wonder.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Cropthorne Christmas Blessing by Rosie Miles (adapted)
The blessings of bubble bath and bacon,
divas and desire, fairies and feasting,
The blessings of liturgy and love,
walking and wanting, cooking and creating,
The blessings of friendship and fire,
weaving and wine, Jenga and joy,
The blessings of poetry and pleasure,
tears and touching base, solitude and sleep,
The blessings of talking and tasting,
presents and peace, struggle and sexuality,
The blessings of hugging and holding,
dancing and delight, laughter and lunch,
The blessings of candles and craft,
wassail and whisky, leftovers and longing,
The blessings of preparation and poinsettias,
gaiety and good food, hurt and healing,
May all these rich blessings, the blessings of Christmas,
Be ours this season, and all the days of our lives.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Doing December Differently
In a normal year, I would be doing an Advent service this Sunday, to mark the beginning of the season of anticipation (which is what Advent means) which culminates in Christmas. Some of you will have experienced this kind of service in past years.
But this is not a normal year, not by any stretch of the imagination. The coronavirus has been with us for most of it, and we are currently still in national lockdown. During the past eight months, more than 55,000 people have died from it, there have been over one and a half million cases, and over 200,000 hospital admissions. Later this week, our Prime Minister will be announcing what will be happening from 2nd December. Many people in the retail and entertainment sectors have lost their jobs and will not be able to afford to celebrate Christmas this year. No, even with reports of a vaccine just around the corner, this has not been a normal year.
Yet even in a “normal year”, not everyone looks forward to Christmas with joy and enthusiasm. For many people, as Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles point out in our first reading, “the way our culture celebrates Christmas marginalises and excludes great numbers of people. These include anyone from any kind of broken or dysfunctional family (and that includes most of us); single people, whether by choice of circumstance; those who are divorced or separated; childless couples who long for children; …children who, for whatever reasons, do not fit the mould of active, acquisitive consumers; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk… the bereaved, and carers of the profoundly ill. All are ostracised from the mythical idyll of Christmas, unable to play happy families.”
It is a sad fact that over Christmas, the Samaritans are snowed under with phone calls from people in the depths of despair. It is their busiest time of year. So I wondered what it might be like, if we decided to do December differently. To not buy in to the fantasy of unremitting domestic bliss and family togetherness. To admit that for many of us, this ain’t necessarily so. Of course, many people do enjoy time with their families over Christmas, but as Nicola Slee writes, “the reality for many of us is far more ambivalent than the fantasy allows.” She continues, “Even if we love our families and get on with them, many of us live in complicated, extended or fragmented family networks, with multiple and diverse groupings to relate to, often geographically dispersed, and this puts a strain on resources and energy…. And then for many of us, relationships with family are complex and difficult, adding to the pressures and tensions.” And of course, many people do not have families at all…
I’m not trying to depress you all – if your experience of Christmas is full of joy and wonder, then I am delighted for you. But I do believe that we need to consider the substantial minority of people in our country who do not look forward to it and are actually quite glad when it’s over.
In my second and third readings, I shared some suggestions as to how it might be possible to approach the Christmas season in another way, from the wonderful book, Doing December Differently, which grew out of a retreat by six friends at Holland House in Cropthorne. Nicola Slee suggests that we “be compassionate – to [ourselves] as well as to [our] relations and friends; cherish and claim limitation, restraint, simplicity and ‘enough-ness’ as sound Advent principles, as much as we can; talk to friends and family about how [we]… would prefer to manage Christmas, explaining what [we] are going to do and why; make connections with people and places very different from [ourselves] and [our] own context; reclaim the positive yet critical engagement with culture from which the original celebration of Christmas emerged, [asking ourselves how] can we celebrate Christmas today so that we engage with culture, yet also contest its hedonism, narcissism and myopia.”
I think her best piece of advice was the last – to try to keep a sense of perspective and “build in good recovery time afterwards. Give up on guilt. Laugh at the god-awful bits. Cherish the unexpected moments of wonder.” Because yes, if we are lucky, there will be unexpected moments of wonder.
If we decide to opt out of the hedonism and consumerism of the season, by claiming the virtues of “restraint, simplicity and ‘enough-ness’”, and decide not to spend more than we can afford on presents they don’t need for people we hardly see from one year’s end to the next, nor on excessive amounts of food and drink to see us through the festive season, or if we choose to source both presents and feast ethically, we may be able to gain a new perspective on what Christmas could mean. That is the celebration of the birth of a particular child, at a particular time in history, who grew up to be a wonderful preacher and teacher, whose words can still inspire us, more than two thousand years later. As Tony McClelland wrote in a wonderful poem, called You shouldn’t have,
“But for all of the handkerchiefs, bath salts and soap,
there’s something about Christmas, something about hope,
and a birth in a manger, a child in a stable
far from the shops and the over-full table,
where God came among us from heaven above
and showed in that giving, astonishing love.”
Of course, as Unitarians, we may not believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, except in so far as we all are. Which may give us food for thought. If all of us contain a spark of the divine, perhaps the meaning of Christmas might be that we recognise it in other people. Even the ones we don’t like very much…
Or it could be a time of re-connection with who or what matters most to us – whether that is family or friends, or the blessing of having come through a difficult time this year, or our hopes for the new year that is just around the corner. Or we may prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice, as the longest night passes, and we turn our faces towards the longer days ahead.
So let us be kind to ourselves, this Christmas season, and try to be kind to others too. Help us to remember, in the words of Debra Faulks’ Litany of Comfort for Blue Christmas, that for some of us, perhaps even for people we know well,
“All around us are bright lights and merry messages
Yet in our heart not all is joyful
We know grief and pain,
We know anger and regret,
We know hopelessness and loneliness,
We know all these feelings, we name them, we live them for such is the human experience
That love presents us with the possibility of being hurt, with the grief of loss,
That connection holds the potential of loneliness and uncertainty,
That forgiveness can begin to heal anger and regret
That being alive is a courageous act in which we engage all of our emotions
…this season brings forth many feelings.”
May we come through the season with our spirits intact, with hope for the year to come.
Closing Words by Cliff Reed
be with us as we part.
Bless those who are here.
Bless those who are not here.
Bless those we love and those we should love.
Bless those who need our love and those whom we need to love.
Bless those we would love if we knew them
and those we may never love.
Bless all who love and help us to love when we find it hard.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley