Prelude It Came Upon the Midnight Clear sung by the Unitarian Music Society
In this time of continuing insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
Unable to celebrate Christmas as we usually do,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this one hour,
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,
For this one hour.
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) words by Cliff Reed
The flame of love is kindled,
We open wide our hearts,
That it may burn within us,
Fuel us to do our parts.
Community needs building,
A commonwealth of earth,
We ask for strength to build it,
A new world come to birth.
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.
Reading from the opening scene of the film Love Actually by Richard Curtis
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.
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 Christmas Beatitudes by David Rhys Williams, from Songs for Living
On this blessed day, let us worship at the altar of joy, for to miss the joy of Christmas is to miss its holiest secret.
Let us enter into the spiritual delights which are the natural heritage of childlike hearts.
Let us withdraw from the cold and barren world of prosaic fact, if only for a season,
That we may warm ourselves by the fireside of fancy, and take counsel of the wisdom of poetry and legend.
Blessed are they who have vision enough to behold a guiding star in the dark mystery which girdles the earth.
Blessed are they who have imagination enough to detect the music of celestial voices in the midnight hours of life.
Blessed are they who have faith enough to contemplate a world of peace and justice in the midst of present wrong and strife.
Blessed are they who have greatness enough to become at times as a little child.
Blessed are they who have zest enough to take delight in simple things.
Blessed are they who have wisdom enough to know that the kingdom of heaven is very close at hand, and that all may enter in who have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand.
Prayer by A. Powell Davies, from Songs for Living
O thou who hast called us out of the darkness into the marvellous light of life and love,
help us to find our way through the noise and turmoil of the days ahead
to the true meaning of Christmas, to its quiet joys, and to its peace.
Teach us that we cannot hear the songs until our own hearts learn to sing them,
and that the most important gifts which we can give to one another
cannot be wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.
Show us, whose needs are so great,
how close we are to what we seek,
and how often the things we want most desperately
are ours already, if we will only stretch out our hands.
Help us to be brave enough for life and love,
and guide us in our search through doubt and darkness,
until we find the faith which knows no place or season –
until we learn at last that though the very stars may wander,
there is that within us which need never lose its way.
Reading Christmas is the season of the Heart by Danny Crosby
Christmas is the season of the heart. It is a time to focus on the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart. It is a time to focus on the heart’s yearnings and longings; it is a time when we are called to concentrate on the heart, on what the heart wants, what it needs and what it compels us to be.
The heart of Christmas is the heart itself, burst to overflowing. Lit up, bringing light and warmth into this season of darkness and cold. It brings hope in what can be cynical times, as it always has.
Christmas is the dream of the heart, wishing to come alive, to incarnate. This is why Christmas is both the religious and emotional centre of the year for so many folk. Christmas, this time of the heart, calls us to our truest nature, to be all we can be.
This is why Christmas is for me at least the holiest of holy days and nights. This is why I have come to believe it is for everyone, regardless of faith, or lack of faith. Christmas connects to something universal, something eternal in all of us, which allows us to connect to our true selves, to one another, to all life and to that loving and eternal spirit that I have come to believe runs through it all.
“Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day.” Well, it can be if we make it Christmas every day. It begins by lighting that lamp, that fire, in our hearts and in our hearths.
When tomorrow comes, may your heart be open to Heart of Christmas … May you make it Christmas every day, by keeping that heart open … Now that would be the gift that the whole world has been waiting for …
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
This Christmas we give thanks once more for the birth of Jesus, for his message of the rule of love, and for the ultimate integrity with which he lived it.
This Christmas we give thanks for all the great souls who have turned our world towards the light, and for the bright festivals that remember them.
This Christmas we give thanks for all the blessings in our lives and for the love that has enfolded and inspired us from our own births to this present moment.
This Christmas we give thanks for our families, those present in fond and sacred memory, those still around us, laying down new memories for our lives’ enrichment.
This Christmas we give thanks for friends both close and distant (however that be understood!) and for all who share with us the path of life and faith.
This Christmas we give thanks for the past year, touched as it was by both grief and joy, by the silence of death’s shadow, and by the song of life’s celebration.
This Christmas we give thanks for this glorious universe, for the divine in nature and moments of insight and rapture, for the companionship of all who share the breath of life.
This Christmas we feel shame for our weakness, unkindness, and stupidity, for our failure to care for each other and for the Earth, but we give thanks that sometimes we care enough to be ashamed.
This Christmas we give thanks that, in our caring, God calls us to continue the struggle for love and truth and righteousness and gives us the heart to do so.
Let us think on these things and give thanks in the silence…
This Christmas we give thanks for each other, our fellow pilgrims,
And we wish ourselves and all the earth the blessings of healing, peace and restoration. Amen
Musical Interlude O Little Town of Bethlehem, sung by the Unitarian Music Society
Address Love Actually
There is a wonderful quotation by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, writer, composer, philosopher and painter, who lived from 1861 to 1941, “Love’s gift cannot be given. It waits to be accepted.” And last week, Maz and Becky and I watched our favourite Christmas film, Love Actually, together. With its wonderful opening voice-over by Hugh Grant, which was our first reading, and which ends with the sentence, “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
So this is my theme for this year’s Christmas service – that love’s gift waits to be accepted and that love actually is all around. And that love is the central meaning of Christmas.
If we understand ‘Love’ as God, it makes sense that He/She cannot storm our hearts by force, but knocks politely, waiting patiently for us to let Him/Her in. And I think the knocking is easier to hear at Christmas, somehow. As Paul famously wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That is a God I can respect.
And I believe that the best kind of human love shares these attributes, the kind of love that actually is all around. If we truly love someone, we accept them just the way they are. If the person we love behaves badly, we hold on to our love with everything we’ve got, and hope that our love will eventually be accepted.
Unless we can open our hearts to God, we will never truly experience His/Her love. My friend and colleague, Danny Crosby, calls Christmas “the season of the heart” and writes, “Christmas is the dream of the heart, wishing to come alive, to incarnate. This is why Christmas is both the religious and emotional centre of the year for so many folk. Christmas, this time of the heart, calls us to our truest nature, to be all we can be.”
I am not a mystic, but once, I had a vision of the truth, which I can only believe came from God. A few years ago, I bought myself a Celtic-style silver cross, which I wear every day, with my Unitarian chalice. For many years, I had repudiated the symbolism of the Christian cross, associating it with death and failure. But my attendance on the Encounter course at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction opened my heart in ways I had not foreseen… One morning, I was applying some moisturiser to my face, using a magnifying mirror, when the mirror slipped, canting to a different angle. And I noticed the cross around my neck and realised that instead of a circle at the centre, it had a heart.
This hit me with the force of a revelation. I saw, understood for the first time, that God was Love at the centre of everything. For the first time, I was able to fully accept God’s love for me, and to realise that my job, all our jobs, in the world was to love others in that same wholehearted way. And I believe that this is the true message of Christmas.
There is a very neat meme that does the rounds on Facebook each year at this time, which sums up the true spirit of Christmas for me. It is a Christmas Bucket List, with six items, partly crossed out and substituted with other words, so I’ll have to paraphrase for it to make sense:
1 Instead of buying presents, be present.
2 Instead of wrapping gifts, wrap someone in a hug. (sadly this isn’t possible at the moment)
3 Instead of sending gifts, send love.
4 Instead of shopping for food, donate food.
5 Instead of making cookies, make memories.
6 Instead of seeing the light, be the Light.
And yes, I get it, but in my opinion, it should be both/and, rather than either/or. I have bought presents for the people I love, but welcome the reminder to be present in the moment, day by day, instead of getting lost in the busyness. I will be wrapping the gifts I have bought this weekend, but will also be wrapping my immediate family in hugs and sending virtual ones far and wide.
I will be sending gifts, but also sending love to all those people who make my life so blessed. Including you, as you read or listen to this service. I will be shopping for food, but also making a donation to the Trussell Trust. This Christmas, sadly, I won’t be making or eating cookies, or mince pies or many other sweet Christmas treats, because I am coeliac and most of them contain gluten, but I will surely be making memories. It will be a shame not to be able to have our usual extended Christmas with my parents and my sister and her family this year, but I will be Zooming with them instead.
Finally, as well as seeing (and enjoying) all the beautiful, colourful Christmas lights – there are so many in the gardens and outside the houses in our village this year – I will be striving to be the Light for those I love. So the meme was a good reminder about the things which really matter at Christmas – not the tangible things that we can buy and consume, but the gifts of love and awareness, which cannot be bought and always renew themselves. The things we can look back on with fondness, when the food has been eaten, the presents have been opened, the paper and cards recycled and the decorations taken down. The things that Cliff Reed reminded us to be thankful for, in our Time of Stillness and Reflection – “Jesus’s message of the rule of love… all the great souls who have turned our world towards the light… all the blessings in our lives and the love that has enfolded and inspired us… our families… our friends… this glorious universe…” and even “this past year, touched as it was by both grief and joy.” We have such lots to be grateful for.
It is my belief that it is the thought and love we put into the presents we give that matters. One of my favourite quotes from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran is, “And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit… Work is love made visible.”
I don’t know about you, but the gifts I remember are those with love and thought behind them. In our complex 21st century society, we tend to buy most of our possessions from shops (or this year, online), which have in turn been supplied by factories, which mass-produce thousands of x and millions of y. So it is always a treat to give or receive something that has been made by a pair of human hands, with care and affection.
The present I’m most excited about giving this year is a Persian Tiles blanket I have made for my mother. During the months I was creating it, I was reminded of the quote from The Lord of the Rings, when the Lothlorien Elves say to Pippin, about the elven cloaks, “We put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.” I have certainly crocheted it with love, thinking about my mother a lot as I made it.
I would like to finish by acknowledging what I think should be the true spirit of Christmas, “the spirit of goodwill and peace… [the] spirit that bids us renew our hopes amid the gathering darkness, that kindles our generosity and our concerns, that attunes our ears to the ever-renewed angelic chorus,” as Max Gaeble puts it. Because love enables that to be here too, in our minds and in our hearts.
I wish you a peaceful, blessed and mindful Christmas, full of love.
Closing Words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Christmas is a season, not a day –
It isn’t over yet.
It will begin when the tills fall silent on Christmas Eve,
And it is ours now to reclaim.
Let us make it a time for our refreshment,
A time to re-create our jaded lives,
Sharing the love that Jesus came to teach.
Let’s celebrate through all of Christmas,
That we may carry its light through all the coming year.
Let it be so. Go in peace.
Postlude: Joy to the World, sung by members of the Unitarian Music Society.