(my apologies if the quality of sound is not so good as usual – we had a terrific rainstorm half way through recording the service!)
Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Ellen Fay
It is the Winter season of the year,.
dark and chilly.
Perhaps it is a winter season in your life –
dark and chilly there, too.
Come in to Christmas, here.
Let the light and warmth of Christmas brighten our lives and world.
Let us find in the dark corners of our souls the light of hope,
a vision of the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Let us find rest in the quiet of a holy moment to find promise and renewal.
Let us find the child in each of us, the new hope,
the new light, born in us.
Then will Christmas come.
Then will magic return to the world.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Linda Hart)
We light this chalice as a symbol of the spark of life which abides within us and around us.
May it be as a light in a dark night, a light in a window that welcomes the weary traveller home.
May it be as a light in the hand of a trusted friend, that guides us along the path.
May it be as the light in the face of one we love, bright with joy.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
each in our 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 world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help each other, however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
who are grieving, lost, alone,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way,
Reading Advent: Candles and Christmas Trees by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps
It is Advent,
and to welcome the light of the world,
we light up the long winter nights
and the gloomy winter days,
with candles and with Christmas trees.
Jesus may have seen candles,
but he never saw a Christmas tree,
though if he had, he would have loved it.
He would have loved the joy
its twinkling lights bring to children,
and to all child-like hearts.
It is Advent,
O God, bless your forests
and teach us to care for them.
Bless the trees we take to bring
beauty, light and fragrance to our homes.
And bless all who approach Christmas
with love in their hearts.
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 by Agnes J. Zuniga
Our winter has begun – the time of darkness which we know always arrives, and which, we know as surely will pass in time into seasons of light and warmth.
The seasons of the soul have their own rhythm, their own reasons:
Who knows the delight of some of us, reuniting with folk so dear?
Who knows the anguish of some among us as our celebrations bring only a reminder of loss?
Who knows the pain of uncertainty within others, plagued with doubts and fears – will there be another winter for me?
Who can tell what hope is budding in some heart even as our sun grows cold and white in a misting sky?
We have, in this winter of earth – we have, in whatever season of the soul – the most precious gifts to give away and to keep:
We have ears for hearing each other, for listening to another’s need.
We have eyes for seeing the signs, for knowing the beauty of another person, for perusing the uniqueness; eyes for telling our own unspoken stories.
We have hands for reaching to help, for reaching to give and to receive – hands which hold, and caress, and forgive.
Let us then, remember the forgotten. Let us seek to heal the injured, to nourish the weak, to revive the withered. Let us be there to love the unloved and the dying. Let our minds and our hearts burn with solstice fires, to prove that the human spirit lives and thrives; that whatever the season of sun or of soul, there reigns a dauntless determination to outlast, together, every dark time.
Let us be filled with the light and merriment that our celebrations bring, that we look ahead in hope and in faith to the Earth’s rebirth, and the Springtime of the soul.
Prayer by Charles Stephen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May the spirit of this season help us find our way through the noise and turmoil of the days ahead into the heart of Christmas itself, to its quieter joy and its peace.
May we learn that we cannot hear the songs until our own hearts learn to sing them.
May we, whose needs are so great, know how close we are to what we seek, and how often the things we want so desperately are ours already.
May we be strong enough for the joys and the pains of love;
and may we, with quiet persistence in our hearts, learn to enjoy the small happenings of our days and hours, and find in them the meaning that touches us most deeply, that moves us most profoundly.
May we find that life is good. Amen
Reading Advent: Man of Light by Cliff Reed, from Celebration (adapted)
Within us a light waits to be kindled,
we await the coming of him who will light it,
the morning sun that will shine on those who
live in darkness.
He is a man of light who lights up the whole world.
In him there is no darkness.
May he light the light in each of us,
may we become people of light, bringing
shafts of bright hope to the gloom of
the human soul.
If we do not shine, we are in darkness,
lost ourselves, blind guides to others.
May we awaken to the divine light within,
may we, like him… whose light kindles our own,
light up the whole world.
For this he comes. For this we await his coming.
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Edward Searl [adapted]
If only for the Season … let us banish cynicism and welcome wonder.
If only for the Season … let us downplay our differences,
and discover bonds of common origin and continuing cause.
If only for the Season … let us set aside worry,
and smile and laugh and sing.
If only for the Season … let us deny apathy and indifference,
and truly live by loving.
If only for the Season … let us subvert covetousness and jealousy
and be both good gift getters and givers.
If only for the Season …
If only for this brief Season of light, life, love,
Let us be wise enough to be a little foolish
about candlelight and children and matters of the heart …
If only for the Season. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Light of New Hope
I will never forget the Christmas of 1989. I was pregnant with my son, my first-born, and just beginning to show. I was in my fourth month and was awash with feelings of serenity and awe about the miracle that was happening to me. Although I hadn’t yet felt life stirring within, I knew that deep inside my body a new person was growing, and that my wonderful, clever body was supporting him and nourishing him. And that was this was occasion for awe and gratitude.
On the second Sunday of December, I went along to our service at Northampton Unitarians, and broke the news that I was expecting a child. They were all very happy for me. But the icing on the cake came during the service, which was our Christmas service. (At that time, we only met on second and fourth Sundays, and that year, the fourth Sunday was after Christmas). One of the readings that Peter Galbraith had chosen, all unknowing, was the wonderful section early in the Gospel of Luke in which Mary rejoices about being blessed with child. The bit that starts: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his handmaiden. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
I really felt the joy that she must have been feeling. More, I felt exalted, that I was going to participate in the miracle of bringing forth a new life.
More than thirty later, I still believe that becoming a parent was one of the most important events of my life. Being a parent changed me in fundamental ways – from the moment of my son’s birth, there was always someone else to consider, someone else’s needs to take into account, and someone else (later two someone elses) to love and to nurture, and to be overjoyed and frustrated by, in roughly equal measure. Being a parent has been a roller-coaster for me, with wonderful highs and devastating lows, and I would not have missed a day of it. And my precious son is now a step-father himself.
By coincidence (or maybe not, who knows?) the late eighties was also the time in which I first discovered the Quakers, particularly their wonderful Advices and Queries, which, as most of you will know, have had a profound effect on the way I think and live my life. Today, I would like to reflect on two of those advices:
“Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.”
“Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”
I believe that the birth of every child is a new hope, a new light in the world. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of one particular child, more than two thousand years ago, who grew up to have a profound influence in the world, through his teachings and his message and his example. For me, this is the true meaning of Christmas. But today I want to think about the potential for good that is represented by the birth of every child, and also about the inner child that dwells within us all.
The UU teacher and writer Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote, “Each night a child is born is a holy night – a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping.” Yes. This is something I believe so deeply. It is one of the foundations of my Unitarian faith – that the birth of every child should be an occasion for rejoicing, not just that of Jesus. Every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it. Perhaps it is our job as Unitarians to provide the space and the community in which individuals can grow to become the best people they can be, giving them the opportunity to “Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.” If this is so – and I believe it is – every Unitarian congregation and every Unitarian has an awesome responsibility – to nurture that of God, that divine Light, in other people, and in ourselves, so that the world might become a better, kinder, gentler place, in which everyone has enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a place to sleep, and other human basics such as freedom from fear and freedom to grow into their unique and proper selves.
But we cannot do this unless each of us recognises for ourselves that we – you, me, the person you meet in the supermarket – are all “unique, precious, a child of God.” I truly believe that there is a spark of holiness within every human being, “that of God in everyone”, to use the Quakerly phrase. Our job, here on this earth, today and tomorrow, is to recognise that spark, in ourselves, and in each other. This is the same as Jesus’s great injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Love your neighbour as yourself – both parts are vital, because it is not possible to truly love your neighbour unless you first love your true self, your inner child, your spark of the divine.
The late Unitarian minister Simon John Barlow, once wrote, “Commit yourself to nurture your inner holiness / To seek joy wherever it may be found; / To give and receive love every moment of life; / To keep to the paths of beauty, truth and love.” These are quite tall orders. We are all human beings, fallible and broken, but I believe that this injunction to committing ourselves to nurture our inner holiness is a path of hope.
But in order to nurture our inner holiness, we have to be self-aware, and look deep within ourselves. Which can be an uncomfortable process. As I have shared with you before, one of my favourite theologians is the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue, who brought light and insight to Radio 4’s god-slot, Thought for the Day, for so many years. I have most of his books, which I have read and re-read, and was lucky enough to go and see him “live” some years ago. Over the years, he has taught me that the only thing that God wants from us is for us to be more kind, more generous to everyone (including ourselves) and more honest, both with ourselves and our fellow travellers in the world. It is about listening to that inner voice, whether we call it God, or the Light within, or our conscience, and about doing the right thing rather than the easy one. And it is about loving our own inner child, and about recognising and reaching out to, the inner child or spark of the divine of others. I love the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, which means approximately “The divine in me recognises the divine in you”, which I think is beautiful. Imagine how different our world would be, if every person recognised that of the divine in every other person.
So my call to you this Christmas season is to remember two things: first, that each birth is a time of new hope, because the birth of every child is an occasion for rejoicing. As I said earlier, every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it, and it is our responsibility to make it possible for each human being to thrive and to grow into their full potential, recognising the divine spark within themselves and each other.
The second thing is to recognise, and to remember and be aware of, that every life, every human being is “unique, precious, a child of God” and that each one of us can embark on a precious journey of self-discovery, which can lead to spiritual growth and change, and the consequent joy of being in relationship with the divine, and with the rest of humankind.
The mentors who guide us on the journey towards enlightenment will be as varied as we are ourselves. In my case, they include my first minister, Rev. Hilton Birtles, my dear friend, Rev. Linda Hart, one of my Worship Studies Course tutors, Rev. Alex Bradley, and both my spiritual directors. Authors whose books have changed my way of thinking include John O’Donohue, Richard Rohr, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Rev. Forrest Church and the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Hafiz. Each one of you will have different sources of inspiration. Our job is to listen and learn. To paraphrase Simon John’s words, let us “remember our inner holiness in all that we do, and greet the holiness in all those we meet.”.
May this advent season be one of joy for you, and may you recognise the divine Light which dwells within us all. May the light of new hope stir in your hearts, and blessings be on your journeys.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we all recognise the divine
Light within us all,
and may it teach us to reach out
with love to others.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley