Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Linda Hart
The travellers had come a long way, and had a long way yet to go. Unable to come off the donkey without her husband’s assistance, and the grace of a large stone, still she came down, one hand to her back feeling the ache throughout her body. The child in her belly kicked, and made her draw a quick breath.
Leaning heavily on Joseph’s arm, Mary picked her way along the path. Others on the road had told them that here they might find a spring, with water so cold it would hurt their teeth. Here, they might find a place of shelter and calm where they could bed down for the night.
Here we come too, to find a moment of refreshment and rest from our journeys.
No matter where you are going on your journey,
No matter if it is your choice to go, or if you left by far-away edict,
No matter if you carry a burden or the deepest of joys,
No matter how weary and thirsty you may be,
Take a quiet breath.
Rest in peacefulness,
Be renewed and restored.
For in a short while, the journey will continue, with its worries and troubles and joys and promise.
Until then, let us join together, minds and hearts, and worship.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). Words by Cliff Reed.
For millennia beyond count,
in winter’s cold and night’s darkness,
people have gathered around fire,
feeling its warmth, seeing by its light,
forging community with food and work
and songs and stories.
In all the faith traditions of our kind,
fire has its meaning. And so we gather
round this candle’s flame, sharers all
in the human spirit that makes us one.
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 Christmas Credo by Cliff Reed
I believe that there is light in darkness. I believe that there is truth in myth. I believe that there is divinity in every birth. I believe that we must heed the angels’ song. I believe that we must welcome the Christ-child, for he is every child, the world’s future.
I believe we must admit that Herod is real, that his soldiers are real, that the closed hearts of Bethlehem are real – real in our world and real in us. I believe we must remember this at Christmas, yet not lose hope.
I believe that we must seek the heart of Christmas – its joyous love, its star-lit mystery, its peaceful pleasures. Find these and we find its power. I believe this power can redeem us – open the heart’s doors to divine innocence.
I believe that Herod can be defeated, that Scrooge can be healed, that our humanity can enflesh the loving, living God.
I believe that this is the meaning of Christmas.
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. Amen
Reading Unitarians and Christmas – A Thanksgiving, part 1, by Cliff Reed
At Christmas, we give thanks for the birth of Jesus – whenever that actually was!
And we give thanks for all that he said and did for the salvation of the human spirit, which he shared with us.
We give thanks for all the poets, musicians, and mythmakers who, down the centuries, have given us the means with which to deepen our devotions and kindle our imaginations at this sacred time.
And because we stand in the tradition of a liberal faith, we give thanks for what our predecessors have added to the season’s treasury.
We think of John Milton and his poem, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which bids us ‘join with thy voice unto the Angel Quire’ and greet the infant Lord ‘with hallowed fire’.
We think of Coleridge and his Religious Musings one Christmas Eve, when he wrote, ‘I seem to view the vision of the heavenly multitude, who hymned the song of peace o’er Bethlehem’s fields!’
And we think of Charles Dickens – how could we not! – with his Christmas Carol, and all those other Christmas books and stories; his own re-telling of the Nativity; his declaration that ‘There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas.’
Prayer A Christmas Card Psalm by Edward Hays (adapted)
O you who showered sacred stars on the tiny town of Bethlehem,
We thank you for guiding artist’s brushes to create cards of beauty, bursting with blessings, and filled with love and greetings from friends.
We lift up our hearts in gratitude for these beautiful yearly bridges that bind us together in love, we who are often too busy for keeping up with friendship’s needs.
Opened Christmas cards hum to us the hymn of love and teach us the sacrament of correspondence.
Tie about the finger of our minds, Beloved One, a reminder that without reminders, friendship fades from the failure to express words of love and appreciation to one another.
May these magical days of Christmas inspire us to celebrate the un-holidays of the year, the feasts of no-occasions, with love notes to friends who are far away.
Sacred season of Christmas, gift us with the magical power to stop the clock, so as to keep God alive within the world.
For if God is love, then God may be found in the mystery of love exchanged.
May we be messengers of that holy mystery. Amen
Reading Unitarians and Christmas – A Thanksgiving, part 2, by Cliff Reed (adapted)
We make our own these words of Dickens: ‘Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance’.
Dickens writes of ‘a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree.’ Prince Albert gave England this ‘pretty toy’, but it’s said that a Unitarian minister, Charles Follen, took it to America.
We read to our children Beatrix Potter’s little book, The Tailor of Gloucester, where ‘…all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning’, and when ‘From all the roofs and gables in the old wooden houses came merry voices singing the old Christmas rhymes.’
We sing the stirring words of Edmund Hamilton Sears’ hymn, It came upon the midnight clear and Longfellow’s great poem, I heard the bells on Christmas Day, with gratitude for these and for all in our tradition who have added to the seasonal store of hymns and carols in which we delight.
At Christmas, we give thanks for the birth of Jesus, our brother. We give thanks for the chance to celebrate this bright festival in the darkness of the year.
And we give thanks for everyone who has added to its holiness, its joy, and its glorious light.
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Christine Robinson (adapted)
Let us join our hearts and minds together in the spirit of peace and love.
May these moments of quiet lead us to the heart of the season, which is peace.
May we breathe deeply of peace in this quiet place, relax into its warmth, know we are safe here, and let us open our hearts to the Christmas story.
Like the harried innkeeper, may we find ways to be of help to others.
Like the wandering couple, may we find that our greatest trials issue forth from our greatest joys.
Like the lumbering beasts, may we be silent witnesses to the unfathomable glory of life.
Like the shepherds on the hill, may we know that we need never be afraid.
Like the journeying wise, may we always have the courage to follow our stars.
Like the angels, may we cry peace to a troubled world.
Holy one, to these prayers for our own transformation we add our prayers for all of those who suffer and grieve this morning. May they find comfort. And we add our prayers for all those involved in war; may they be safe. And may this season of peace and goodwill nudge our world towards its ideals, for then will Christmas truly dawn.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Christmas Service 1
At this time of year, only a week before Christmas Day, many of us will be blatting round like the proverbial blue-bottomed flies, buying presents, sending cards (with little hope that they will arrive in time, if we’ve left it this late!), buying turkeys and making the hearts of the supermarket shareholders glad by spending our hard-earned cash on excessive amounts of food and drink to see us through the festive season. Then, when Christmas Day has come and gone, many of us will end up with post-Christmas indigestion – too much food, too much to drink, too much everything. I don’t know about you, but much as I enjoy the Christmas season, I also look forward to “getting back to normal” again.
Christmas is also the time of the year when all the charities go into overdrive. It is the season of goodwill when people are more inclined to respond favourably to pleas for donations for good causes. The first Christmas catalogues plopped through my letterbox way back in August. I buy most of my Christmas presents from them, as well as all my cards.
So Christmas is a time of joy, of goodwill, of charitable thoughts and deeds. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Or is it? No, of course it’s not. We (or most of us) are the lucky ones – we have family and friends who love and care for us, with whom we can share the joys of the season. But not everyone is so fortunate. Christmas has a darker, largely unacknowledged side. Unaccustomed proximity can lead to bitter family arguments and breakdowns in relationships. And there are also so many lonely people who simply don’t have anyone to share Christmas with, and who wouldn’t feel like celebrating even if they did. For such people, the contrast between their lives and the Christmas projected through the media can exacerbate feelings of isolation, panic, stress and depression. For them, Christmas is a season to be got through somehow, not a time of joy and sharing. And even people who are spending the time with friends or family may feel pressured to appear happy and to hide their true feelings or problems so as not to spoil the party atmosphere.
The Christian message, which the Bible tells us Jesus preached – love God, love your neighbour and don’t forget to love yourself – is a crucially important one in this mad world of ours. If Christmas, the festival in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, that great prophet and wise leader, reminds people of this great truth, which is common to all religions, then I’m all for it. But the message can get a bit lost in the commercial frenzy which seems to surround Christmas these days. And I truly believe that it is a message we need to remember, and act upon, all the year round, not just at Christmas.
The teachings and example of Jesus are amazing. This man, born over 2000 years ago, somehow saw to the heart of things. To quote Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of a Unitarian, “Jesus has shown what spiritual heights are possible to man when he is faithful to the noblest ideals. … In the teachings of Jesus there is a note of joy, the belief that life is good and the provision which God has made for it generous, if men would use it aright, and the definite, ringing message that God cares for every human being, and loves each one with a love that will never let him go. … He has also taught us that the basis of human society must be that of generous good-will. He emphasised this so strongly that he urged men to love their enemies. In other words, he declared that each individual is to have the highest motives in his dealings with his fellow-men, and every group in its relationships with other groups must be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect.” It’s quite a message.
I think the important thing that we need to do is to take the message of Jesus, and act on it in our daily lives. One of my favourite Unitarian authors, the UU minister Victoria Weinstein, wrote a lovely poem about this called Being the Resurrection which I would like to share with you (it was originally written to be shared at Easter, but I think it is just as relevant all the year round):
“The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year.
Roll up your sleeves.
He is not coming back, you know.
He is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him
We who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he did
on his behalf —
We who rage for righteousness in his insistent voice
We who love the sinner, even knowing that “the sinner” is no farther off than our own heartbeat.
He will not be back to join us at the table
To share God’s extravagant banquet
God’s love feast, all are invited, come as you are
And so it is you and I who must feast for him
Must say the grace and break the bread and pass it to the left
and dish up the broiled fish (or pour the wine) and pass it to the right.
And treat each one so tenderly
as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort
to make it back from heaven, or from hell
but certainly from death
to be by our side.
Because if by some miracle (and why not a miracle?)
He did come back
Wouldn’t he want to see us like this?
Wouldn’t it be a miracle to live for just one day
So that if he did, by some amazing feat
come riding into town
He could take a look around and say
“This is what I meant!”
And we could say
it took us a long time…
but we finally figured it out.
Oh, let us live to make it so.
We are the resurrection and the life.”
Yes. We are the people who can make a difference, who can turn Jesus’s message into action. I would like to think that we are all fairly socially-aware people, who do what we can to make the world a better place, but is that enough? I can only speak for myself, but I am well aware that I can be jogged into doing that little bit extra if I am reminded by someone else. It’s not so easy to be your own conscience, and to remember to give that little bit more all the year round. But we can surely try.
I recently came across a beautiful Prayer for the spirit of service. I’d like to share part of it with you, if I may, to remind us of the true spirit of giving:
“Take from us the love of ease and the fear of men, and show us the simple things that we can do to help our neighbours. Brighten the daily round of tasks that we have undertaken and are tempted to neglect; make us faithful to the trust that life has put upon us; keep us steadfast in the humblest duty. Prepare our hearts in sympathy to be partners in suffering with the weak, in eager service with the strong. By thy love restrain our censorious speech and teach us to commend; by thy wisdom enlighten our plans and direct our endeavours for the common weal. ”
At the beginning of this address, I said that after Christmas I am usually quite glad to be getting “back to normal” again. This year, let’s try to go one better. Let us all resolve to give more of ourselves all the year round, not just at Christmastime. It needn’t be something big or difficult, but doing a little extra for somebody else on a regular basis could make a huge difference to their lives. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in his wonderful reflection on giving, “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” And the pleasure that can be found in helping someone else is its own reward.
And as the two readings by Cliff Reed about Unitarians and Christmas showed, many of our forbears led by example, sharing the true spirit of Christmas through their writings. And as he wrote in his beautiful Christmas Credo, “I believe that we must seek the heart of Christmas – its joyous love, its star-lit mystery, its peaceful pleasures. Find these and we find its power. I believe this power can redeem us – open the heart’s doors to divine innocence.”
May it be so for us too, this Christmastide.
Spirit of Life and Love,
may we think of others before ourselves
and may we follow our stars
into a brighter future.
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