Sunday, December 2, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday December 2nd 2007

READING: "Feast Days," from Tickets for a Prayer Wheel by Annie Dillard

Let me mention
one or two things about Christmas.
Of course you've all heard
that the animals talk
at midnight:
a particular elk, for instance,
kneeling at night to drink,
leaning tall to pull leaves
with his soft lips,
says, alleluia.

That the soil and fresh-water lakes
also rejoice,
as do products
such as sweaters
(nor are plastics excluded
from grace),
is less well known.
the reason
for some silly-looking fishes,
for the bizarre mating
of certain adult insects,
or the sprouting, say,
in a snow tire
of a Rocky Mountain grass,
is that the universal
loves the particular,
that freedom loves to live
and live flesh full,
and in detail.

God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion

[extemporaneous introduction]

I grew up in what I suppose one might think of as a nominally Catholic neighborhood. Most of my playmates had names like Ridley, O'Hare, Callahan; and they were never available to play on Wednesday afternoons because it conflicted with their catechism classes. The smell of macaroni and cheese wafted through the air on Friday evenings; conversations were ripe with references to nuns, confession, and who had given whom their Saint Christopher medal; and the season of Lent was serious business — there was no candy or ice cream to be found anywhere on our block, except perhaps at my house, making me a pretty popular kid for the six weeks prior to Easter.

Of course, these are just the perceptions of a twelve year old child nearly four decades ago now. But to my mind then, there were a lot of advantages to being the only Unitarian-Universalist family in a neighborhood such as this. We went to the library on Wednesday afternoons, often ate steak for Friday dinner (when my dad would return home from a week of business travel), and I never had to worry about how much of my private life I ought to reveal each week to the man dressed in black in the little box, sitting behind a screen like the Wizard of Oz.

But every year as the month of December rolled around, I began to wonder whether I might be missing out on something: the Advent wreaths, with their four purple candles and the solitary white one; the Advent calendars, with those amazing little windows — one window for each day that remained in the countdown to Christmas. I was fascinated by those windows, with their tiny paper shutters; and behind each and every shutter, something different, something special, there in the window. And each window more amazing than the previous one; and oh! — what a privilege to be the child selected to open the window for the day!

I recall one year, after much urging on my part, my parents broke down brought home an Advent calendar for our family. I could hardly wait! In fact, I didn't wait: as soon as I was alone in the house I opened all of the little shutters on the very first day, and then had to try to close them up again so my parents wouldn't notice (which of course they did). But it didn't make any difference; the magic had already gone out of the thing anyway: the anticipation, the mystery, had disappeared.

I suppose that had I actually been reared a Catholic, I would have gone to confession years ago and told the priest in the box about my little indiscretion, and that would have been the end of it. Instead, I recall this memory every Advent season, and reflect upon my youthful impatience, and the priceless gift it stole from me. As Unitarian Universalist kids we studied ALL of the winter "Holy Days" in our Sunday School classes this time of year. We learned about Hanukkah, and various other winter "festivals of light" — it really wasn't all that different from being in the public schools, only better and more fun. And yet, there was a strangeness to it all as well — a feeling, almost, of being on the outside looking in. We might overhear adults complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas, but where was the "holiness" to replace the secular holiday? We went to elaborate parties, and were thoroughly "entertained," but would we have actually offered hospitality to a pregnant woman far from home? Food and football and family obligations; shopping and snowmen and time off from school — the holiday season was defined by its possibilities for sloth, avarice and gluttony, rather than by qualities of any particular religious significance.

In the secular world, the holiday season begins Thanksgiving Day, with its parades, its traditional football rivalries, and of course, “Black Friday, and the big Mall and Department store sales which begin the countdown of "shopping days" til “Xmas.” And it ends, at last, on New Year's Day, with one final blow-out party, more parades and more football games, and a plethora of unkept promises that somehow this next year will be different than the last.

But within the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, the four weeks prior to Christmas are known as the season of Advent, and harbor a far different connotation. The word "Advent" comes from the Latin adventus and means "to" or "toward [the] Coming." Interestingly enough, it's the same Latin root as our English word "adventure," which my Webster's defines as "a bold undertaking in which hazards are to be encountered and the issue staked upon unforseen events" In the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, the four weeks of Advent are a time both of joyous anticipation for the birth of the child Christ, and also of solemn preparation for the unforseen "Second Coming" at the end of time, when all the world shall be judged.

In the Medieval Church, Advent was observed with the same strict penitence as Lent, and even today Roman Catholicism prohibits the solemnization of marriage during this period. It's this mythic tension between the physical presence of the deity here in this world, in the innocent form of an infant child; and the ultimate sovereignty of Divine Creation and Judgement, which gives this season it's peculiar ethos: We look toward the Coming of we know not what, in anticipation and fear of a transformation for which we can never be fully ready or prepared....

“God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion...”

My very favorite holiday movie of all time is still Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Jimmy Stewart plays a character by the name of George Bailey, who sacrifices his ambitions of a college education and world travel in order to remain in the tiny town of Bedford Falls and manage the Bailey Building and Loan following the untimely death of his father. You’ve all seen this movie, right? I mean, none of you have been living on another planet for the past 50 years. At the critical turning point of the story, as George is about to commit suicide by leaping from a bridge, he is given an opportunity, by a rather amusing yet inept Angel Second Class named Clarence, to see what this little town would have been like had George Bailey never been born. All the lives he had touched, all the people he had helped, all of the good that he had done, suddenly become conspicuous through their absence — and George comes to see that despite the difficulties, despite the frustration, despite the disappointment and even the dispair, he really did have a wonderful life.

Not many of us are given this kind of opportunity: to open up a little window and see the effect of our lives upon the world, the multitude of ways in which that tiny spark of the divine within us all exerts its influence for the good on those around us. A little piece of God in human form, "dying, rising, walking, and still walking wherever there is motion." No doubt we see it first more easily in others than we do within ourselves. But this is the message of the Advent season: the coming of light into the world, the coming of goodness into the world, the opening of a shuttered window, which allows us a glimpse our own potential divinity, reflected in the face of an innocent child; yet which also calls us simultaneously to accountability for that gift in the instant that it is revealed to us. Will you chose a wonderful life? Or will you hide your lamp under a bushel, prefering to curse the darkness than to light a single candle?

Many Unitarian Universalists, I find, are uncomfortable with the mythic dimensions of religious meaning. We like the tangible, the pragmatic, the rational; all this heavy-handed symbolism leaves us feeling a little uneasy in the stomach. We scoff at the notion of an infant God, a virgin birth, of angels, and astrologers who left their homes and followed a star in the sky to a distant land. We prefer to speak of the coincidence between the Christmas season and the winter solstice, or to trace the evolution of the holiday and identify its cross-cultural parallels; we want to throw open all the windows at once and shine the light of reason into every nook and cranny. All too often we seem to forget that much of the meaning is in the waiting, the preparing, the anticipation — that as we allow the story to unfold at its own speed, as we participate in it in "mythic time," other levels of meaning are revealed to us which are not readily comprehensible to the analytical mind.

We're always in such a hurry! We have shopping to do and packages to wrap, cards to write, meals to cook and cookies to bake — at times it seems as though we'll never get caught up. Yet in our haste to get everything under control the real opportunities often pass us by; or rather, are quickly left behind in the whirlwind of activity to get it all done. Jesus built furniture in Nazareth for thirty years before he did anything truly worthy of remembrance! Insight in particular is not always the product of a linear process; more often our learning tends to be circular, as we return again and again to that which initially sparked our curiosity, only to discover that we understand it a little better each time. Time is meaningless when it comes to Truth. Let the story speak to you in its own voice, in its own language, on its own terms, and eventually the message, in its own good time, will become crystal-clear.

Christmas is an invitation to participate in a miracle: a miracle of change, of growth, of renewal and transformation — but mostly a miracle of possibility and hope, the promise of a thing rather than the thing itself. It's the drama of a child born in a stable to a very special destiny, and the anticipation of that destiny by those who may never live to see its fulfillment, but who nevertheless take the time to respond to the call for preparation. Is this the child who has been born king of the Jews, the Messiah, the Christ, sleeping in a feed trough in the midst of all these animals? And this is the mother, this naive teenaged girl, who swears she's never been with a man? From unlikely origins comes the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, to preach the Good News that we, too, are God's children, inheritors of a special destiny regardless of the circumstances of our birth or background.

The story of Advent is the story of the Adventure of Life: that "bold undertaking in which hazards are to be encountered, and the issue staked upon unforseen events." It is a lesson in learning to wait upon the unknown; a lesson in the suspense of disbelief and the confidence of hope, of patient trust in the process of living between the margins of our accidental birth and our inevitable mortality. It teaches us to open the shutters one window at a time, and fully savor the vision which we find there: a promise, a potential yet to be realized, a helpless child who will someday become a most remarkable adult, and reveal to the world an authentic glimpse of the divine....