Christmas Eve Message

From Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– December 24, 2001 –

 

Reading: "Giovanni's Gifts - Take Joy!" by Fra Giovanni

There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, vegry much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven!

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy!

There is a radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by the covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy, or hard.

Know the covering, and you fill find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel's hand is there: the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty — beneath its covering — that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage then to claim it; that is all!

But courage you have; and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you.

Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever,

the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

 

Special Music: "I Wonder as I Wander"

"I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus our Savior did come for to die
For poor orn'ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
When Mary birthed Jesus was in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from the heaven's a star's light did fall
and the promise of ages it then did recall."

 

Christmas Eve Homily, 2001 (by Barbara Wells)

I have often wondered why this so very sad song is sung at Christmas. During this season of joy we usually sing happy songs, like Hark the Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, Joy to the World. These songs call to mind a happy birth, and the images that come to me when I sing them are of the sweet mother Mary holding her perfect infant son.

But this song–"I wonder as I wander out under the sky/How Jesus our Savior did come for to die"–this song, while it sings a little about birth, is really about death. And instead of conjuring joyous visions of sugarplums or angels or a beautiful mother and infant child, it brings to mind a different picture. For me, it evokes a vision of the pieta, the famous statue by Michaelangelo, of Mary holding the body of her dead adult son, her grief palpable and her pain enormous.

This song and the images it evokes tell the dark truth of the Christmas story. While each year we sing of the birth of Jesus, this sad tune reminds us how the story ends. It ends, as all human stories end, in death.

It was the events of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war that got me thinking about death and loss. Where is the meaning in this kind of enormous tragedy? In any loss? Is it, as Mayor Guiliani said on that fateful day, more than we can bear? Tragic death, destruction and war are so present in our lives this holiday season. Is it any wonder the images of loss and pain may fill our hearts to breaking? Where is the hope? Where is the joy this December? At times it has seemed impossible to feel any at all.

When I carry the weight of loss on my heart, I often turn to poetry. This year I was drawn to the simple poem written by Fra Giovanni read earlier. I believe it contains within its lines an important message. "Take joy!" it says to us. Take peace and heaven, too! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Look underneath the covering and you will find all that you seek.

In years past this reading did little for me. It seemed naive, simple, maybe even foolish. But death always teaches us about life, and the events of Sept. 11 have taught me something of the joy found beneath the sorrow. I now find this reading very powerful, as it reminds me to seize the joy of life even in the midst of shadow and loss.

Forrest Church, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author, has said that "Religion is our response to the dual reality of being born and having to die." Church writes, "because we know we are going to die, we question what life means…for most of us, knowing we are mortal inspires a search for answers that will remain valid in spite of our mortality." He concludes, "the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for."

At this season, when we gather in memory of one who was born and lived and changed the world with his love, but who was also hated and killed, we can’t help but acknowledge the paradox of creation. Life can only exist hand in hand with death. "Joy and woe are woven fine," wrote William Blake. Loss and joy, tears and laughter, life and death–all are partners in this dance. We can let the knowledge of pain and grief overtake us and become bitter and angry at the price we must pay for love and for life. Or, we can face the inevitable struggles with open eyes and hearts. We can "take joy!" if we choose.

Take joy! I love Fra Giovanni's imperative. Take it! Don't wait and wonder if it's coming, go forth and find it! Find it in your love for others. Find it in the stars at night. Find it in music and art and dance and theatre. Find it in the loving hands of a grandmother. Find it in the faces of those who put their lives at risk to help another. Find it in your heart when you look at a child.

Can we do that? Can we live our lives with joy in the midst of the loss and suffering that is the common denominator of all human existence? This season is a good time to ask ourselves that question. For there is a reason that Christmas comes in December and it's not because Jesus was born on Dec. 25! We celebrate Christmas in the winter because for generations our ancestors have known that it is at the darkest time of year that we need to recognize the light of hope. Because it is a season of death and endings, we need to celebrate birth and beginnings. That is the natural way of things. When the world is so dark around us, we are called to look toward the light, to balance the pain with joy.

So let us take joy! Let us take joy even as we know of pain and loss. Let us take peace even as we know of wars and rumors of wars. Let us take heaven even as we know of the hell that can exist among us. For to open our hearts to such joy and peace and heaven is to discover the truth of this season: underneath the shadows of life there lies a blessing: love is born and reborn season after season, generation after generation. This is the real message of the angels. Not that one man was born who will take away our pain but rather that each human being who is born can find joy even in the face of pain–if we choose to love.

It is never too late to take joy. It is never too late to live. It is never too late to love.

At this holiday season, I wish for you a deep joy. I wish for you a joy that can find meaning in loss. That can discover hope in the midst of despair. That can celebrate life in the presence of death. Take joy! And may you be blessed by its gifts.

Amen.

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