The Mystery of Christmas

“The Mystery of Christmas” A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely December 8, 2018 Unitarian Church of Edmonton

When I was small, the first real mystery of Christmas was, “What’s in the box?”  Perhaps it was the same for you.  Unable to read yet and dazzled by the coloured wrapping and the ribbon, the big eyed questions were, “Is that for me?”  “What’s in it?”  and, of course, “Are there any more?”

And I will be honest, I still feel a bit of that thrill every time I see a wrapped present.  But that is a childish and unsophisticated mystery.  Next up would be the mystery of Santa Claus, and how did he do it all in one night? and what was it like to live in the North Pole? and how did he keep all the kids sorted out? and just how did he get down our chimney? (At least we had one, even if I never remember it having a fire in it.)

But, as a child, I never found the story of the Nativity mysterious.  It was as real to me as Whitey my teddy bear.  I had no trouble accepting the exciting and somewhat scary story of Joseph and Mary and the long trip and having a baby in a barn.  Bright stars and angels singing and mysterious wise men with presents made complete sense to me.  After all, Jesus was God.

Sometimes I grieve just a little for the loss of that simple faith and youthful credulity that allowed me to believe the unbelievable.

The thing is, I think this time of year is better if it is mysterious, whether you are a Christian celebrating the son or pagans celebrating the sun or Jews celebrating the miracle of the undying purifying temple lamp.  We are existing in a time of long nights, each themselves carrying some mystery, some little fear perhaps.  Like the Roman god Janus it is a perfect time to look both backwards and forwards.

I think we need to see in the winter holiday season something more than the simple ideas and stories we contemplated as children.  We are wiser and more sophisticated.  Perhaps in this season we should be contemplating mysteries appropriate to our maturing. This contemplation is what makes these holiday stories more meaningful.  In our first reading David Rankin, a UU minister long retired, wrote that no Faith is worthy without the capacity of doubt; that no Hope is possible without the spectre of defeat in the wings; no Love is strong without the dread of loss; no Joy is complete without the certainty of sorrow in the future.  Without those tensions, without those mysteries, the happy sides of the equations become empty.  ‘Frivolity’ and ‘dreaming’ are two of the words he uses to describe this emptiness.

We may each long for those simpler days of times past, if they were indeed ever simple for you, but those days were only fulfilling on a childish level.  The mystery of the wrapped present gave way to the boredom with the soon disused toy.  The magic of Santa Claus soon gave way to observing too many mall Santas, each different from the other. The story of the child’s birth gave way to the contradictory accounts and the echoes of other birth stories drawn from times and cultures long before the Christ child’s appearance.  The whole magic of the winter holiday season gives way to the reality of sometimes unhappy days, of dysfunction in families, of crushing bills when we get swept up in the obligation of holiday giving, of the fact that poverty still exists long after Santa’s Anonymous and Mitten Tree gifts have been distributed.  We need a deeper mystery to ponder.

Don’t get me wrong:  The holiday traditions and the gift giving and looking out for the needs of the less fortunate  are good things, but nothing about this season offers a panacea or a solution to the real issues that face us and the society in which we live.

This is the second Sunday of Advent a season of anticipation, for contemplating the ‘coming’.  In traditional religion it is meant as a time of preparing ourselves to be worthy of the gift of the Christ child.  

But too often it’s really about getting ready to meet expectations of families and friends, of getting ready for parties and meals and travel while trying to squeeze some meaning out of a concert, a film or a carol singing evening.  It’s about tending to the mysteries of the child like variety with which I began, the packages and the stories and the half eaten carrots left by the empty plate of cookies and milk.

For the few minutes left to us today, I invite you to contemplate the other mysteries, the adult ones.  Mysteries of faith and love and purpose. 

Perhaps the real mystery of the season is the faint reminder, often lost among the carols and silver bells, that each one of us is waiting for something.  It could be the starting of life, or its ending, or the starting of life over again after some heartbreak or setback.

It could be that we are feeling a certain stuckness in our lives and are just waiting for something to happen…anything!

It could be that we are waiting to finish something, a school program, a course of medical treatment, a working career or just a job we hate.

In the second reading Sarah Schurr tuned the contemplation of the season in a different direction.  She asked the simple question of, “Who is your Emmanuel?  Who is your ‘God is with us,’ the one you were promised, the one you have been waiting for?”

Two ways to contemplate this idea of Emmanuel – God with us- occur to me.

On the one hand Emmanuel can be taking that next step, accepting that next thing to come our way and dealing with it head on, whether it’s a reward or a challenge.  It could be a new quality of life that we want so much that we can taste it- it makes us tingle.  Emmanuel might be working out the steps of how to get there, developing a plan.

The tradition of Advent is about anticipation, yes, but part of anticipation is preparing ourselves for this new thing that is coming towards us.  We have to make ourselves ready and worthy of change.  Soon to be parents have to make space in their homes and their lves for this new child.  People wanting to move on in their workplace have to practice new skills and develop networks that will make it possible.  People facing then end of their working years have to plan for what they will do with their time and energy, decide how and where they will live and so on.  A mystery of Advent is preparing ourselves for our Emmanuel.

Another key aspect of the notion of Emmanuel is the ‘with us’ part.  Sometimes we get so involved in anticipating what might be coming next that we miss out on what’s going on around us right now.  How often do we forget to notice the familiar and sustaining parts of our lives, simply because they are always there?  It’s easy to get so engaged with the future that we miss there here and now.

So, what is there right now that you might be ignoring or taking for granted?  What would make your life poorer if it was not there?  Maybe you are so weighed down by health concerns, physical and emotional, that you fail to notice the good days when they come.  Maybe you are so engaged in that next achievement that you miss the rich moments of today…you forget to stop to smell the pine needles on the tree.

Preparing also means “Look to this day, for it is the very life of life” as Tagore tells us.

When I think back to those long ago mysterious Christmas boxes, I don’t recall much of what they contained.  Instead I remember what came before Christmas: Dad and brother Marty bringing in the fragrant Christmas tree; my elder sister Maureen leading the work of decorating it; being awarded the job of setting up the Christmas nativity scene in the fireplace- that somehow Santa managed to avoid knocking over in the course of his work; and of course, Bing Crosby’s Christmas album and the smell of Mom’s shortbread.

Sometimes Emmanuel is already here