Christmas Eve 2022


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 24, 2022

Joy to the world!

Can you feel it? Bright lights against the unanticipated cold. Festive songs, flickering candles, cider, cookies, stories of miracles and poems that attend to “[t]he starry form of love”… Christmas and the winter holidays are here.

Joy to the world!

Christmas and the winter holidays are a complicated time. The emotions, the myths, the memories, the range of experiences that people have of them are vast.

The traditional rendering of the Christmas tale hits almost every note. There is the difficult circumstances and desperation faced by an undocumented migrant family seeking shelter from an oppressive regime. That, after all, is what the Gospel of Matthew recounts when it describes Mary, Joseph, and their family seeking shelter from Herod in Egypt even as he sends spies out to hunt them. In the text I note that the magi, our translation called them “astrologers,” were supposed to return to Herod with reports on the location of Jesus.

There is poverty. Jesus is born in a manger or, alternatively, a cave. His parents cannot find a proper room in an inn. Mary had no birthing bed.

There is isolation. In some accounts, Joseph leaves Mary alone while he searches for a midwife. In all of them, she gives birth far from the couple’s family and friends.

And yet, there is a joy! A text like the Gospel of Luke describes ecstasy on a cosmic level. The very heavenly host opens up and burst forth.

And there is joy, the joy of parents in a new birth, the joy of new life coming into being, the joy of generation succeeding generation.

Joy to the world!

I suspect that if your life is anything like mine your remembrances and experiences of this time of year contain quite a mix. My recollections of Christmas’s past contain numerous echoes. There is: the pleasure my brother and I took as children in the glittering pine; the last time I went to tree farm with my grandfather; riding on a hay truck at a cider farm through snow and cold; the end of my marriage to my son’s mother; wonderful meals shared with my family in my parents’ Michigan home; crackling fires; the occasional holiday spent largely by myself; the first Christmas Eve service I shared with you; two years ago, the strangeness of preaching to an empty sanctuary and then bringing it to light with hundreds of candles; and now… so many memories.

I am almost certain that each one of you, no matter your age, brings a similarly complex Christmas set into this sanctuary. The last few Christmases have been singularly strange. It is possible that you spent them in isolation. It might be that this is the first time since the pandemic that you have felt comfortable coming to a Christmas Eve service. It could be that you are still not comfortable doing so and that you have elected to watch this service from home.

What is true for you? What memories and Christmas hopes have come to sit with you this evening?

Joy to the world!

It would be wrong to call the last two Christmases as anything other than weird. They have been filled with uncertainty, civic discord, public and private stress.

Every year, when I prepare my Christmas Eve homily I try to listen intently to the news of the world. That news can be quite dour. Sometimes it seems particularly important to emphasize that Jesus was a person of color, that he was undocumented, that he was opposed to Empire and the established religions of his day.

Other times, it feels necessary to recount the great human miracles of the season. It appears to be almost a requirement to bring what William Morris named the news from nowhere, descriptions of the good that could be but is not. Against the stupidity of the war in Ukraine we might recall the Christmas Truce of 1914. That year English and German soldiers put down their guns, climbed out of their trenches, and walked across no man’s land to exchange holiday cheer, join together in carols, and even play games of soccer.

Or we might invoke the imagined miracles of the Unitarian poet William Carlos Williams. He described the power of the season’s story as so great that it could cause “the devils” to retreat “in confusion.” He conjured visions “of the god of love” so infused with compassion for the world that the flight of the devils was a form of “praise.”

My prayers are ever tinged with the hopes of such miracles. And yet, as I have considered the strangeness of this particular Christmas–the Christmas of 2022, not some other–I have not found myself not dwelling upon the need to speak of justice or call upon the human power to create the miraculous. Those are always there.

But so too is another message: Joy to the world!

This is what I find myself desiring this season: joy. It has been a difficult several years. What I seek this night and what I will seek tomorrow are glimpses of the ever present joy of the world. I can delight in them now. They can sustain me through future troubles.

Do you find yourself thirsting for a similar kind of joy this holiday season? If so, a message we might take from the traditional tale is that joy is woven into the fabric of the universe. Maybe we might not always be able to find it. And surely we must admit that it does not comprise all of existence. But someplace, there is joy. The joy of the heavenly hosts. The joy of life continuing. The joy of dreaming of a better world. Sometimes it is my joy. Other times it might be your joy or the joy of a stranger. It is present in poetry of the stars themselves and the always latent possibilities that await. Joy!

When I speak of the joy entwined with the cosmos, I am not speaking of the joy found in the season’s gift giving or consumerism. I am not even referring to the joy to be discovered as we share time with family and friends–the excitement of children, a peaceful and festive holiday table, or long delayed reunions.

Those kinds of joys can sometimes be hard to find. Maybe they are distant for you this Christmas Eve. If they are, the lessons and carols of the season should remind us that there is another kind of joy present. In text after text, we read:

“My soul is magnified to-day, for my eyes have seen wonderful things”;
“Touch us alive, developing light! Today, / Revealed over the mountains, every living eyes.”;
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.”
“I feel fine and clear this morning even
when it’s night and a full moon with my thumbprint
on it.”

Joy to the world!

It is the joy of the beauty of the world itself.

Recently, I had occasion to be reminded of the presence of this joy. It has long been my habit to visit members of the congregation I serve who are sick or shut in, ill or alone, at this time of year. For obvious reasons, it has been difficult for Rev. Scott to do this in the last couple of years.

This year, we were able to resume the habit. Wednesday and Friday found me in the highly unusual situation of driving a car around the city as I visited homes and retirement communities.

It was on one of these visits that I was reminded of the joy to be found in the beauty of the world itself. I was with a longtime member whose health is such that she cannot services or get out very much at all. Our friend is a very cosmopolitan person. She loves the arts. She loves poetry.

But her world is getting smaller and smaller. She can do less and less. Even simple things that used to give her pleasure are now beyond her reach. Gardening is a risk because it might expose her to fungi or bacteria. She used to love to garden–to get her hands into the soil, to feel the velvet of stalk and petal, to catch the aroma of finger pinched herbs. Now, the best she can do is encourage others in their gardening.

Before the freeze our friend found herself outside by a garden that they helped to build. It needed to be covered against the cold. But she could not even do that. She could only stand there and watch as the plants were being wrapped in plastic.

Now, here’s the thing. Here’s the joy. Our friend told me that she could have found the experience to be a frustrating one–an all to harsh reminder of the diminishing of her sphere. But instead, she could only think of the beauty to be had in the way the wind kept catching the plastic. Pointing out the window, she directed my attention to it and there it was–like the foaming of the ocean, the crashing of cresting waves upon a beach. And there she was. With brightly smiling eyes and a lilt in her voice and a reminder that the joy to be found in the structure of reality itself.

Yes, the winter holiday season and Christmas are complicated. The traditional story contains much of the breath of the human experience There is Empire and resistance, fear and love. Our own lives are such that there are so many memories–delightful and disappointing, saddening and satisfying–that we accumulate.

The message I want to lift up this Christmas is the simple one of the season’s joy. I shared our friend’s story because she reminded me it is available to all of us. It can be found in the wind itself; in the chill of the air, in the reminder that the sun, the stars, the Earth, the weather worn flowers and wilted plants contain much beauty and can offer us abundant joy.

And so, that is what I offer you this Christmas Eve.

Joy to the world!
Joy to the world!

May you find much joy in this world.

Merry Christmas and much love to you.


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