as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, online service, December 24, 2020
“We wish you a normal Christmas.” The words on the billboard were meant to inspire a bit of pandemic holiday cheer. “We wish you a normal Christmas,” a play off one of the most beloved Christmas carols. “We wish you a normal Christmas,” a plea for something familiar in this plague ridden year with its masks and isolation and illness and death and poverty and hunger and want and evictions and more wealth for the wealthiest and political hate and corporate cruelty and racist violence and…
“We wish you a normal Christmas,” I must admit that I would like this Christmas to resemble a Christmas from the before times. Some things seem as they should be: in my living room, a small–some might call it a Charlie Brown–tree, bedecked with two twinkling strings of lights and a handful of ornaments–a few have memories attached, a white spotted green mushroom and a fabric letter, my son’s first initial, both family gifts, but most are generic glass balls, the kind that dance in the dark; in my refrigerator, a merry jar of aged alcohol laced eggnog–with its nutmeg hinted fruity scent; and on the counter rather too many Christmas cookies and a box of peanut brittle.
But the familiar is illusory. I will not be traveling for Christmas. I will not be celebrating with my parents or my brother or my daughter in person. I have not been in the same room as any member of my family other than my son since March. Nor have I been in the same room with any of you since then. The communal has been almost reduced to a mirage in an effort to escape the communicable. And while in our service, the “old familiar carols play” they do so in ersatz audio–masterful mixology blending together dozens of individual tracks to create a delightful choral illusion.
How are you celebrating this strange holy day? What of your customs have you managed to retain amid the heartbreak and horror? Has it been possible in this preverse period of pestilence for you to hold onto some things that might make this a normal Christmas? Perhaps you are watching this in your home sitting by your own tree adorned with familial ornaments. It might be that you follow our Christmas Eve service with some version of your traditional dinner–albeit in reduced form–and are sipping a bit of eggnog of your own. Wherever you are, I wish you good cheer.
Whatever you are doing I want to suggest that the spirit of the billboard has it quite wrong. We should not “wish you a normal Christmas.” The entirety of the matter is supposed to hinge upon its abnormality. The Christmas story is a scandal that should awaken us to other scandals.
Most of us know at least the sketch of the myth. The structure of our service, with its lessons and carols, is meant to remind of its scandalous beginning. The birth of a great leader, a powerful teacher, a prophet, perhaps the messiah, is foretold. Who this child was and what his life meant is unclear but his arrival is prophesied by a star, heralded by shepherds, and celebrated by the wisest.
The scandal is not the ambiguity of his nature. The Christian New Testament encourages us to embrace that. There we find him repeatedly asking his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” and never entirely answering his own question. Joseph found Jesus’s nature so confusing that when it was revealed to him he looked at the very “vault of heaven, and saw it standing still.”
Other scriptures and other people have attempted to resolve the ambiguity. The Quran teaches that he was “a holy son” but not does place the child on the same level of divinity as God. Trinitarians have other ideas–claiming that this child was none other than God herself masquerading as mortal man. Our Unitarian religious ancestors thought he was someone who inspired other humans to find within the likeness to God–the possibility of ever improving our character–that flickers within each of us. And our Universalist religious forbearers understood him as an individual who might goad us into recalling the great truth of life, which the nineteenth-century Universalist Hosea Ballou named “the reconciliation of all things to God,” and which humanists might express poetically as the naturally miraculous observation: all being is born of star dust and the fate of all being is to return to star dust.
It is not the ambiguity that is the scandal. Ambiguity lies at the fuzzy core of each of us. Who do you say I am? Who am I? Who are you? Where does the you begin and the I end? Resounding questions with only uncertain answers.
Nor is it the prophecy is the scandal. Great leaders, prophets, messiahs, have long been foretold.
The scandal of the story is where and how this great teacher is supposed to have appeared. I speak not of the virgin birth. I speak instead of how they “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I speak instead of how the ancient tyrant Herod sought out the child so that he might slay him. I speak instead, I speak instead of this… this scandalous Christmas message that is so necessary for us today: the salvation of society, the message of love that transcends hate, is not to come from the powerful or the mighty.
In the Christmas story it does not come from Emperor Augustus. It is not unveiled by the governor Quirinius. And it is not exposed by Herod. It comes from a man born to migrants so poor that they could not find shelter in an inn. This teaching of social salvation, that the kingdom of God lies within you and within me, that we are called to wake up to the beauty of the world around us and experience what I sometimes name the resurrection of the living, arrives from a man whose parents were so impoverished that his teenage mother gave birth to him amid the warmth and fetid barnyard smells of a manger–“the uncontrollable mystery of the bestial floor.”
It is a disruptive scandal. It is a scandal that is meant to challenge all of the scandals that we unacceptably accept as acceptable: the enduring predation of the rich upon the poor, the perpetual trauma we inflict upon each other through barriers we imagine into being and then place between each other, and, indeed, the very idea that some should rule over others.
The disruptive scandal of Christmas is this: it is not from the rich and powerful that the salvation of the world will appear. It will come from the most ordinary of people. It might arrive from the child of undocumented immigrants. It might appear from his fourteen year-old mother whose very human struggles with birthing and breastfeeding have left her “feeling lonely / and tired / hungry / annoyed” and call into question who leads and where they are trying to lead us.
On this abnormal Christmas, in this plagued year, this disruptive scandal has been ever present. Undocumented farm workers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, longshoremen, workers often held to be less glamorous and less important than bankers and business executives have been revealed to be essential. It is the daily risks that they have taken alongside healthcare workers and teachers that have saved what can be in this unfortunate year.
Next year may well be different. The heroic work of scientists–the lives that they will save, the salvation that will unfold from their vaccines–might enable us to have a normal Christmas. But even if we have one–if I can enjoy hot chocolate by my parents fireplace or you can visit with your loved ones–we should remember that Christmas itself is scandalously abnormal. It teaches us to reimagine who will lead the world into its better days. Not the high but the humble. Not the rich but the poor. Not the citizen but the migrant.
I will not wish upon a normal Christmas. I will give you a different Christmas wish. May you, this Christmas and every Christmas to follow, remember when you have good cheer that the story is supposed to be scandal. It is supposed to disrupt the normal. It is supposed to call us into reimagining who shall lead and where social salvation might come from. It is in the words of lucille clifton’s poem “he be calling the people brother / even in the prison / even in the jail.” It is in the wisdom of Longfellow’s carol with its challenge to hear the pealing bells “God is not dead, nor doth God sleep,” for the world can be reimagined by any of us. And, well, scandalously, some of it is in you, and some of it is in me, when we remember the very abnormal nature of the Christmas story itself.
I love you.
I miss you.
And await until we can be together again.