as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 24, 2021
“For there exists a great realm and a boundlessness whose measure no angelic race has comprehended.” I start my annual Christmas homily with words you have probably never heard before. They come from a text that I suspect is equally unfamiliar, the second century Gospel of Judas.
The words and the text are strange, weird, shall I say even psychedelic? A luminous cloud, the angelic eye, immeasurable myriads, chaos, oblivion… These are not the typical words of the Christmas story. When I encountered them for the first time, I found them startling–a challenge to what I assumed I knew about Jesus and Christianity. What do you think of them?
The Gospel of Judas is one of dozens of texts about the life, teachings, and death of Jesus that were excluded from the Christian New Testament when it was compiled in the fourth century. You are likely familiar with the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. But what about the gospels of the Nazarenes, the Ebonites, Peter, Mary, Philip, and Thomas? Or the Gospel of Judas?
They come from a set of early communities devoted to Jesus that are often called the Gnostics. The word comes from the Greek gnosis, to know. So it should not be surprising to know that these communities were devoted to knowledge. They did not orient themselves, however, to what we might call scientific or mathematical knowledge. Rather, they were committed to what we could label self-knowledge. As one of their teachers, a man named Theodotus, wrote in the second century, they were dedicated to discovering, “who we were, and what we have become; … whither we are hastening.” Their project, in other words, was to learn what it means to be human.
They took Jesus as their great teacher and guide in this effort. They could not exactly agree upon who he was. Some, like the author of the Gospel of Judas, thought he was a divine being–either uniquely the son of God or an incarnation of God herself. Others, such as Theodotus, were essentially Unitarian Christians and taught that Jesus had been born as an ordinary human being.
Divine being or human person, what the Gnostics could agree upon was that Jesus was one who pointed the way to true self-knowledge. And the knowledge that he offered can sound quite strange. It is filled with riddles, images of luminous clouds, stories of “the birds of the heaven motionless,” and even unexpected angels.
It is knowledge that seems to encourage us to undergo what I sometimes refer to as the resurrection of the living, the waking up to the world as it is. Such a waking up often contains three lessons. Elaine Pagels, scholar of Gnosticism, describes these lessons as the revelation that “the self and the divine are identical;” the purpose of religion is not save us from sin and lead up to repentance, it is to open us to “spiritual understanding;” and the divinity within Jesus was something that each of us could access ourselves.
The self and the divine are identical, religion should open us to greater understanding, and the divinity found within the teacher is available to all of us… These lessons probably seem familiar to those of you who are acquainted with the lessons of classical Unitarian Christianity. They can be found in the work of William Ellery Channing, the foundational theologian of our tradition for whom our fellowship hall is named. He taught “true religion consists in proposing as our great end a growing likeness to the Supreme Being.” This “likeness to God,” as he called it, was something that Jesus had found in himself and was something he encouraged his followers, and all who learned of him through the Christian scriptures, to discover within themselves. Once unveiled, it offered knowledge of what Theodotus asked for “who we were, and what we have become; … whither we are hastening.”
The unveiling of the likeness of God was something that Unitarians in the nineteenth century celebrated on Christmas. You might not know it, but one of the most famous [English language] Christmas carols, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” was written by a Unitarian minister. (We sang the carol at the start of the service.) [We will be singing the carol in the English service.] Do you (remember) [know] the lyrics?
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold…
If you listen carefully to the whole carol you might notice something curious about it. It makes no mention of Jesus, Christ, or the messiah–all of the things that Christmas is typical thought to be about. The same is true of most other Unitarian Christmas carols. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” invites us to sing “of peace on earth, to all goodwill.” And e. e. cummings’ “purer than purest” is an abstract portrait of how “every world / before silence begins a star.”
I anticipate that you might find all of this a bit surprising. Christmas, we think, is supposed to be about the birth of the Son of God. “Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer–the Messiah, the Lord,” the Gospel of Luke claims. Yet our religious ancestors, instead, chose to sing about the possibility “of peace on earth, to all goodwill.” And the gnostics, more often than not, pointed to the prospect that upon gaining knowledge of ourselves we might wake up to the truth of the world. “Behold, everything has been told to you. Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light which is in it and the stars which surround it,” Jesus tells Judas near the end of the Gospel of Judas.
Lift up your eyes, the cloud, the light, the stars… everything has been told to you. The message appears to suggest that we are each born with what we need to have a perfectly human experience. The knowledge we need is already there. It is our task to uncover it.
There is a radical egalitarianism inherent within such a claim. It does not elevate the teacher over the student. It does not pretend that some are born to be rulers and other born to be ruled. Instead, it suggests that those who find knowledge within themselves become wise and that the wise have been blessed only with the power to offer wisdom to others. In another gnostic text we find Jesus saying, “I am not your master… Those who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become them, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to them.”
I am not your master, everything has been told to you, the stars, the cloud, the light… I have left out an important historical footnote in this homily. There are reasons why a scant four gospels were collected in the Christian New Testament and dozens of others left out. The story is long but simple. The texts that were excised were not included when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Theologically they were too threatening to the hierarchy of both Empire and church.
I am not your master… if anyone can uncover the divine spark within themselves then each of us has the potential to gain the wisdom we need to have a perfectly human experience. We can each discover what Theodotus sought, the truth about “who we were, and what we have become; … whither we are hastening.”
It is not a message that promises you salvation. It is a message that burdens us with the obligation to save ourselves and each other. Has this not been one of the great learnings of the pandemic? We already have the knowledge we need to get through it: get vaccinated and get boosted, practice physical distancing, and wear masks when we gather with those outside of our household.
The pandemic, the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, the global assault on democracy, we already have the knowledge we need to confront the challenges we collectively we face. Social isolation, the human need for community, I also suggest we have the knowledge we need to help each other wake up to the world as it is and undergo the resurrection of the living. The Unitarian tradition is not tell each other that some divine being is coming who will save us. It is to remind each other that we must save ourselves and that we already have the knowledge we need, within us, to do so.
Now, I could preach another dozen sermons–and perhaps in the future I shall–about why it is so hard to wake up to that knowledge and how we might better encourage each other in our efforts to do so. But it is Christmas Eve and the word I have spoken tonight will have to be offering enough.
I close then with three gestures towards how Christmas might be understood from the Unitarian Universalist tradition.
Words from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear:”
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
Words from Sophia Lyon Fahs:
Each night a child is born is a holy night–
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping
And finally, an invitation into an abbreviated version of a gnostic ritual which Jesus is said to have taught. It is simple. I will say a sentence and you will answer with an Amen.
Now we give thanks, I say:
I will be saved, and I will save.
I will be loosed, and I will loose.
I will be born, and I will bear.
I will hear, and I will be heard.
I will be understood, being wholly understanding.
I will be washed, and I will wash.
The whole universe takes part in the dancing.
We can discover within ourselves the knowledge to wake up to what is.
We can build a more beautiful world.
We can bring peace.
We can offer each other love.
We can share with all goodwill.
This is the Christmas message. May we each let it grow ever stronger within our hearts.
Merry Christmas, I love you, and Amen.