as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, December 11, 2022
This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Perugia, Italy. As I will share, my time there provided me opportunity to reflect upon what is transient and what is permanent about religion and exactly what it is that many of us celebrate at this time of year.
Perugia is a relatively minor city. If you have heard of it, it is probably only because it was the site of a crime that grabbed international attention about a decade back.
I know about it because I have a friend who lives there. We were in graduate school together. Afterwards, I headed here, and he headed there. He’s an Italian citizen. He directs a study abroad program that connects students from the United States with Italian academic institutions.
My friend’s position has prompted him to learn almost everything possible about the history of his city. Walking through it with him is an experience. Perugia is not large. Located on top of a small mountain, it is a winding maze that spills down the high ground into the flat land that surrounds its historic heart.
And what a historic heart it is! As a settlement, Perugia dates back well over two thousand years. The walls built by the Etruscans, the civilization that came before the Roman Empire, still stand. Despite multiple invasions, and numerous internal conflicts, their stone continues to ring the city. It is possible to walk through a rock carved gate that has little changed from when Caesar Augustus restored it after one of Rome’s interminable civil wars.
Moving through the city is like traveling through time. There is an inn where the great writer Alexander Dumas once stopped. Over here we find a ring affixed to the old city hall. It is what remains of the city’s stocks. On the other side of the building lies Via Della Gabbia, the street of the cages. That is where the condemned used to be suspended for all to see. This way we find something much less gruesome. It is a fabled fountain. Built in the twelfth century, it celebrates the now vanished wealth of the onetime merchant elite. An incredible feat of engineering, it once contained water that had been drawn uphill without pumps. There are statuettes for much of what used to be good about Perugia: fig harvests and freshwater fish, wine and ploughs, astronomy and philosophy, the old crafts and the ones that have endured.
Come this way and you can see one of the few remaining marks of Mussolini’s fascists. This stone symbol is too high up to be easily defaced. And there are bullets holes to remind us of the struggles between the black shirts and the anti-fascists. Most of the fascist emblems were smashed to remind us of who won.
But something you might find particularly interesting is that big cathedral in the center of the city. It is at the top of the old plaza, right by the fountain and across from the ancient city hall.
Here is the thing about the cathedral. The building itself is not that old, at least by Italian standards. It was completed a scant seven hundred years ago. But the site itself, the site itself used to be a Roman temple. It was dedicated to Athena. Before that it was an Etruscan one. And prior to that… Well, archeologists think that it has been some sort of sacred place since whenever it was that human beings first came to live on top of this mountain. It is probably here that people once gathered to worship the sun.
The earliest languages and stories that were used to bless this place have all been forgotten. The holy whispers that gave the mountaintop its first name have vanished into the wind. But there remains something about the spot, here at the highest point, where can climb the steps and gaze down the plaza–watch the young Communists sell their newspapers while a jazz band strikes up and the venerable and the fashionable sip their espressos–and see life play out.
Standing on those steps next to my friend, as he described the city he loved and reflected on religious mysteries that have disappeared into the temporal fog reminded me of a story related by the great Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He learned it from the brilliant scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. It came to Scholem in turn from the Nobel Laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon. He probably heard it from his father, who was a rabbi. And his father may have been told it by Rabbi Israel of Rishin, a mystic from nineteenth century Ukraine.
The story might be familiar to a few of you. I shared it in another sermon some years back. It runs something like this:
Long ago, when the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the spiritual movement within Judaism known as Hasidism, faced a difficulty he would go into the woods. There was a certain sacred place. When he reached it, he would light a fire and pray. And the difficulty that he struggled with would be overcome.
When the Baal Schem died, his disciple would go to the same place. And he would say, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” His difficulty was averted.
The Baal Shem’s disciple died and his disciple, the third generation, traveled to the place in the woods. This time he said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.”
And so it came to be Rabbi Israel of Rishin’s turn. But the disciple from the third generation had not told him where the place in the woods was. So, all he could do was say, “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.” And that, in the tale that Agamben recounted, was sufficient.
In the philosopher’s interpretation of the story what happens is this: Once there was a mystery–in the tale it is called a fire–to which the great spiritual teachers had access. In Hebrew the words Baal Shem Tov mean “the master of God’s good name.” He is reputed to have been one who communed directly with the divine. But, over time, the connection to the mystery, the story suggests, has been lost. Rather than the mystery, only the legend of it remains.
It is not a bad metaphor for the way many people approach revelation–the divine in-breaking into the world, the opening up of possibilities beyond what is deemed possible. In many accounts, revelation is described as something that happened once upon a time. It is no longer ongoing. Most scriptures are meant to recount miracles that happened long ago, not ones that are happening right now. All we are left with is the stories.
This is one version of the secular, the absence of the sacred.
I should note that my friend is not religious. Neither were any of his friends I met while I visited Perugia. The Catholic cathedral is, for them, an almost archaic curiosity. It is the site of something which once meant a great deal for so many but, with each passing generation, is losing more and more of its significance.
Yet, at the same time, the cathedral has set much of the city’s pattern. Or, rather, the sacred space that it occupies has shaped the very civic marrow. While few people attend the church it remains at the center of Perugia’s social life–follow any of the winding streets uphill and you will eventually reach the worn stone steps.
There is something about the story from Agamben and the enduring way in which the cathedral shapes the structure of the city which is suggestive to me of the holiday experience. Do you sense it as well? This is a time of year when many people celebrate Christmas in a fashion that bespeaks secularization–the evacuation of the religious from the ritual.
The present incarnation of Santa Claus is almost an invention of early twentieth century capitalism. The winter holiday has as much to do with consumerist consumption as it does with any celebration of revelation. The glitz, sparkle and incessant refrains of holiday sales are almost enough to make me sympathetic to the old New England Puritans’ desire to do away with the Christmas holiday. They viewed it as a “great dishonor of God” and a distraction from authentic religious practice.
Bah humbugging aside, for a lot of people Christmas does not have all that much to do with Christianity. Looking at the bright lights and decorated trees, hearing songs about Rudolph and Frosty, I can understand where the evangelicals get there demand that we put the Christ back into Christmas.
Not that, as a Unitarian Universalist, I have a great desire to do that. Our tradition has long attempted to separate what is transient in religion from what is permanent, or enduring. And we have concluded that the particular forms that religion takes are transient–they shift from generation to generation–but that the religious desire is permanent.
Back to our cathedral, located as it is on a spot deemed sacred for a hundred generations. That space has been a place to encounter the holy even as understandings of the nature of the holy have shifted across time.
The earliest sun worshippers are thought to have taken the griffin, that mythic beast with the head, wings, and claws of an eagle and the body of a lion, as their emblem. What else they did we do not know. Can you imagine their rituals? At the turning of the year, did they keep vigil and wait for the returning of the sun?
Then came veneration of the Etruscan gods and goddesses, deities who appear to have had great similarity to those found in Greek mythology. These were replaced with the veneration of Athena, immortal patron of wisdom and warfare. In time, she gave way to the Christians’ crucified Christ. And now, the spirit of the city seems to be turning towards some kind of humanism: where celebrations and daily rituals are tied as much to the beauty that we make as they are connected to anything else. These days Perugia is home to internationally known jazz and chocolate festivals.
The transient and the permanent, the slowly shifting significance of the site of the cathedral, Agamben’s story… What do they suggest to you? To me, they suggest that there is something–we can name it fire, as Agamben did–that we seek to connect with. The rituals we use to seek that connection may shift over time but the desire to seek it remains.
I detect this sentiment in Joy Harjo’s fine poem “Morning Song.” There she writes of the possibility inherent in the “red dawn” and how that possibility, that sacred moment, is present for the “child stirring in the web of your mother” and the “old man turning to walk through the door.” For each, she suggests, there is something sacred to be found in the world. For each, she implies, that something will be slightly different. “Each sunrise a link the ladder” that is not quite the same as what came before.
Rabbi Israel of Rishin could only tell stories of the fire. The story was sufficient for him. But I suspect, when we focus on stories of the fire we get caught into old patterns. It is one of the geniuses of Unitarian Universalism that we not locked only into the old stories. We do not have only tell tales of someone else’s fire.
As I reminded you last week, in our tradition we teach that revelation is not sealed. The fire is something that we can each kindle. The stories of others can offer us a guide but we have the capacity to light a new flame. We do so every week when we spark our chalice.
And we do so when we gather to imagine how religion and the world might both be different. In their recent book, The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow repeatedly encourage their readers to probe what is in essence an essential Unitarian Universalist teaching, “We are projects of self-creation.” The Etruscan mount, Athena’s temple, the cathedral, Agamben’s story, and this sermon are each things that we have brought into being–each reflections of the rituals of worship of a particular generation.
There is nothing about them that is fixed. We Unitarian Universalists are changing our liturgies for worship all the time. The words spoken in this sanctuary today are not the same words that were spoken in it two or three generations ago. The service we hold in ten days’ time for the Winter Solstice is a different kind of ritual than the one observed by the founders of this congregation.
And yet, there is something in common with all of them. Call it a desire for an experience of the divine, the search for community, a connection with something greater than ourselves, the creation of a shared story, whatever that mystery is, it persists.
With their book, Graeber and Wengrow try to prompt people to be more open to the vast set of different ways that human beings have used to organize our societies over time. They hope to get us to recognize that both things have not always been the way that they are now and that we can imagine new possibilities for the future. The civic building across from Perugia’s cathedral is as good a reminder of that as the sacred mount itself. Over the millennia, the city has been an independent republic, part of the Roman Empire, ruled by merchant princes, run democratically, controlled by aristocracies, subject to the Pope, and a portion of the nation of Italy.
The transient and the permanent, I have all of this because at the winter holidays, at the turning of the year, we each challenged to reflect upon what is transient and what is permanent in our lives. How will this holiday season be similar to ones that have passed? How will it be different?
These can be difficult questions to face. We have holiday traditions, in part, to give a sense of permanence to things. But the world is ever shifting. Little is permanent. What is lifted up in one generation might be forgotten by the next.
I end my sermon with an invitation and a blessing. The invitation is this: I invite this sermon to offer you an opportunity to reflect upon what is transient and what is permanent about this holiday season. What is it that endures, year after year, generation after generation? What do you hold onto from your childhood? What do you want to pass on to those who will come next? What do you want to let go of? What connects you with the highest, the sacred, and what does not? What is most important to you at this time of year? And what is not important?
The transient and the permanent, our Unitarian Universalist tradition invites you to ask and answer these questions. Instead of taking the holiday as fixed, we recognize that it is much like the mount at Perugia–changing over time but still centered on some mystery: be it the mystery of the divine, the mystery of human beauty, or the mystery of another sunrise.
Oh spirit of life,
known by many names,
may we each,
in our own way,
find something of the holy,
this holiday season,
however we might name it
or understand it.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.