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And I’ll Have a Blue, Blue Christmas
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 12/12/2010
Which of these quotes have you heard, or said yourself?
“No, we just aren’t doing much to celebrate Christmas this year. We lost my mom a couple of months ago, and our daughter can’t make it home – we’re both sort of bummed out, and we just don’t have the energy for all the jollity.”
“Ugh, who can keep up with all the who wants this and who wants that? None of the holiday stuff on TV seems appealing to me at all. It’s all just buying bigger and bigger things, a greedy free-for-all. I just don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
“I lost my job last summer, and my wife hasn’t been getting the amount of work she’s used to, either. There isn’t any extra cash for anything like presents or parties, so we’ll skip it all this year, and hope for more money next time around, so we can do it right.”
Or, most of all:
“I feel really down this time of year. All this forced happiness makes me miss the people I love who have died or who I don’t get to be with often enough. It’s cold and dark out, and I guess I should be counting my blessings, but they’re hard to see. I guess I’m just not a happy enough person for the holiday season.”
Does this sound like you or like anyone else you know? Every year, along with the exuberant displays in shops and on television, we also see the rise of the shadow holidays, the bah humbug Christmas, the grandma-got-run-over-by-a-reindeer interpretation of this time of year.
We – especially those of us involved in congregational life – also see a resurgence of the earnest sorrows of living, the sadnesses that accumulate over the year as we contemplate our losses, our failings and our loneliness. We often find those experiences in stark contrast to what we think we’re supposed to be feeling through the month of December, no matter which December holiday we might be focused upon.
All of these quotes and themes, it seems to me, express one basic idea, which I’ll summarize this way: “This time of year is reserved for happiness, friends and family – and if I don’t have happiness, friends or family in a great enough quantity, then there is no way for me to participate – the season is not for me.”
Today, I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the December holidays. I’d like to present to you another idea, one that contrasts the “common knowledge” about the holiday season.
It starts with this statement: If you are depressed, lonely, grieving, broke or otherwise feeling down or even at wit’s end, then this time of year is especially for you.
Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, and even Kwanzaa and the New Year, are not about celebrating happiness. None of these holidays are celebrating happiness, even if you might be happy while you’re celebrating them.
As a result, you don’t have to be happy to participate in the winter holidays. In fact, they will mean more to you if you aren’t happy.
And this is why.
Because every December holiday is really celebrating, each in its own way, this: Hope. Hope that is to be found even in the most difficult of times.
So you don’t need to be content, jolly, cheerful, energized or even optimistic to observe or celebrate holidays in December. Quite a contrast to what many of us think this time of year is about, isn’t it?
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these holidays, and I’ll show you what I mean. We’ll start with Hanukkah.
Poor Hanukkah. Hanukkah is supposed to be a somewhat more minor celebration than it is. It has fallen victim to the overwhelming domination of our Christian-centered culture, with its full throated Christmas hysteria this time of year, and has been hyped up as a Christmas alternative perhaps a bit more than is warranted. It’s also, however, a great example of my hope-not-happiness thesis for today.
The word Hanukkah means dedication. Hanukkah, as you probably know, is a celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem temple from when it was taken over and defiled by Syrian Greeks in 168 BCE.
The Jews of that era were the victims of political, economic, cultural and personal oppression from the occupying Greek-influenced Syrians. Imagine Poland before World War Two – the Germans came in and suddenly the Jews of Poland were in a lot of hot water. That’s what it was like for the Jews of Israel during the time commemorated by Hanukkah.
After a particularly oppressive period where the practice of Judaism was outlawed and Jews were forced to bow before Greek idols and eat pork – both forbidden by Judaism – a High Priest named Mattathias and his five sons rebelled and took to the hills with a group of supporters, who came to be known as the Maccabees.
The Maccabees became the freedom fighters of their day, and eventually took back their land from the Syrians and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the worship of idols and the sacrifice of pigs.
In order to spiritually cleanse the Temple and reclaim the center of their faith and their people, the Maccabees wanted to burn ritual oil for 8 days. They were dismayed to discover that there was only enough oil left in the besieged Temple for one day of sacred burning.
What else could they do? They lit up their oil lamp anyway. And, despite the lack of oil, that lamp burned for eight full days.
So I ask you, what is to be learned from this tale for those of us not feeling our best in the holiday season? Well, what happens to you when you have fought a brave battle and you are reclaiming your center and you find that you simply do not have any more resources to go forward? What happens when you need the eight days of oil, and there just is – facts on the ground – there just simply is not a drop more than one day’s worth of oil in your heart or in your spirit or in your strength?
Do you pack it in and give it all up? Do you let the oppressing Syrian-Greeks of your life take back your temple, and let them win in the end?
Or do you bravely light your lamp with the oil that you do have, knowing or at least hoping that something will come along to make it right, to make it work out in the end?
When we step forward with faith - meaning that the way forward seems impossible and we know there is no way it’s going to work, but we step forth anyway - that is when miracles occur. Not just oil miracles, but personal ones. And when we say, “I don’t have the energy or resources for this task, but I’m going to try this one thing anyway,” that’s when possibilities that we never saw coming arrive at our doorstep, and show us where to place the next foot, and the foot after that.
That is how the Hanukkah story teaches us about hope.
It is sometimes said that we UUs disagree with the mainstream Christian church about the divinity of Jesus. Perhaps we only disagree on how we might define the divinity of Jesus, or what the meaning of that word really is. At the root of it all, UUs agree that Jesus was at the least an incredibly important teacher who originated many of the notions that we UUs hold dear, like Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, Love Your Enemy.
Jesus propagated the notion that our love is not meant just for the person who is most like us, or the person who can do us the most good. Jesus provided us mortals with a formula on how to get along with each other, using love as a guide.
There are many out there who say that Jesus is God, and many who claim that God is Love. Using a simple geometric proof, it is then easy enough to say that Jesus himself was Love. And it then follows to say that Love was born on Christmas day. And Love was not born to a king or a political ruler, or to a perfectly happy family dancing around a new car with a bow on it, or to even to those TV women who get all the diamonds. Love was born under very difficult circumstances, in a barn in a strange town, amid animals and muck, into poverty, to a teenaged mother and her baffled betrothed who believed he was not that baby’s daddy, but stuck it out anyway. Your life may indeed be pretty rough. But think about this family’s tough time, and what came out of it.
Love was born on Christmas day, to a family who most likely didn’t feel all that jolly about the season, either. And as many of us know from experience, love can save us from the worst of times. Into a darkness that can seem so vast that it has no end, love is one of the few things that can shine a tiny little light – and the light wins out.
When you celebrate Christmas with an eye to the love that exists in the world, the love that has been present in your life even amidst the pain and the loss, you will open yourself up to the great granddaddy of emotions, the one to which mere happiness or contentment cannot hold a candle. You open yourself up to Joy.
Joy that comes not from your efforts or your circumstances, but from a source outside of you, which fills and feeds you better than you can do for yourself.
So the third December holiday or collection of holidays I want to talk about are those earth centered celebrations of the season that speak to us so strongly of our connection with the world and its workings.
Our December holidays are replete with the symbols that tell us, on levels sometimes too deep to rise to consciousness, that dark times do pass by and lighter days return – always. And that can be the most important message of all to those who struggle in these long and dark months with situations that seem equally dark and intractable.
Think of all the symbols we use this time of year. Candlelight or fire, the burning of the Yule log – that’s warmth, life and heat in a time of year that is cold and unsustainable.
Evergreens, especially in the form of a tree brought inside the house, remind us that the world is not dead and gone as it appears to be, but teems with life under the surface – and with time, we’ll be able to see that Life all around us. We don’t even need to hope for it. It is, quite simply, there.
Even in a time so literally dark that it seems impossible that it could be otherwise, winter solstice celebrations mark the fact that it is precisely within that dark time that the sun makes its about-face and begins its journey back towards we creatures who need it so badly.
And so it is with us. All of us are literally cold and dark this time of year, but for some of us, our lives and our spirits are cold and dark, too.
This time of year does not call upon you to be otherwise.
But December does serve to remind you that what you are experiencing is not a permanent condition. It does serve to inform you that no matter what you feel or think right now, there is light around the corner, and life, and warmth, all of it coming your way, if you just will wait it out. The earthbound solstice symbols of sun and fire and evergreen stand as reminders that darkness is a part of everyone’s life, but darkness holds no dominion over any part of the world or over your heart. Your life will get better. It just, quite simply, will.
In last week’s service, I talked about teen suicide, and as research I watched several videos from people who had at one time or another considered suicide themselves. I noticed an interesting trend. To a person, they said this: I was ready to kill myself, had the plan and the means and everything, but something made me wait. For some reason, they decided to sleep on it or they gave themselves until the end of the day. Whatever the reason, they waited. Someone described it as their way of giving the universe one more chance, one more chance to make things better before they committed their too-final act.
And each of these people said that the act of waiting just a little bit caused something in their world to shift, just a little bit, just enough to crack open the darkness and offer the glimmer of hope, the faintest sheen of light.
Just like the tiny shift, beyond our understanding, that keeps the sun from getting even farther away and instead sends it back to us. A shift that you can’t really see, but you will know is there. Because nothing that dark can stay forever, not on this earth. That is the way the world works.
So if you are Blue this holiday season, if you haven’t got the sort of jolliness you think you need to get through it all, please remember – you don’t have to be happy to celebrate these December holidays. You aren’t meant to come in already filled with cheer. Your task, rather, is to let the holidays work their magic on you, and to witness the hope that each of these days offers to the weary and the forlorn, each in their own way.
May that glimmer of returning sun, the glimmer too small to be seen, make its home in your heart this month.
My best wishes for a hopeful holiday season to each of you.