The Bells of Christmas

Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastilae
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/20/2015

Christmas isn’t for everyone. No, not everybody likes Christmas, not everybody even knows about, and certainly not everyone even lives out their lives in a place which has the solstice centered around Christmas. The fact of it is that most people on earth don’t celebrate Christmas. Most people don’t even live in a geographic area for which the solstice is important for climate. This northern fact of winter and summer, and the inner feelings we have about them are our own. Winter and summer, light and dark, are not necessarily the motifs of lands near the equator built upon wet and dry seasons. Our images of light and warmth are our own, and there are radically other ways of being human. The point of this is that we choose the themes of our lives and religion. And we can choose how we live with this time of year.

For Unitarian Universalists, this time of year is something of an ambiguous heritage. It’s a mixture of old theological customs and secular practices. It’s like that old chair you may have, not quite worth something as an antique, but not new enough to look good, but still hanging around the house. You may keep it for sentimental reasons or out of sheer laziness. Like that old chair, we UUs still have Christmas. We put up greens (which is pure Paganism). We sing carols (Christian carols I remind you). We give gifts (oh yes, we have capitulated to capitalism!!). All these and more. It’s a mixed bag. And so perhaps the term “Christ-mix,” serves UU’s better than Christ’s Mass, from which Christmas gets its name. And “Christ-mix” also calls to mind that in this wonderful and beautiful time of year, there is also some anxiety during the holidays as well.

This time of year, this message of shining happiness can sometimes be very difficult for those whose lives contain loss. It’s hard to pretend to be happy and to have the Christmas spirit at times. But the Christmas spirit isn’t just about happiness; is also contains the message of hope and more.

Perhaps hope is what calls to you in this season. What beckons us out of our deep-cave security shells into our festive, dancing and caring selves? –Something can. And if hope is too difficult at times, perhaps “hope beyond hope.” Tis the season for perseverance. Tis the season for creative adaptation. That’s what we’ve got to do: persevere and creatively engage. What calls us out of well-walled individuality and our pursuit of own lives, our own career, our own families and reaches out to the whole human family? Do you feel a call to a greater and larger responsibility? If so, that might be when justice calls you to. ‘Tis the season to take in the wandering souls and give them shelter. --To offer protection to the helpless babe who finds no room at the inn. That is justice.

Ultimately these two branches, hope and justice, emerge from the tree trunk of love, a universal love that guides us. –The love called agape, in Greek. And when we experience this agape, this universal love, perhaps that helps bring some Divinity to the mix of the season.

Let us pledge to take mixing spoon in hand and take all the ingredients of Christmas and stir them well, carefully, conscientiously, and turn the mix into something greater than the sum of its parts. The mixed messages may overwhelm us at times. In spite of the tidal wave of Christmas emotions, I have that hope that each year I am a little better at riding that wave. The winter holidays and family customs make a little more sense to me each year. I am more self-aware than last year. They are never perfect, these holidays, but they are being perfected.

If we want to hear the call, we have to listen. We have that mixing bowl, but the dough isn’t ready to go into the oven yet. You have to give the dough time to rise. Set aside time for a walk, for meditation, for reflection. Reflect upon the end of another year and the beginning of another. Let the dough rise. It takes time. It’s a life-process. They say one of the forms of contemplation that can have the most brain impact is a compassion meditation, and so I offer the following.


A Compassion Meditation

Develop a sense of kindness.

Let a feeling of shared human love emerge.

Stay with that feeling.

Extend it outward.

Wrap it like a blanket around the world, the solar system, the universe. This is an act of our creative imagination. It humanizes us.

Project that blanket over Bethlehem.

That first mythic Christmas was not easy for that wandering family. Have compassion. Giving birth in a barn was degrading and full of worry and anxiety. Have empathy. Yet, there must have been joy, and tremendous hope and love to light the world.

Silence. Peace. The birth of a new child. The beauty of it all. Wondrous peace. Wondrous hope.

Create in yourself this feeling of compassion for all inspirited beings as a pre-created feeling. Have this agape love for all as part of what you bring to the world. Pre-create this attitude to bring into the world, not expecting the world will always give it to you.

Let us return to a local sense of time and place.


Here’s Yet another Christmas shopping story.

A grocery store. The check out. 4:45. It’s packed. A new lane opens up. And two people rush to it. A women runs in with her cart. She almost hits a man, but turns away just in time and unfortunately hits the display. Nothing’s broken, but it’s evidence she was going a little fast. The man goes “Buhh” and thinks “She was rude.” But the story goes on.

He says to himself, “I could think she was rude. Well, perhaps she was, not thinking of others. She almost hit me. I can’t stand shopping.” He looks. Her cart has kids’ cereal, milk, a few other staples. She’s probably a mother doing a quick shop. She seems in a real rush. She’s probably rushing home.

He says, “You look like you’re in a hurry. Here go ahead of me.”

The women replies, “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

“I insist.” He lets her cut in line.

“Oh, thank you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I almost smashed into you. I had to stay late and I have ten minutes to pickup my children. They’ll charge me an extra 20 bucks if I’m late. Merry Christmas. Thank you so much.”

“No,” the man said, “You know I was walking too fast. It’s not your fault any more than mine. I should have more of a gentleman, for God’s sake. Merry Christmas!”

The cashier witnessed that little act of kindness and offers a big smile and a loud “Happy Holidays”

Instant camaraderie.

Perhaps this vignette provokes in us an awareness “of the infiltration of human life by some divine essence,” as one writer puts it. An awareness in of the infiltration of human life by some divine essence.

People in that moment were a little forgiving. Someone decided not to hold a grudge, but to reach out creatively to engage the world. Someone had a little hope, thinking if I am nice, it will turn the situation around.

I want those people to run our world!

And you know, we can. We can take that attitude of understanding, that pre-created attitude of universal family-feeling and run the world with it. We can run the world with agape, with love.  


The Christmas Bells

Christmas bells --And as with everything else Christmas, I have mixed feelings about those bells. Yes, they can sound beautiful and magnificent and are, as such, a symbol of music, sound arranged for beauty. Christmas bells are the perfect carillons of praise and glory. But they also can become intrusively cloying, just as the materialist message becomes subtly intrusive. Look at the messages of ads: make your Holidays special with –fill in the blank with whatever product they are selling.

Those bells. Ring, ring, ring! Chime, chime, chime! Gong, gong, bang, bong, sound, bash. bash. Crash, clash, smash, bell hammer booooong, booooong, booooong. The bells, the bells. Edgar Allan Poe’s spirit sweeps down like a black raven:

Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,

Hell’s Bells.

The store is packed, the line is 40 people long, you’re wearing a jacket, the store is too hot. But you have to buy this, this, this thing. This necessary thing. This needed thing. This thing to make it “special.” This thing that has somehow asserted meaning over you, instead of you over it. It’s not food, nor shelter, nor clothing. You don’t really need it. Oh. But you do need it. If you don’t have the “it,” thing, then Christmastime just won’t be special.

Unstoppably, the sappy bells are jingling in the speaker above you. The speaker is busted: jingle  khhh, ells khhh, ells khhh. It’s sounds more like jingle hells, jingle hells. And then! Blue light special, beanie baby throw up doll on aisle 16 and Jake Kill’em guns on special aisle 27b, foam bullets included. CHH, CHH, Jingle hell. CHH the way.

You realize you need to jingle all the way the heck out of there and out of a value system created by mass media advertising. You jingle your way out. You leave the gewgaws on the counter. You run into the cold, like that spy of old. But even here the bells snap at you, asking for a dime.

You weave your perilous way though the parking lot, the dark valley of driver treachery, fearing for your life. You start the engine. And pause, forehead on the edge of the steering wheel. Pause. Reflect. “What madness in our world!” And you feel calmer. What was that meditation? --A compassion meditation? You disengage from the monkey race of cultural expectations based upon the thing. A sense of peace for the spiritual side of Christmas seems like a presence. That blanket over Bethlehem. That agapic love for all humanity. Head on wheel, you enter the world of the universal compassion meditation.

But someone has seen you get into your car. And then, a loud, “Beeeeeeeeep. Beeeeep!” It’s that car in the lane blaring at you to, “Get out, go, I want that parking spot. Don’t ya know it’s Christmas? Don’t ya know I’ve got to get the thing to make it special? I need to park there.” Oh yes, it’s the spirit of a materialist Christmas, of things, of the “it” thing, of rushing instead of being at peace, of buying instead of saving, of shopping instead of helping.

Please, can we find some peace? --Some sense of balance. --A simpler Christmas. --A hopeful Christmas. Please, can we find something to connect us to others, to connect us to the best part of ourselves, to a spirit of compassion in which we may feel experience God’s great being as much as is allowed to human spirits. May we live with universal agapic love.


Henry Longfellow and The Bells of Christmas

Let us silence hell’s bells. Let heaven’s bells remind us of the musicality of this season. Carols and sleigh bells and church bells evoke memory. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the words have been put to various musical tunes. One of those tunes is in our hymnal. I’m not sure it’s the most memorial tune. Longfellow and his family were Unitarians in the 1800’s, his brother becoming a minister. The poem often has two verses removed, the verses that make reference to the Civil War most explicitly. His call for peace on earth resonates, then, as now.


The bells will ring when there is peace in the world. We can hear them even now. Just as we can pre-create a sense of peace in our spirits, we can pre-hear the beauty of chimes rolling over hill, through village, past hamlet and beyond trodden forest paths. We have to think about the world by means of an inner landscape transformed by our care. The waves of Christmas come each year, some good, some bad. It’s the mix of “Christmix,” and what we do with it is up to us. Christmas is not about shiny, perfect happiness, but the great branches of hope and justice grounded in the tree of love.

This ending of another year isn’t just about presents in materialist form, but having presence of mind in a spiritual form. We all need to learn to surf the wave and if it inundates you at times, as it will, if someone appears to you to be a little rude with their cart, well, then that’s the time to employ your agapic love. You’ve got to decide what kind of human being you are going to be in this world. Be creative as that guy in the check-out lane, who put the story together of a young mother rushing at the end of the workday, and who transformed, by pre-created compassion, an apparently rude rushing round into a Christmas blessing. If we all did that, the Bells of Christmas would surely ring.