Christmas Eve (evening)

Chalice lighting

We arrive in the darkness of winter
With its long nights and short days
At a time when life around us has fallen back
When the cold winds chill our bones
Into this darkness, we bring light
We kindle this flame for those who suffer and for all who come after us
Let it burn bright as a light of hope
Let it burn steady as a beacon of justice
Let it spread in our hearts the warmth of love

Welcome

Welcome to Christmas Eve at New Unity. Whether you’ve never been here before, or you come only for Christmas Eve, or you come along every week, you are welcome here. This is a radically inclusive community committed to love and justice. No matter what you believe, what you look like, where you come from, who you love, or what you are going through, you are welcome here.

It’s Christmastime at last. The long run-up to today is finally over. The parties and the shopping and the decorating are done. The shops have emptied out. The streets are quiet. We find ourselves at this special time. It’s a time when most of us have a chance to put aside some of our usual concerns and worries - a chance to pause to turn toward something deeper and more important in our lives.

Tonight, we join together with words and music and light to celebrate the possibility represented by this season. I hope that you all find joy at this time of year. At the same time, we keep in mind the trials and suffering in the world around us. This is a night for recognising the power of hope to envision a brighter, more peaceful future for ourselves and our children.

You have probably come here tonight because you want to celebrate what is best about this time but you don’t take the ancient stories literally. But not believing in the stories doesn’t mean they don’t have something to tell us. And it doesn’t mean not believing in anything.
This is a night for believing in hope
A  night for believing in peace
A night for believing in love
A night for believing that we, together, have the power to change things for the better.
Let us be here together tonight in the true spirit of Christmas - a spirit that embraces all of humankind with respect for all.

Story; Part 1
 

The story we will share tonight begins a long long time ago. The place was far from here but it could have been close by. The people of this land were not free. Their land was not theirs to control. They were forced to obey the rules and laws of the great empire of their time - an empire that had no consideration for the traditions and needs and dream of the people it conquered and ruled. The people of this land dreamed of freedom. They dreamed of peace. They dreamed of being able to control their own destiny. But the empire was powerful - far far more powerful than they. After generations of occupation and oppression by the empire the dream was all but extinguished. Hope had faded. It was a dark time. The people were descending into depression and despair. Life without freedom hardly seemed worth living.

And then, at the darkest time, the faint ember of hope they carried in their hearts began to grow brighter. Just as we too reach the darkest time of the year with many worries around us in our world, we turn to light and warmth and love.

Hope emerged at the darkest time of the year - the time when the earth becomes cold and bare - the time when days are short and nights are long - the time when we may feel low and lose our enthusiasm and optimism - a time when we long for a bit of warmth and light in the darkness. The hope the people felt was tied to their ancient stories of liberation. The stories told that one day a great king would emerge from amongst them. The king would be wise and strong - a just ruler and a powerful military leader.  This great kind would bring freedom.

The people had long spoken of and hoped for such a king to deliver them from oppression into freedom. Although that hope had faded, it now began to grow again. Some shepherds felt this new hope as they walked with their flocks in the cold, quiet night. They said they heard words from the clear, starlit sky. And in that darkness, observant as only one who knows the dark can be, they saw a bright new star appear. They told others that the prophecy of liberation would soon come true. They told them that the star was the sign. They said that the great leader that would free them would soon be born.

Reading: In this Night, by Dorothee Solle

In this night
the stars left their habitual places
and kindled wildfire tidings
that spread faster than sound.

In this night
the shepherds left their posts
to shout the new slogans
into each other’s clogged ears.

The foxes left their warm burrows;
the lion spoke with deliberation.
In this night roses fooled the earth
and began to bloom in the snow.

Story; Part 2

The excitement and hope were passed from person to person. It spread quickly amongst the people. With each mention, the hope grew stronger and stronger. A great new sense of possibility expanded in hearts and minds. People who were hopeless only days before now imagined a time when they and their people would again know freedom. Word spread far and wide of a soon-to-come birth that would bring the long dreamed-of king who would free his people. The great blaze of hope travelled beyond the land itself and reached the East, where three wise Kings prepared to travel to see for themselves the birth of the baby who would be king and who would bring freedom.

A poor couple called Mary and Joseph were travelling at this time. Mary was heavily pregnant and soon due to give birth. It was a terrible time for them to travel but they had no choice. They had been required to return to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem for the imperial census. The journey was about 80 miles. Even if they had a donkey for Mary to ride on, it would have been an arduous trip for her.  After some four days journey, Mary and Joseph would have arrived in Bethlehem dirty and exhausted - eager to find shelter and a bed to sleep in.

When they arrived, they sought shelter but they found there were no beds available. Every possible room was full, as people from all over were on the move for the census. What were they to do? Finally, one innkeeper offered to allow them to stay with the animals in the stable. It would not be comfortable or clean or particularly warm, but it was out of the elements and Joseph and Mary accepted the offer gratefully.

Joseph and Mary were not the sort of people anyone would expect to be parents to a king or to anyone special for that matter. They were not royalty or nobility. They were not wealthy, nor were they part of the priesthood.  But there, on the longest, darkest, night of the year, surrounded by farm animals and on a bed of hay, Mary gave birth to the baby who was hoped be the fulfilment of prophecy - the liberating king.

It was as inauspicious a birth as has ever been and yet, it was a birth of hope. The people were filled with expectation and hope, and promise of the time made this birth special. Joseph and Mary named the child Yeshua - from a Hebrew word meaning to save. Yeshua - who is now remembered by the name Jesus - was named as he who would save and liberate his people.

Reading: For So the Children Come, by Sophia Lyon Fahs

For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come—
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where to find the babe that will save humankind
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children's cribs—
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, "Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night—
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for hope and for love.

Story; Part 3

The occupying empire had put a local king in place to rule the land locally. The king was called Herod. Herod loved his wealth and his power. He amassed vast riches and commissioned vast monuments to his own ego. A jealous and selfish man, Herod cared much for himself and his achievements but little for his people. As others did, Herod heard the breathless stories of hope that were circulating throughout the land. He heard the word that a great king and saviour would be born.

Unlike most others though, Herod did not take this as good news. He saw it as a threat. The people were dreaming of liberation. They might agitate and put him in a bad position with the empire. Worse yet, they might choose a new king from amongst them - a king who could displace Herod. And so, Herod sought to destroy that hope. Knowing that the people expected a king to be born at this time, he aimed to end that possibility in the cruellest way possible. He condemned to death all male infants in the land under the age of two.

Despite Herod’s scheming and cruelty, the child called Yeshua or Jesus survived. He was kept safe from Herod and from the Empire. Contrary to the prophecies, though, he did not lead his people to freedom. He did not become a great king or a military leader. He did not command an army, wear a golden crown, or sit on an ornate throne. Had he been such a king, he might have won some battles against the Empire. Many would have died and freedom would have been short-lived.

But Jesus did something better. He taught. He taught his people about freedom and about justice and about peace and about the worth of all people. His words were relevant in his own time and perhaps more relevant today. He taught of inclusion - every person, especially those who we are taught to ignore, to doubt, or to hate, is worthy to be brought into our circle and treated with respect and dignity. He taught about justice - that it is wrong for some to have great wealth while others starve. And he taught that we should love one another - that we must overcome the barriers that keep us from caring deeply about each other's wellbeing.

Jesus taught the path to enduring freedom. He knew that there can be no freedom from some when there is captivity for others. He knew that there can be no justice for some when there is oppression for others. He knew that there can be no peace for some while war rages on for others. The freedom Jesus promised is not yet fully realised. He left his kingdom a broken world. But it is up to each of us and to each new baby born today, tomorrow and every day, to make the dream of freedom real.

Reading: A Mood of Expectancy, by Richard Gilbert


The earth has turned once more in its accustomed way,
And again our footsteps quicken
Our voices are raised in familiar chorus
The sights and sounds of Christmas
Greet our ears and eyes
Almost as if we had never seen or heard them before.

There is a mood of expectancy.
What we are to expect, we do not know.
The least surprises are hidden beneath bright paper and graceful ribbon;
The great surprises are the magic that happens
Whether we will it or not.

There is a mood of expectancy,
And the beauty is - we do not know what to expect!
Tomorrow is an open door,
An untraveled journey,
An untouched feast.
Christmas is like that - it is a mood of expectancy
For out of the birth of the humblest babe
May come one of the great prophets of the human spirit,
And out of each of us, proud or humble,
May yet come truth and beauty and goodness we cannot now imagine.
Christmas is a mood of expectancy.

Closing Words

As a king, Jesus was a disappointment. He did not overthrow the empire or bring freedom to his people. And yet, the teachings that emerged from an ancient upwelling of hope, speak to us powerfully today. In our world, where we separate and isolate, we need to live his message of inclusion. We must learn to treat every person with dignity.In our world, where a few wealthy individuals can have as much as half of the population of a whole nation, we live the message of justice and equality. In our world, where we distance and isolate ourselves and demonise others on social media and the voting booth, we must live the message of love. This Christmas, let us remember the teachings of freedom - that above all else - we must love one another.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
May it be so.