Oh dear, over a month since my last post. Erratic is about what we can hope for here, I think, especially if I’m going to tackle big questions, like appropriation and our place in the liberal Christian tradition. After this I’ll get back to easier topics for a while.
I said on 12/22, “We UUs do want to sing ‘Silent Night’ without really embracing the theology. We want to tell the Christmas story, own it as part of our tradition, without saying the words we don’t believe, that ‘Christ the Savior is born.'” Some of us singing in my church on Christmas Eve were Christians, others not, and I doubt there was a single person there who agreed with the theology of every line of every carol we sang. Many liberal Christians, not only the UU variety, would take issue with “virgin mother and child” and the assertion that Jesus was “born that man no more may die” (or, as we sang it, “that we no more may die,” which fixes the gender problem but not the theology).
So we don’t need to embrace the entire Christian message before celebrating Christmas. Christianity is extremely diverse and includes many internal contradictions, as one discovers very quickly if one innocently asks a multidenominational group of Christians about the propriety of infant baptism. And we stand in that tradition, doing what Christians have always done: try to be true to what they see as the core teaching. Fred Small quietly staked this claim (and with admirable grace toward his congregation’s petulant guest) in his response to Keillor: we seek to live as Jesus did and as he urged us to do. It is not only UUs who find that, in order to do so, they have to interpret much of the New Testament metaphorically and flatly disagree with other parts.
As regards the carol-rewriting question, this leads me to two complementary conclusions: (1) we may go ahead and rewrite; the Christian tradition is neither uniform nor finished; (2) we don’t need to sweat it so much if we don’t agree with every line, UUs’ famous need to read ahead notwithstanding.
Ah, but what about me personally? I’m not Christian. The traditions of Christmas, to me, are akin to Buddhist meditation or Nawruz: wisdom and beauty that come to me from a history that is not mine except in the sense that I’m human. Christmas is part of the world’s heritage, something we should learn from and celebrate, always showing due respect to those for whom it is their one guide, but not ignoring it because it “belongs to someone else.” (The fact that it is the dominant religion shaping our culture, not a small religion driven almost into extinction by the dominant culture/religion, makes the dynamics of appropriation different than with, for example, Native American religious practices, though that doesn’t obviate the need for care and respect.) And what I found this Christmas was that I was moved to tears by the meaning I found in the story, as I always am, year after year and with a different meaning each time.
Here’s what I think we (that is, those UUs who are not ourselves wholehearted followers of Christianity) need to do to be respectful of Christian tradition:
One, go ahead and draw the conclusions from the story that we see there. For me they include the idea I voiced in my homily Christmas Eve, that salvation may begin with a child’s birth but it can’t end there; it doesn’t end with the arrival of a savior; we have to complete it, just as we have to raise a baby to adulthood. It is a heterodox, by some standards a heretical interpretation, but on the other hand, I doubt my words would have shocked everyone in a liberal Christian church.
Two, be willing to set those conclusions against any other story that may be told, even those in the Gospels themselves. In my view, Luke’s conclusion, and Matthew’s, and heaven knows Paul’s, were each wrong in their way. They led to some beautiful theology, and a whole lot of bad theology, and quite a lot of murder and mayhem (notably of Jews, another reason Keillor needs to put his religious persecution problem into perspective). But they are not the only interpreters of Jesus’s life. We are interpreters too, and we may be better ones than even the people who created Christianity to begin with. Jesus, after all, was not a Christian either.
Three, don’t call the result Christianity unless you truly regard yourself as a follower of Jesus or of a Christian tradition (they’re often not the same thing–actually, I wonder if they are ever the same thing). I’m really neither one. But you don’t need to be a Christian to rejoice in what Christmas has to tell us.
Here’s what I said on Christmas Eve. Props to our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, for bringing us (from Dana McLean Greeley, no less) the candlelighting ceremony that gave such a beautiful shape to the service and informed my thoughts.
Christmas Eve Candlelight Service 2009
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Isaiah 9:2, 4, 6-7
What an improbable story this is. Everyone gathers around a newborn child and hails him as the King of his people, the Messiah they have awaited for a thousand years, the Savior. A baby! He doesn’t know anything. He can’t do anything. He doesn’t even have a bellybutton yet. How do they expect him to save the world?
Of course, the story reflects the hope we feel at the birth of any child. “Each night a child is born is a holy night” (Sophia Lyon Fahs). In the presence of a newborn baby we feel that anything is possible. We wonder if this is the child who will save us. Is that so improbable? Maybe this is the one who will unlock the riddle of cancer and rid the world of that terrible illness. Maybe this is the one who will bring warring nations to peace. Maybe this one will write a piece of music that seems to make the angels themselves sing Alleluia. Maybe this one will turn us back from our crazy path of destroying our beautiful planet.
Some of these predictions will surely come true. And so we have hope.
But first someone has to raise the babies into women and men. Which is why the story is a little funny, a little touching. Here are all these grownups hoping a baby will save them. But first they need to save him. There’s nothing so helpless as a newborn human—other animals at least can walk almost as soon as they’re born. Most are grown in a few months, many in a few weeks. But not a human. It’s going to take a long time until the baby Jesus grows up into the teacher Jesus, and the Bible skips over most of it. In the in-between years, Joseph and Mary did a lot of child-rearing. They had to feed him and bathe him and teach him and keep him from climbing onto a high shelf in his father’s carpentry shop and falling to his death, if they were to turn the hope into a reality.
We look around at our world and see a mess we don’t know how to clean up. Through the centuries since Jesus’ birth and the centuries before, we’ve asked again and again for someone to save us. There’s so much we need to be saved from: war, exploitation, greed, poverty, cruelty. We want to be saved from ourselves.
Then, when a savior comes along, we are filled with hope—and as quickly disillusioned. Last month, a man whom millions around the world, thousands of millions, had thought could turn us back from war, stood up to declare an escalation of war. Great disappointment and anguished questions followed. So it goes: we hail a new savior, are disappointed, and turn in ever-decreasing hope to a new savior. Maybe we need to do something different. And I think the story we tell tonight tells us what that something might be.
Jesus was called the light of the world. And yet he turned to his students, his followers, the multitudes who gathered to hear him preach, and said to them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). You.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Your light shines. The words of John’s gospel combine the present tense (“shines”) and the past (“did not,” resolved in some translations as “has not,” overcome). All these years the darkness has never overcome it; through the darkest times; still, into the present, in that bold present tense, the same today as when John set down his words 1900 years ago, the light shines. For it is not that a baby is born and all is saved, forever and ever. The salvation begins there, with the hope. And the hope is kept alive as the child grows, as the child is nurtured by not just two but numberless others.
The light passes from one to another. Look at these teachers before us, symbolized by the candles that we have lit—and we will be the teachers who next pass the light along.
When Jesus told his disciples, told us, “You are the light of the world,” he didn’t say “you have to do it alone.” You are not the only light–just you. You have others. Teachers are all around us, exemplars, brave pioneers, stubborn toilers for freedom and justice. Will we leave it to them to be the light of the world or will we join them? Will we follow them, push them, raise them up?
A savior lives on, past his early death, 2000 years later, because others, including us, have lit their tapers from his. Anyone who we think may save us, that is what she needs, what he needs, in order to be the salvation we hope for. They need us. We bend our candle to theirs and double their light.
In this way and this way alone the world will be saved. It begins with each birth, and it begins again with each kind word, each wise stance, each strong stand . . . Together, and together alone, we will be the saving of our world.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it—has never overcome it. And as long as we take light from one another and give light to one another, it never will.
(c) 2009 Amy Zucker Morgenstern