One of the more insightful statements I’ve heard when it comes to reading and deriving meaning from much of the Bible comes from the late Rev. Forrest Church. He was a friend and colleague who left us way too soon. Referring to the Bible, in one of his books, Forrest wrote, “As for its stories, like every story their truth depends upon their listeners.” Hear that again: “As for [the Bible’s] stories, like every story, their truth depends upon their listeners.” This is how I come to many of the Biblical stories, including the one we’ve just heard. I seek the truths that may be found in the minds and in the lives of those of us who listen to the story rather than in the legendary content of the account itself.
Indeed, even more than the birth of a Child, what I celebrate on Christmas Eve is the birth of a story. The truths the Story contains are found in me, and in you, as listeners, more so than in the events it purports to describe. It is a story that, if we have ears to hear and minds to understand, may just tell us a bit about who we are and what we most need in this both joyous and painful world in which we live.
The story was hardly a brand spanking new one even at the time it was first told. As I pointed out two Sundays ago, in the Greco-Roman world where the stories of Jesus’ birth were first told, there was nothing especially unusual about the union of a god and a human being producing an extraordinary individual who embodied certain god-like qualities. The Egyptian, Greek, and Roman god and goddesses joined with mortals quite frequently to produce extraordinary mortals.
So, for the First Century Church to maintain that Jesus was the result of the union of God and a young woman was not inconsistent with the world view or cosmology of that day. Of course, the way the universe worked in the minds of the First Century people of the Middle East is not how it works in the minds of most 21st century Westerners. But if we can treat the story as a legend that tells us about ourselves then we can get past its literal content while still appreciating the poetry of it.
What I see in the stories of the Birth of Jesus is a depiction of the fragility and vulnerability of being human on the one hand, and an assurance of the power of human spirit on the other. Think of all that is contained in the image of the infant Jesus: A homeless baby in a make-shift shelter, probably scared, maybe hungry, and needing nurture and care. On some visceral level this image of a frightened and vulnerable infant can put us in touch with some of our own vulnerabilities and neediness and loneliness. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Perhaps it helps to have a story to remind us that we’ve been there. Maybe that’s why we as human beings have given birth to this one and to various others like it.
But the hinge upon which this story turns is that this same needy and vulnerable and seemingly helpless little piece of humanity just happened to possess the very qualities that can save humanity. Don’t we need to know that too? When we sometimes look at ourselves, and the world in which we’re given to live our lives (the only world we have), and wonder what possible difference can I make—what can I possibly offer that will bring some greater measure of peace and justice and healing to a world so desperately in need of these things? But the promise of the Jesus story is that—helpless and small as we may feel at times—we do possess within us the very qualities that can, if not save the world, at least move its salvation a few more degrees in the right direction.
Still another piece of the story is that this same helpless baby embodies the hope and the promise and the possibility we see in each newborn. The birth of a Christ is not a once and for all event that took place in some mythical past—it is a human event instead. It is an event that happens when we, when any one of us, wake up—as the Buddha would put it—to the sacred or the holy or the divine dimension of life that is contained within our lives, and within the life of our world and in the life of this vast and mysterious universe within which we live and move and have our being.
For those of us who have been part of the Unitarian Universalist communion over the years the words on this subject by the late Rev. Sophia Fahs, who is considered the founder of today’s liberal religious education, are quite familiar. In her beloved poem For So The Children Come her recurring line is “Each night a child is born is a holy night.” Think on the truth of those words: “each night a child is born is a holy night.” The story we celebrate tonight is but one example of that truth.
The story of this one holy child continues. It goes on to tell of how this same helpless looking human being grew up to exemplify the best in human beings as he traveled the world of his day, identifying with the poor and the lowly and the dispossessed, saying that we’re all cared about and loved and deserve to live in a world of peace and justice.
So, for me the gist of the Jesus story is that we each have within us the power and the strength of the human spirit to grow up and show forth in our lives the better, if not the best, qualities of human living. It takes a certain amount of faith, I know, to believe that, but it’s a faith worth having. This is why the story was born and continues to be told—to encourage us to keep having faith in ourselves.
And so tonight we celebrate the story of a child who came to be called the light of the world. The human challenge in this story is for each and all of us to bring our lights into the world as well. For if there is to be a “light of the world” we are it—not just us in this room but all human beings of many faiths and practices who hope for a brighter day for all of humanity.
We’re going to sing about that hope as we each light a candle that will symbolize the light we possess and seek to have shine forth. “Dona Nobis Pacem”—give us peace. And then when all of our lights are lit we will sing together one verse of “Silent Night” to remind us of the story that was born many years ago, and the story that we need to be living out today.
December 24, 2017