Nov 22 2017

December Journal: Why Do We Unitarian Universalists Do Christmas?

Published by at 10:16 pm under Minister's Musings

Why Do We Unitarian Universalists Do Christmas?
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
On October 22, during our Diwali celebration this year, Sundar Mudupalli begins his reflection with these beautiful words:
“In preparing for this service, we members of the worship team have a robust discussion about why we celebrate Diwali in our church. Are we being cultural voyeurs? Is this another aspect of white supremacy benevolently accommodating other cultures when convenient?”
Then he answers: “What I see is not voyeurism, but a wholeness that comes from incorporating aspects from other cultures that speak better to me than my own. For example, in the spiritual practice of my birth, I don’t have a way of honoring the dead. I find that the Day of the Dead celebration incorporates my desire to respect and honor my ancestors. So, too, from Diwali, we can incorporate the long view presented in the Ramayana into our spiritual practice.”
Just a couple of weeks later, a Worship Associate asks a similar question: Why do we at the First Unitarian Church of San José make such a big deal about Christmas? We light the Advent candles every Sunday of the season. We offer a candlelight Christmas Eve service.
It’s a great question, and I hope it sparks a robust discussion among us!
We are a purposely diverse group. Some folks feel oppressed, overwhelmed, or disconnected by the wider culture’s focus on this radically commercialized holiday. They wish that we would offer relief from the Christmas onslaught during this time of year.
Others among us would be devastated if we dropped any of our Christmas rituals. And still others would feel better about the Christmas acknowledgments if we would just give equal time to the other festivals of light and darkness at this season, like Chanukah and the Solstice.
This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist!
Sure, our faith’s tendency to question absolutely everything can be frustrating, but it can also lead to depth. It can shake us out of sleepy habits. It can awaken us to systemic injustices and oppressions. As a spiritual practice, such questioning is a lot of work. But it can also show us how to build Beloved Community—if we hold our questions and our diverse answers in a curious, compassionate, and openhearted spirit, ready to learn from each other even as we clarify our own beliefs.
So: Why do we do Christmas? Here are few of my own answers. I would love to hear yours.
·        Our religious roots lie in Christianity. The earliest understandings of “unitarianism” and “universalism” lie in interpretations of Jesus’ life and messages from thinkers in the first centuries of the Common Era. These understandings were declared heretical, but they stayed alive counterculturally, because—like the best seekings of any religion—they continue to ring true to some of us. They crack open ideas about what we humans are called to be and do on this earth. I like mining Jesus’ teachings and even the myths around his birth in order to incorporate those core ideas—core ideas about the inherent belovedness and beauty of everyone, and about our human agency to create heaven or hell here on earth through our actions.
·        Our religious ancestors in this country were religious rebels, trying to get back to those core messages from Jesus’ life. Honoring the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter guarantees that I will spend some part of each year deepening my own understanding of this heritage. Our Living Tradition draws on wisdom from six rich sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions” and “Jewish and Christian teachings,” and I want to explore them all!
·        In general, we Unitarian Universalists are ritual-poor. Ritual speaks to mind, heart, body, and spirit; it offers experiences beyond a long string of interesting words, and opens a window on wonder. Lighting the candles at Christmastime, building our Día de los Muertos altar, celebrating Flower and Water Communions, lighting the diyas for Diwali, kindling candles or dropping stones for our Joys and Sorrows—these rituals connect us through time to those who come before us and who will come after. They remind us that we are embodied, whole-bodied beings. That feels important in our information-overloaded world.
·        The best spirit of Christmas offers delight to many. The light in our children’s eyes; the toddlers rolling about on the labyrinth in the candlelight on Christmas Eve; the tears as we listen to Crystal Isola sing “O Holy Night”; the sound of our youth’s voices reading new or ancient texts—these bring me home to hope, love, joy, and peace (the themes of this holiday season). And that, my friends, is priceless.
I don’t identify as Christian, though I love Jesus’ witness for love and justice. Every year, the work it takes to find our Unitarian Universalist way into Christmas leads to some new discovery. I hope we can have a robust and openhearted conversation about why we do Christmas, how we can make our reasons ring loud and clear, how we can invite the Christians in our own community to help us lead these services, and what all of us might incorporate from these traditions, even if they are not part of our own culture or theology.
This year, we will lift up Chanukah on December 10 and 17 in worship. We will celebrate Solstice twice—through the Holiday Play on December 17 at 11:00 a.m. and the Solstice service on December 21 at 8:00 p.m. And on Christmas Eve, Sunday, December 24, we offer two different services: one in the morning at 11:00 a.m., and our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 7:00 p.m.
May these celebrations feed your spirit! May we experience a “wholeness that comes from incorporating aspects from other cultures that speak better to me than my own.” May we continue to grow together!
Yours in the searching,
Rev. Nancy

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