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At this time of year, it can be difficult to know whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy New Year. Both are clearly appropriate, yet it can sometimes seem we are in a no-man’s land between one and the other.
Stuck in the Middle, perhaps.
But we’re not. Today is the fifth day of Christmas.
* * * *
I began my sermon last week with the words,
‘Well, we made it’
I wonder if perhaps that is more appropriate this week. Certainly, after excess food, TV, travelling and visiting. And mince pies. I feel a sense of achievement. I trust you all do too.
‘Well, we made it’.
But this is of course just a resting period before the New Year celebrations.
The commercialisation of Christmas has now reached a point where Christmas appeared to be over before it had begun. The shops began their sales ahead of the day itself – I was in Horsham on the last Saturday before Christmas, and the red sale banners were in the windows of the shops already.
On Christmas Day itself, the on-line sales began. Bored of listening to Auntie Thirza? Well, just get on-line and spend the afternoon in a personal journey of spending and consumerism.
Not even taken the time to wear all three pairs of socks you received in the morning before you are able to go on-line and buy some more.
From the commercial world, Christmas is over before it’s really begun. And I think that’s a real shame, and a missed opportunity.
According to the Church calendar, Christmas is still with us. It is here until the 6th January, next Sunday. The twelve nights of Christmas. The long period of contemplation and celebration, a period of mystery and promise, of reflection and understanding.
In the myths and stories of Christmas, this is the period immediately after the Christ-Child has been born, and covers the twelve days before the Kings arrived to present their gifts. Christmas is of such importance in the Christian calendar, and is set at a time that has been held sacred by people in this part of the world for thousands of year, the turning of the year, the movement from darkness to light.
From a spiritual perspective, as a waymark on the physical and the mental journeys in our lives, this time is very important.
In recent Services, we have reflected, if that’s the right word, we have reflected on the importance of darkness and light – of this period of light.
Well, know we’re here. The Light has returned. Light has come into our lives. A precious, life-giving offer of renewal and replenishment. How can we rush this one? Can we really afford to allow this opportunity to pass us by? Are we really more interested in looking for the next thrill, rather than welcoming and savouring the genuine thrill, the genuine and completely free opportunity that the turning of the Year, and the centuries old myths and stories provides for us?
I hope not.
Yet although we might try to bring the lessons of Christmas into our lives now, and even if we are explicit in our agreement that this is a twelve-day season of spiritual development, it can still seem like a period between two , or perhaps three, key points. Christmas, New Year’s Day, and, perhaps, Twelfth Night. We are, or might be, however you look at it, ‘Stuck in the Middle’.
But should we be?
We are presented, at Christmas, with the notion of a rebirth for our lives – the coming into the world of salvation, however we might perceive that to be. The turning of the year, the coming of a child, these things tell us of rebirth.
As Unitarians, with a theology that has consistently considered all humanity to be capable of bringing God’s love into the world, we might see the birth of Jesus the human, and the stories of the birth of a Christ-Child as reminders of the rebirth that is possible within ourselves. The rebirth that we must each go through if we are to take full advantage of this season, and the rebirth we know we must take if we are to cleanse our souls of the things we know we must shed if we are to move forward, next year, with new resolution and determination to live our spiritual lives in the everyday.
Now, I doubt there are any here today that would see the birth of a child as a one-day wonder. Once a baby is born we don’t, as parents, carers or friends, turn away as expect all to be fine now. We do not expect each child to need some love and care on day one, and then be left to fend for itself for the rest of its life.
And the rebirth of the child within each of us, the birth of the Christ-Child in our lives, the return of the light, is perhaps not something that can be celebrated and thought about for one day and then left alone to fend for itself.
No, I believe we need to use this time after the birthday to contemplate what it means to each if us. To use some time to really consider how we see this opportunity and light growing within each of us, right now.
And for each of us it will be different. We are all at different points in our life stories. We are, all of us, likely to reflect on different elements of our lives that might benefit from some cleansing and rebirth at this time.
In our first reading, the poem by Siegfried Sassoon, we are reminded of the opportunities this time of year can bring us for reflection.
I shall read it again, since it can often be quite hard to remember in detail the readings.
December stillness, teach me through your trees
That loom along the west, one with the land,
The veiled evangel of your mysteries.
While nightfall, sad and spacious, on the down
Deepens, and dusk imbues me, where I stand,
With grave diminishings of green and brown,
Speak, roofless Nature, your instinctive words;
And let me learn your secret from the sky,
Following a flock of steadfast-journeying birds
In lone remote migration beating by.
December stillness, crossed by twilight roads,
Teach me to travel far and bear my loads.
As I mentioned before, we did use this poem at our poetry and meditation gathering earlier this month. And that, perhaps, is why the poem has stuck with me for so long, providing a base on which to build my own spiritual plans for this time.
Sassoon sees December as the month for reflection. He sees, I believe, the apparent death of nature – the grave diminishings of green and brown – when coupled with the overwhelming awesomeness of Nature – as a God-given opportunity to reflect on our purpose and our connections to this world. This stillness of which Sassoon writes is also, I suggest, the stillness that hangs in the time after Christmas and Yule – this time we are currently in.
We each of us have the opportunity to use the stillness of December, the simplicity of the natural world at this time, as an opportunity to reflect personally on how we see the coming time, the coming year perhaps, developing.
Sassoon talks of following a flock of stead-fast journeying birds. This imagery strikes me as a recognition that life continues. We are forever following life and the natural cycle; we cannot control the passage of time.
But we can control the impact we have on the world. How we might be able to help bring love and wholeness to our family, our friends, our community and the world more broadly.
We are but a tiny part of this world, yet we are connected to it. A tiny part yet each of us is an active part of it. We can learn from this world, and we can contribute to it too.
The stillness of December co-incides so deliciously with the possibility for stillness in the post-Christmas time.
So, it’s simple really. We’ll just take a little time over these few days, put the world to rights, brace ourselves for the lives of pure love and righteousness we’re about to lead, and all will be well.
OK. I guess that’s asking a little too much.
We can’t make ourselves perfect. We cannot predict how this world will turn out. We really don’t know what lies around the next corner.
But this doesn’t matter.
As Sassoon says, teach me to travel far, and bear my loads.
We may not know how and where we are travelling to, but we can prepare for the journey.
And let’s not forget that these twelve days, the days in which the Kings are said to have travelled to the stable in Bethlehem, these are days where we are thinking about the journeys, about destinations, but also uncertainty.
Elizabeth Tarbox, in our second reading, in thinking around the way she planned to make her resolutions for New Year concluded with the following:
This year I’m not making any resolutions, or asking God to resolve things for me. This year, as I take my self-inventory, I’m aiming for the continued willingness to keep the doors of my feelings open, to participate in life as well as to observe it, to contribute more to the solutions and less to the problems, and to wish everyone, with all my heart, a happy and healthy new year.
This has a greater grounding in reality for me. No resolutions. Because we simply do not know for certain what specifics lie ahead. However, the importance is in this notion of self-inventory. This period of internal reflection and assessment.
Christmas, the return of the light, the Sun, has given us the reminder we need that we are able to renew and refresh ourselves. We too can be reborn, we too can bring the innocence and potential of a new-born child to the world.
But we need time to prepare ourselves from this. The rush of Christmas preparations and of the day itself can mean that our good intentions for personal renewal get left behind.
However, we are fortunate that the December stillness, and this time apparently between events, gives us that chance to still ourselves and to prepare for the coming year.
You may know there are certain things you look to do, to change, to continue. You may alternatively see this time as a necessary recharge and redirection. Like Elizabeth Tarbox, you might avoid the specifics and look instead to prepare to participate in life by contributing to the solutions, not the problems.
I said earlier that I had made a couple of changes to our usual Order of Service today. The reason for that was to bring an opportunity, I hope, for some personal reflection and contemplation in the December stillness.
We have heard from Sassoon and Tarbox, and we have probably all sat thinking about the way we might begin to prepare for the future. To cleanse our inner hearts and to prepare for the coming year.
I would like us now to come together in silence and stillness. I suggest you settle into your chairs, relaxing, and thinking on your personal hopes and needs for the coming year.
None of us can truly know what lies ahead, but each of us has the opportunity now to spend some time preparing. This may be the first chance you’ve had. It may be a part of a continuing piece.
But this is your time,