James Ishmael Ford
23 December 2012
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
At nine thirty in the morning this past Friday, in our church parking lot, I sat in my car with the windows rolled down, listening to our Paul Revere bell ringing out. Truthfully I missed the count. Twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven, perhaps twenty-eight times, each would have been right. At the time, the vibrations of that old, old bell just rang right through me. Two pedestrians had stopped, and lingered during the ringing, as well. All of us wrapped in our own silences, but joined as one within that ringing.
Later, I found myself thinking about that bell, our church historians claim it the largest casting to come from the Revere foundry. I kind of like that. But, what I mostly found myself thinking of was how over the many years it has rung to celebrate weddings, to mark funerals, to note the ending of wars. I felt a certain comfort in knowing that bell and with it this Meeting House and even more important, our congregation have been gathering together for centuries now, a couple of years shy of two hundred just for our Meeting House, a handful more years for three centuries of our gathering as a community of liberal faith.
All with that I found my heart thinking of today, and of this gathering, and of our celebrations. Here we are, once again, shadowed as so often has been true, by a great sadness, but also looking forward with great hope. I found myself considering how fortunate that this day, right now, is when we celebrate our annual Christmas pageant, a small gift in rough times.
The first Christmas pageants were part of the European medieval mystery play tradition. The first recorded use of a crèche, with live animals, I understand – and I probably have just put an idea in Cathy’s head – dates from a service put together in 1223 by St Francis of Assisi.
Now, as most of us know, here in New England, wherever they had their reach, the Puritans banned Christmas. It was plainly a pagan holiday, thinly Christianized. And no doubt that’s true. Christmas, the heart of it, the birth of a child of hope in a world with too much sadness, really is vastly older than any organized religion, truly a universalist holiday, a profoundly humanistic holy day.
I’m so pleased, and not at all surprised how it was the Unitarians who when visiting Europe reveled in the German Christmas celebrations they witnessed, with trees and Yule logs and gifts, pretty much all the trimmings we think of, thought pagan, no problem, and with that brought the whole glorious mess here to our rocky shores. The first Christmas tree to be lit in New England was put up in Cambridge by the Unitarian minister the Reverend Charles Follen, in 1832.
And here we are today. Ancient holidays recalled in an ancient building, hints and threads and dreams of something mysterious and deeply true. All of it focused on the birth of a child. It is a Christian story, really a Jewish story, truly a pagan story: it is the eternally recurring story of human hope found in the birth of a child.
And, thinking about the pageant. You know, when we sing of hope, it is appropriate to go over the top, and maybe even way over the top. Maybe sometime we’ll bring in some live animals. Personally, I’d love to see a camel in the Meeting House. But also with our over the top, as you know, while most Christmas pageants feature a single holy family and a single baby – well, we here at First Unitarian are not to be outdone, and so today we will find a stereoscopic version with two holy families processing down the way. One of the families even has Jesus’ older brother James the Great. You’re not going to find that in the church down the street.
So, sadness. Sure. So, hope, absolutely. As long as human beings breathe, there will be hope. Every time a child is born, there will be hope. And we will celebrate, gathering, with words, with song, and, of course, with pageants.
And, so, without further adieu…
Merry Christmas, dear ones, Merry Christmas.