This service was conducted by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the homily below is a reading text. The actual homily as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Homily copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.
After the death of Jesus, his followers mourned the loss of their teacher and spiritual leader. And they felt that such a great human being must have been predicted by the prophets and sages of the distant past. They knew the great prophet Isaiah had predicted that, one day, a great leader would be born who would rule the people of Israel in justice and peace; and so these words from the book of Isaiah have become associated with the birth of Jesus:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever…. [King James Version, Isaiah 9.2, 4, 6-7]
A lighted flame in a chalice has become a symbol of Unitarians and Universalists around the world. As we light the flame in this chalice tonight, we do so in the consciousness that our religious tradition springs from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So it is that we tell the story of Jesus’s birth each year. Here is the story as it is told in the book of Matthew:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 1.18-21]
But a different version of the story of Jesus’s birth appears in the book of Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger [or feeding trough], because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see —- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger [feeding trough].” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. [NRSV, Luke 2.1-20]
Now we have to go back to the book of Matthew to find out what happened in the days immediately after Jesus was born:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to rule my people Israel.” ‘
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. [NRSV, Matthew 2.1-12]
Christmas Eve Homily
I don’t know if you ever noticed, but there are two quite different stories about the birth of Jesus. On the one hand, the story in the book of Luke tells us about how there was no room at the inn, and the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. The story in the book of Matthew, on the other hand, says nothing about a manger or a stable, and in fact calls the place where Jesus was born a “house.” But it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi, whatever “magi” might be. There are at least three other complete books that purport to tell the story of Jesus — the books of Mark, John, and Thomas — but Mark and Thomas start with Jesus as an adult, and John gives us a short and mysterious paragraph about word and God and light.
The fact of the matter is that we know precious little about the birth and early life of Jesus. It would be slightly easier for us if we said that the Bible is the literal and incontrovertible word of God: then we’d know for certain that there were angels who spoke to shepherds, and a long journey to Bethlehem, and magi from the East (whatever “magi” might be). Of course, if the Bible were the literal and incontrovertible word of God, we could ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies that occur between the different stories about birth and life of Jesus.
Since we do not take the Bible literally and incontrovertibly, at Christmas time we find ourselves in the realm of myth and enchantment; I would say, we find ourselves in the realm of poetry. A poem can be just as true as a mathematical equation, or just as true as a scientifically proven natural law; but it is true in a different way; not literally true, but true in its allusions and connections and resonances.
This year, I have been thinking about the magi, those mysterious visitors from the East. (By the way, nowhere does it say that there were only three of them.) Magi comes from the ancient Greek word “magoi,” which means astrologer or wise men. I wonder if they were actually all men, or if we just assume that they were? I wonder, if they were astrologers, did they try to predict the future life of the new baby they came to visit? –and how accurate were their predictions? I wonder where they came from in the East? –from Persia, from Baghdad, from India? I wonder what religion they followed –Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, paganism? I wonder, but there is simply no way to know for sure.
But the poetic truth of that moment when the magi finally arrive:– the star that they have been following stand directly over the house where the newborn baby lies, watched over by his mother and father — the poetry, for me, lies in this passage:
The magi “were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
We should all kneel down to pay homage when we see a new-born baby. Any baby is a miracle: a new life that has come into being, a new bit of humanity to be loved and cherished, and to offer love in return. Every time a baby is born, the human stock of love is increased by the love contained in that tiny body. What could be more miraculous? We can offer no other response than to be overwhelmed with joy.
And then the magi open up their treasure chests, and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why did they give those three things? They gave gold because the crown of the king of Israel was fashioned from gold; and frankincense and myrrh were used in the oils for anointing kings. These astrologers seem to be predicting that Jesus would be a new king of Israel. So there is a very specific, technical meaning for the gifts the magi brought.
But as with any good poetry, we can find layers of meaning. For someone living in the land of Judea in the first century Roman Empire, gold and frankincense and myrrh might have very specific meanings relating to the longing for a king, a leader, to deliver the land of Israel from Roman oppression. For us today, living in a post-Christian, globalized world, those old meanings have only a faint resonance; but we can resonate with the deeper levels of meaning in the giving of gifts.
We can understand that the magi gave gifts to that baby, because that baby represented new life and love. We can understand that we give gifts today for the same deep reason. When you or I give a gift to someone else, we are first of all acknowledging that person’s essential humanity; and although we might not express it that way, we are also extending a little bit of love to that person.
If you exchange gifts tomorrow, I hope you will think of this poetic meaning of Christmas gift-giving. To give a gift to another person is a metaphor for extending a little bit of love to that person; and so symbolically, poetically, to exchange gifts is to add to the store of the world’s love. And it isn’t necessary to give an actual physical object, you know; you can give the gift of a kind word, or a hug, or a smile, and it does the same thing.
Let me put this another way. When Jesus grew up, he taught that the most important thing in the world is to love your neighbor as yourself. This is a truth that Jesus got from his Jewish heritage, and passed on to the wider world. This is the poetic truth that is embodied in the simple act of giving gifts: to love and value other people as you would be loved and valued by them.