Good evening, and Merry Christmas. Let us prepare to celebrate this special night, as we listen to Amy and Chris, as we listen to the prelude. Tena koutou te whanau o Auckland Unitarians
Tena koutou nga manuhiri, Nau mai, Haere mai, Haere mai
ki tenei whare karakia o te Atua Meri Kirihimete ki a koutou
Tena koutou tena tatou katoa Merry Christmas to you all and welcome to our annual Christmas Eve candlelight service. (in the sunshine!) My name is Clay and I have the privilege of
being this congregation’s minister. We’re delighted you have chosen to share this special
service with us, one we have celebrated 116 times since members of this congregation designed the building and helped build it. And now, concerning the reason you came tonight. Tonight’s service acknowledges the roots
of our Unitarian faith by sharing in the Christmas story, but just as importantly, the delights of the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. As the northern half of the planet prepares
to celebrate Christmas and the turn of the year, so do we in the southern seas, but they
could not be more different on the surface. Not for us the bitter cold of the winter solstice
encouraging us to gather round blazing fires and feast. Not for us the acceptance of darkness
and the lack of light and warmth until the coming of spring gives new hope for abundance
to come. No, it is a time for shorts, the beach, BBQs, tending the garden, tramping
in the bush and relaxing. It reminds us that Christmas is not just a one day affair, but
to be lived out year-long. So if you came to this place expecting a more
chilled “she’ll be right” tame story, you came to the wrong place. If you came for a story that does not threaten you, you came for a different story than the one we will tell. For even a story about a regular baby is not
a tame thing. The story of the baby we celebrate tonight is one that is full of goodness, but
goodness that cannot threaten complacency and evil, is not much good at all. But.
If you came because you think that unwed teen-age mothers are some of the strongest people in
the world. If you came because you think that the kind
of people who work a third shift doing stuff you’d rather not do might attract an angel’s
attention before you would. If you came because you think there are wise
men and women to be found among refugees and migrants from far lands and that they might
reveal a god you can believe in. If you came to hear a story of tyrants trembling
when heaven comes to peasants. If you came because you believe animals are
as important as people and so it is fitting that they were the first witnesses to the
birth of transforming love. If you came for a story of reversals that
might end up reversing you. If you came for a tale of adventure and bravery,
where strong and gentle people win, and the powerful and violent go down to dust, where
the rich lose their money but find their lives and the poor are raised up like kings. If you came to be reminded that a god you can or cannot believe in loves you too much to leave you unchanged. If you came to follow the light even if it
blinds you. If you came for transformation and not safety,
then: ah, my friends, you are in the right place. For my opening words:- The northern hemisphere’s winter solstice
is associated with the birth of many pagan gods from ancient Babylonia, Rome and Scandinavia,
including Mithras, Horus, Hercules, Zeus, and Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. It
was also at this time the festival of Saturnalia, honouring Saturn, the God of Agriculture was
celebrated. It was during the reign of Emperor Constantine
in 336 that the first celebration of Christmas on December 25th is recorded. In 350, Pope
Julius I made it the official date of Christ’s birth. There is little doubt he was trying
to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans to convert to Christianity. The new
religion went down a bit easier, for them knowing that their feasts were not be taken
away from them, simply rebranded. Christmas in England became known as a season
of irreligious revelry, as the tradition of the twelve days of Misrule became popular.
It was in all respects an appropriation of Saturnalia’s wild festivities—the Romans
knew how to party. Puritans were offended by it and celebrating it was banned during
the time of Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of the monarchy, people once again started
to observe Christmas; but in Puritan North America it was banned in 1621 and remained
illegal for150 years. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited America.
Most of what he encountered disillusioned him, with the exception of meeting Boston
Unitarians, in particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. Inspired by Boston
Unitarians’ understanding of Christmas, he wrote upon his return a Christmas story
without once mentioning Jesus. In A Christmas Carol Dickens shows it is possible to experience
a conversion—not necessarily based on a specific religious experience—but a personal
regeneration that leads one to help others. With Scrooge’s transformative change of
heart, Dickens illustrates that all of us can be converted from a harsh, complacent,
selfish worldview to one of love, hope, and charity and, like Scrooge, can again become
part of the human community. For Dickens, that was the true meaning of Christmas. Its popularity led many non-Unitarians to adopt these values. Every year in America, Fox News expresses
outrage that there is a “War on Christmas.” They demand that Christ be put back in Christmas
to preserve its Christian roots. This is ironic since it was Christianity that hijacked the
holiday in the first place to make it easier to convert those who celebrated the sun’s
conquering of darkness on December 25th. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful opportunity to share our love with friends and family and commit acts of goodwill for those less fortunate. It is
a time for children to revel in their innocence and wonder about the world, and for adults
to find their inner child. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is a time
for us to recognise the Christian roots of our secular society while celebrating the many pagan traditions that Christmas now incorporates. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to
peace in a world where that is a rare state of affairs and to show compassion for those who suffer from war, social injustice and poverty. No matter what our religious background
or beliefs, we can also take the opportunity to celebrate, a little belatedly, our summer
solstice, and the long days of warmth and light that lie ahead, marked by the brilliantly
decorated pohutukawa, our Christmas Tree. I now invite Sally Mabelle to light the very
first of the many Christmas chalices Unitarians will light around the world this holy night. All around the world, the light of honest thought shines, showing people the path to their own authentic faith. All around the world, the warmth of community glows, drawing people in from loneliness and estrangement. All around the world, the flame of justice burns, inspiring people to acts of faith-filled courage. Here, too, may the light and warmth of this chalice be to us a beacon of truth, generosity and compassion, that we may learn the ways of faith and love. Thank You Sally. I would now like to invite Kate Todd forward to read a
poem entitled “Nativity” Hi, for the kids who are here, I just thought I’d say, this poem is telling us to look inside, and to think about whether the birth of the baby in the manger, could be something that happens inside us. So it’s not just about the baby Jesus being born in the hay, with the sheep and the cattle watching, it’s about – could that birth of the baby Jesus be inside you? Look now!
It is happening again! Love like a high spring tide
is swelling to fullness and overflowing the banks of our small concerns.
And here again is the star, that white flame of truth
blazing the way for us through a desert of tired words.
Once more comes the music, angel song that lifts our hearts
and tunes our ears to the harmony of the universe,
making us wonder how we ever could have forgotten.
And now the magi within us gathers up gifts of gold and myrrh,
while that other part of ourselves, the impulsive, reckless shepherd,
runs helter skelter with arms outstretched to embrace the wonder of it all.
We have no words to contain our praise.
We ache ‘with awe, we tremble with miracle,
as once again, in the small rough stable of our lives,
Christ is born. David Rohe will now read a Christmas poem
about an unlikely Christ, written by RAK Mason, the New Zealand poet and playwright, who actually premiered one of his plays in this space. On the Swag by R. A. K. Mason His body doubled
under the pack that sprawls untidily
on his old back the cold wet dead-beat
plods up the track. The cook peers out:
‘oh curse that old lag – here again
with his clumsy swag made of dirty old
turnip bag.’ Bring him in cook
from the grey level sleet put silk on his body
slippers on his feet, give him fire
and bread and meat. ‘Let the fruit be plucked
and the cake be iced, the bed be snug
and the wine be spiced in the old cove’s night cap
for this is Christ.” The following story is about a unique Kiwi Christmas written by renowned NZ author, Joy Cowley. There is no snow in it but there is a fish. I would like to invite Rachel Mackintosh forward to read ‘The Fish’. The Fish by Joy Cowley All right. I said I’d tell you about the fish. Well, summer was early that year,
and there was no going to town on Christmas Eve — because of the hay, you see. Mum was driving the tractor,
Dad was on the trailer and us five kids were helping Uncle Pete load. Hard work in the heat — bales like big Weetbix
tied with green twine. We had tough hands but the string still cut
and there were thistles to be dug out of fingers. Boy, were we pleased to see Uncle Pete’s wife,
Aunty Roimata, bouncing across the paddocks on her motorbike!
It was a BSA Bantam with a spring clip on the carrier and a box with two flagons of
lemon cordial and some sandwiches and I forget what else. No, not the fish. I’m coming to that. So we all sat in the macrocarpa shade, us
kids still moaning about town. It was the shopping, you see. We hadn’t bought anything for Mum and Dad.
The tree was up in the bay window. We’d made our own decorations — ping pong balls painted
with glitter, silver bells from milk bottle tops, crepe paper streamers. But what about the presents? It was all right
for our parents. They’d got stuff for us kids weeks before.
We’d seen the parcels at the back of the garage. It was them who were going to miss out. I said we should all drive into town when the hay was finished, but Mum said we’d be too tired. “Forget it,” said Dad. “Getting the hay in the barn’s the best present you could give us,” Uncle Pete and Aunty Roi said, “yeah, yeah,
too right,” but they didn’t understand how us kids felt. You couldn’t put hay under the
tree with a card, Merry Christmas, Mum and Dad. They were spot on, though, about us being tired. We didn’t get the last bales in until dark
and by then we were just about asleep on our feet. If I remember rightly, I didn’t even
get in my pyjamas. The fish? No. I haven’t forgotten about the fish. We’re coming to that. I guess we woke up early. Kids always do, don’t they? Our toys were by the tree and they were corker.
Mum and Dad had gone around the auction mart, bought second hand stuff and cleaned it up.
I got a tool kit with real tools and a pump action oil can. The others had a bike, scooter,
cricket set, a music box. Mum got some of us to help her pod the peas. My sisters sang, (sings – While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated on the ground, a cake of Lifebuoy soap came down and soapsuds splashed around.) Mum told them off but she
wasn’t really mad. It was when she opened the meat safe, that
she got upset. No fridge in those days, you see, and with
the hot weather, the leg of lamb for Christmas dinner was as high as a kite. It smelled like
it had been lying in the paddock for three weeks. Poor Mum. She threw the stinking meat out
to the dogs and said, “That’s it! That’s it! I give up!” Dad put his arm around her.
He’d kill another sheep, he said. He’d shoot a couple of ducks. We could have dinner later.
But Mum wouldn’t cheer up. While they were talking there was a knock
on the back door. I went out. There in the porch was this little kid with a sugar sack
in his arms. Honest, he could hardly hold it. His skinny brown legs were bowed with
the weight. I waited for him to say something. He didn’t. We just looked at each other.
Then he pushed the sack at me. “For your Mum and Dad,” he said. I tell you, I nearly dropped it. There was
something inside, heavy, kind of floppy. The kid walked backwards across the veranda, then turned and ran over the paddocks. I put the sack down and opened it. Yes. It was the fish, a huge thing, blue and
silver, still wet and smelling of the sea. Well, you should have seen my mother. Dad, too. They couldn’t believe it.
Dad thought the boy was someone staying with Pete and Roimata, and he phoned to thank them. Uncle Pete said he didn’t know anything about it. “Come off it, man,” he said. “You
think if I got a fish like that I’d give it away?” So we never found out who the kid was or where
the big fish came from. Like I said, it was fresh caught, and the sea was more than thirty miles away. All I know is we had a fourteen pound snapper
with peas and new potatoes from the garden, and it was the best Christmas dinner I ever
tasted. I now would like to invite Sally Mabelle forward to read Small Carol by NZ poet and hymn composer, Shirley Murray. Child of Christmas story,
stable straw and star, small and sweet and gentle:
tell us who you are. Child whose baby finger
round our own is curled, come to melt our hearts, and
come to change the world. Child of Jew and Gentile,
child of white and black – teach us how to love you ,
teach us what we lack. Child of Mary’s courage,
birthed in human pain, tell what your name is –
be our hope again. I would now like to invite, our special music, by a brother/sister act. And I would like to give thanks for Rachel and her brother Bennett, for preparing this music for tonight. The King James Bible translates the Persian
word Magi as Wise Men. But, in truth, the magi in the Persian court were both men and
women, so it might have been in truth three wise women who followed the star. I now invite Kate Todd to read Norma Farber’s ‘The Queens Came Late’. That’s right, maybe they were 3 Queens. The Queens came late, but the Queens were
there With gifts in their hands and crowns in their
hair. They’d come, these three, like the Kings,
from far, Following, yes, that guiding star.
They’d left their ladles, linens, looms, Their children playing in nursery rooms,
And told their sitters: “Take charge! For this
Is a marvelous sight we must not miss!” The Queens came late, but not too late
To see the animals small and great, Feathered and furred, domestic and wild,
Gathered to gaze at a mother and child. And rather than frankincense and myrrh
And gold for the babe, they brought for her Who held him, a homespun gown of blue,
And chicken soup – with noodles, too – And a lingering, lasting, cradle-song.
The Queens came late and stayed not long, For their thoughts already were straining
far – Past manger and mother and guiding star
And a child aglow as a morning sun – Toward home and children and chores undone. Christmas is a time we are called to be especially
generous to those in need. Here at Auckland Unitarians we call it ‘The Sacrament of Generosity’. This year our koha will be shared with two agencies that support refugees and asylum seekers: Specifically, UNICEF’s work with the Rohingya children who have been forced from their homes in Myanmar; and the Asylum Seekers Support Trust in New Zealand.
Our Management Committee has pledged to match your generosity dollar for dollar. Make it hurt!
Please be as generous as you can. We all have certain things this time of year, that, if we don’t hear them, or watch them, it’s not quite Christmas. For me, I think I’ve watched ‘It’s a wonderful life’ 60 times. But there’s one other thing that I have to hear or read on Christmas, and it’s by Robert Fulghum, a Unitarian minister and author, most of you may know because he wrote “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”. Less well known is his account of a church Christmas pageant. It both tickles and touches me, and it would not be Christmas without hearing it again. Our church had not had a full-blown Christmas
pageant in years. For one thing, we had become fairly rational about the season, content
to let the Sunday School observe the event on their own turf in a low-key way. Then,
too, there was the last time we had gone all out. That week of the Christmas pageant coincided
with an outbreak of German measles, chicken pox, and the Hong Kong flu. The night of the
pageant there was a cyclone, a partial power failure that threw some people’s clocks
off, and one of the sheep hired for the occasion got diarrhoea. That was about par for the
course, since Joseph and the two Wise Men threw up during the performance and some little
angels managed to both cry and wet their pants. To top it off, the choir of teenagers walking
about in an irresponsible manner with lighted candles created more a feeling of the fear
of hell fire and the wrath of God than a feeling of peace on earth. I don’t think it was
really all that bad, and maybe all those things didn’t happen the same year, but a sufficient
number of senior ladies in the church had had it up to here with the whole hoo-ha and
tended to squelch any suggestion of another pageant. It was as if cholera had once again been among us and nobody wanted to go through that again. But nostalgia is strong, and it addled the
brains of those same senior ladies as they considered the pleas of the younger mothers
who had not been through this ritual ordeal and would not be dissuaded. It was time their
children had their chance. And in short order, people who kept saying,
‘I ought to know better,’ were right in there making angel costumes out of old bedsheets,
cardboard, and chicken feathers. Just the right kind of bathrobes could not be found
for the Wise Men, so some of the daddies went out and bought new ones and backed a pickup
truck over them to age them a bit. One of the young mothers was pregnant, and it was
made clear to her in loving terms that she was expected to come up with a real newborn
child by early December. She vowed to try. An angel choir was lashed into singing shape.
A real manger with real straw was obtained. And while there was a consensus on leaving
out live sheep this time, some enterprising soul managed to borrow two small goats for
the evening. The real coup was renting a live donkey for the Mother Mary to ride in on.
None of us had ever seen a live donkey ridden through a church chancel, and it seemed like
such a fine thing to do at the time. We made one concession to sanity, deciding
to have the thing on a Sunday morning in the full light of day, so we could see what we
were doing and nobody in the angel choir would get scared of the dark and cry or wet their pants. No candles, either. And no full rehearsal. These things are supposed to be a little hokey anyhow, and nobody was about to go through the whole thing twice. The great day came and everybody arrived at church. Husbands who were not known for regular attendance came – probably for the same reason they would be attracted to a train wreck. It wasn’t all that bad, really. At least,
not early on. The goats did get loose in the parking lot and put on quite a rodeo with
the shepherds. But we hooted out the carols with full voice, and the angel choir got through
its first big number almost on key and in unison. The Star of Bethlehem was lit over
the manger, and it came time for the entrance of Joseph and Mary, with Mary riding on the
U-Haul donkey, carrying what later proved to be a Raggedy Andy doll (since the pregnant
lady was overdue). It was the donkey that proved our undoing. The donkey made two hesitant steps through
the door of the chancel, took a look at the whole scene, and seized up. Locked his legs,
put his whole body in a cement condition well beyond rigor mortis, and the procession ground
to a halt. Now there are things you might consider doing to a donkey in private to get
it to move, but there is a limit to what you can do to a donkey in church on a Sunday morning
in front of women and children. Jerking on his halter and some wicked kicking on the
part of the Virgin Mary had no effect. The president of the board of trustees, seated
in the front row and dressed in his Sunday best, rose to the rescue. The floor of the
chancel was polished wood. And so, with another man pulling at the halter, the president of
the board crouched at the stern end of the donkey and pushed – slowly sliding the rigid
beast across the floor, inch by stately inch. With progress being made, the choir director
turned on the sound system, which blared forth a mighty chorus from the Mormon Tabernacle
Choir accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Just as the donkey and his mobilizers reached
mid-church, the CD player blew a fuse and there was a sudden silence. And in that silence
an exasperated voice came from the backside of the donkey, ‘MOVE YOUR ASS, YOU SON OF
A BITCH!’ Followed immediately by a voice from the rear of the church – the donkey-pusher’s
wife – ‘Leon, shut your filthy mouth!’ And that’s when the donkey brayed. If we
had held an election for jackass that day, there would have been several candidates mentioned.
And the vote would have been pretty evenly distributed. We are such fun to watch when we do what we
do. And though it has been several years since
the church held another Christmas pageant, we have not seen the last one. The memory
of the laughter outlives the memory of the hassle. And hope – hope always makes us
believe that this time, this year, we will get it right. That’s the whole deal with Christmas, I
guess. It’s just real life – only a lot more of it all at once than usual. And I suppose
we will continue doing it all. Get frenzied and confused and frustrated and even mad.
And also get excited and hopeful and quietly pleased. We will laugh and cry and pout and
ponder. Get a little drunk and excessive. Hug and kiss and make a great mess. Spend
too much. And somebody will always be there to throw up or wet their pants. As always,
we will sing only some verses and most of those off-key. We will do it again and again and again. We are the Christmas pageant – the whole damn thing. And I think it’s best to just let it happen.
As at least one person I know can attest, getting pushy about it is trouble. Now we have the challenging task of living out a tradition we’ve done every year. We’re going to try and create a circle around the church, bring your candle, bring your order of service. What’s supposed to happen now is we will have a meditation as we light the candles. Gerard, who has been our organist for many years, and comes back every Christmas to play one song, on the organ; it’s the only time during the year the organ gets played, for that one song. So Thank You for coming. He will play softly while we’re lighting the candles, and once all the candles are lit we will sing ‘Silent Night’. As we light the first candle
Let us be still in the darkness of our sacred space, And listen to the quiet around us. For even in the quiet, there is the gentle
being with others. Let us feel the warmth of our community, Knowing we are a quiet shadow in the glow of life within. Let us be in the darkness the gift each
candle offers, A diminutive light –
Yet the wondrous gift to kindle another’s glow. Let us be in awe at this moment as we each take up our light and our candle. As it is a symbol of peace and goodwill that it will fill this night. So may it be. We close this celebration with a carol written
on Christmas Eve 1818 in the Austrian Alps by a young priest after he’d trudged through
the snow that night to bless the newborn infant of a peasant family. It seemed to him that
that birth, like every birth, is a moment of holy grace. He was touched by the mysterious
and wonder of new life. That life, every life is sacred, and worthy of protection, respect and love. Let us sing Silent Night, Holy Night. And now, keeping your candles lit, I invite David Rohe to say our closing words. The Work of Christmas Begins by
Howard Thurman When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks, Then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart… And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.