This was originally posted on Facebook 12 December 2016. So much of it resonates with how I feel that I asked Alex if I could host it here. He has kindly agreed.
Some of my fb friends know I have led services in Unitarian places of worship. It’s nothing special – my fb friends include many qualified Ministers, and the odd priestess, as well as others who are amateurs like me. I haven’t been at a service for a while because I haven’t found a local place yet, and I haven’t given a service for some time thanks to illness and two relocations.
This week I’ve been wondering what I’d say if I had to lead one this week or in the run-up to Christmas. It’s a tricky one, because many Unitarians are like me – not Christian, maybe not even theists. And some Unitarians are Christian. In the congregations I know, you can’t just do a standard Christmas service and expect everyone to be happy. But at the same time most people want to mark the occasion for a whole host of personal reasons.
Like many people, I struggled to make Christmas meaningful for a long time. I’m a sentimental softie, so weeping at “Mary’s Boy Child” has never been a problem, but it took me ages to see anything particular in the shlock that I found spiritually meaningful. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on Christianity, some of it by authors who identify as Christian, some by authors who don’t; some of it is personal and/or devotional, some of it is academic. And although in my head I no longer find much of what used to appal me about Christianity offensive because I have learnt to understand it contextually or metaphorically (e.g. the claim to be the unique way to salvation, the hideous contradictions of the bible, and the monstrosities committed by Yahweh throughout the Old Testament), I’m still not Christian.
So why do I even want to find meaning in the festivals of Christmas? And why am I bothering to post about it on fb of all places? Why not just enjoy the pagan parts of the celebration that persist in the UK and elsewhere, such as the mistletoe (form an orderly queue please boys), the eponymous plant celebrating the Holly King’s victory and the turn of the wheel of the year, the solstice and its marking of the return of the light (and Light), and the feasting?
For some years I did that, and actually I will this year too. I find paganism much more nourishing than Christianity. But this year I want to use Christmas as a receptacle into which we can all, if we so choose, sink our fears and our cynicism, and celebrate the possibilities of renewal and social progress.
Yes, Christmas is about the birth of a baby – THE baby, if you’re Christian – born to save our species from sin. And yes, this fits a pattern of virgin births of demi-gods and heroes in ‘Middle Eastern’ and Mediterranean mythologies. But what I have come to see in this story is the thing that many religions point to – the divine (or dharma, or tao, or awen) is inherent in the world that we inhabit, and we can, indeed should, use it to help make our world better. We can do that. We have that power.
2016 has been a dreadful year, for me personally and also of course at the macro level. So many deaths of cherished people, so many awful political choices and events, so many signs of impending eco-tastrophe. It is easy to feel bludgeoned into submission, to feel that there is no possibility that right (or good, if you like) will prevail. For those who suffer depression, this is even more true; there have been times this year when I have wondered whether it’s worth bothering with recovery.
But here’s the thing: even if, as is likely, things get worse in the world, and even if, as is likely, there will always be those who are prepared to do absolutely anything to achieve their goals, there is always also the rest of us. And we have to make sure we use our power.
At one of my school assemblies the Headmaster told a parable about how the devil’s best line was that ‘there’s plenty of time’ – he could stop people bothering to do good by convincing them to come over all ‘maňana’. It’s not a story I liked. But I can see the wisdom of a re-imagined version: the best tool of those who seek to control and oppress is to convince the rest of us that we can’t do anything about things that matter.
We can. I do. We all, I’m sure, do.
So this year, I’m celebrating Christmas as a political act. I celebrate the reminder to be active in pursuit of social justice. I celebrate the time of re-birth, of potential, of hope blossoming lotus-like in the most unlikely places. And I celebrate the gift of optimism. It is this that I hope in some small way to give to all my fb friends.