As Delivered December 15, 2019
Rev. Lyn Cox
The nativity story in the book of Luke is famous, even for people who were not brought up Christian. We talked about it a little bit last week. Linus recites part of it in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Crèche scenes of all sizes depict the babe in the manger, attended by shepherds. Clearly, this story has a hold on the popular imagination. Part of our practice as Unitarian Universalists is to look at our cultural stories, reinterpret them, and figure out what meaning, if any, they may hold for us.
I couldn’t forget this story if I wanted to; there were too many formative pageants. Years of portraying animals and/or a multitude of the heavenly host made this story personal for me. As an adult, I find it interesting to go back and review what’s actually in the text, versus the popular embellishments. For instance, animals are not actually mentioned as being present near the manger. Also, the story with the shepherds is not the same as the story with the Magi; they are two different versions in Luke and Matthew. Given all of the re-interpretation that this story has already enjoyed, it would be fun for us to consider new aspects of this story together.
I am particularly drawn to verses 6 and 7: “And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7, KJV) There are several ideas about making room that can be drawn from this story. We can approach the story from the angle of making room for children in intergenerational community, making room for creative abundance, and making room for spiritual reflection.
Room for Intergenerational Community
One of the signs of health in this congregation is the care you put into making this a thriving place for children, youth, and their associated adults. The Religious Education Committee and teachers are highly skilled and dedicated, and they welcome more people to join their ranks. Events like Catoctin and the cookie reception on Christmas Eve help us glimpse the possibility of a community of saints of all ages. There are not many places left where we can cultivate connections between children, youth, adults, and elders; religious communities are one of the last places where we can remember to be humans with a past and a future.
Our larger culture does not train us how to be together. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard sometimes. It’s hard to remember that worship that is meaningful to children can also be meaningful to adults, if we can put aside our assumptions and expectations. It’s hard to remember that being a community means that we are not here for ourselves alone. So we practice doing things a little differently, a little imperfectly, a little uncomfortably for the sake of growing in our ability to be present with one another and for the sake of creating a future for our faith.
Nativity stories, at least they way they are often told, feature children. Including animals, despite their not being mentioned in Luke, deepens our understanding of earthiness and chaos, untidy and vulnerable places where the Divine also dwells. These stories remind us of caring for the most vulnerable among us, which is part of what religious community is for. Children can see themselves in the story, which makes the narrative a potential common ground for finding meaning across generations. I think the nativity in Luke is extremely relevant when people of all ages get together. Children make use of a surprising amount of space for their small bodies. Do we have room at the inn? Of course we do.
When we celebrate the presence of children in intergenerational community, we can also accept ourselves. Perfection is not mandatory. We don’t have to be finished learning everything we will eventually know in life in order to be valuable. Our worth and dignity is inherent, not earned.
Sophia Lyon Fahs invokes this idea in her poem, “For So the Children Come.” You can find the whole thing in reading #616 in the back of the hymnal, and we’ll come back to it on Christmas Eve. I’ll just read the last stanza:
Each night a child is born is a holy night—
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.
This is one of the Unitarian Universalist Christmas classics. In UU congregations, we remember stories about the birth of Jesus as a symbol for the hope that every child brings. We celebrate the recognition of holiness in human form.
Let me acknowledge that the emphasis on children during the winter holidays is not an easy topic for everyone. For people who hoped to include more children in their families, or families who have lost children, or people who have a difficult relationship with their children or parents, the intergenerational aspect of the holiday can be challenging. People who are living child-free by choice may feel that much of the imagery during this season excludes them or ignores their experience. Let us comfort one another for the sorrows that persist during times of celebration. Being present with intergenerational community may be harder than we realize.
I still think there is something valuable in re-imagining how we relate to children, and the winter holiday season gives us opportunities to do that. In an intergenerational community, we are reminded to be joyful. We can look for the hope embodied in each life, and imagine that there might be a glimmer of hope in our own lives. Each one of us was born on a holy night.
Room for Creative Abundance
The winter season sometimes gives us opportunities to find creativity or abundance in places where we didn’t perceive it before. If you normally enjoy relative abundance, you might find it invigorating to invent a new recipe for dinner rather than go out into the cold for an ingredient you’re out of. If you’re working on simple living, maybe you’re wrapping presents in cloth sacks or decorated paper grocery bags. Changing our perspective might bring out a sense of artistic joy.
One interpretation of the nativity story in Luke is that the manger was offered out of kindness, a creative solution when room was scarce. In the book of Luke, the word that gets translated as “inn” is “kataluma.” A kataluma could be the upstairs room of a family home rather than a hotel. The first floor of the home is where the family’s animals were brought inside to keep them warm and safe. There would be more room downstairs for a guest family to spread out. It might have been like offering to let a family set up in the garage rather than having them sleep on the couch in the living room. It’s possible that the writer of Luke was trying to make a point about creating room where we didn’t see it before. Perhaps the story helps question our assumptions about the limits of hospitality. At the very least, the story asks listeners to expand the number of places where God might be found. Not only in the sacred shrines, not only among kings and heads of state, the holy is also found among everyday beings of flesh and blood.
In this story, the Divine is incarnate in a human body. Talk about making room! How can there be enough space for the immediate and the transcendent in one body? It seems like a person ought to split at the seams. Yet I think it’s true that all of our bodies are sacred. We have more room within than we imagine.
The poem that we heard earlier speaks to this. “We are the dwelling place,” writes Rebecca Parker. When we are looking around for creative solutions in the face of scarcity, we have to know that we’re starting with something amazing: our own bodies, our own flesh-and-blood homes for the sacred. No matter what our abilities or age or race or size, our bodies are homes for the sacred. We honor every body with commitment to accessibility, to immigration justice, to racial justice, to reproductive justice, to housing and medical care. We have to know that every body is the home of God.
Creative abundance happens when we can look around with fresh senses, finding value in the things that were there all along, dedicating resources that we didn’t know we had. We can create something out of the magic of being together, the music of our hearts, and the divinity of every body.
Room for Reflection and Spirituality
Another line in Luke’s nativity story is presented in contrast to the excited proclamations of the shepherds: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV) Who has the time for pondering in the heart? Yet I think this line makes a big difference in the mood of the narrative. Making room for reflection is one of the available interpretations of the nativity story.
Clearing space is as valuable a part of the Winter Solstice as making things bright. The space leaves room for a circle of intergenerational community. It leaves air for us to breathe as we sing our creative gifts. We are clearing room for abundant blessings. In other words, we are creating space for the sacred.
Finding the time and space for reflection takes effort. A big part of the effort is shifting our perceptions to make meaning with the time and space we have. If we think of space as a metaphor for the breathing room of spirituality, the story we heard earlier, a Polish folktale about a crowded house, becomes relevant.
Sometimes my mind and heart feel more like the house with the chickens and goats and sheep than the peaceful home with separate spaces for chickens and humans. Craft projects are like chickens that lay eggs, which hatch and lead to more of the same. Housekeeping is a goat that points out the chaos in my life. Reflection helps me put those preoccupations where they belong, in their own compartments, not taking over my life. When the goats and sheep are back in their barn and we have more room than ever, we have enough space to contemplate big ideas. Space for reflection might seem empty, but allowing that room in our lives helps us to make meaning.
Make room to ponder things in your heart. Sit with the Soul Matters themes of the month, like Awe for the month of December, or Integrity for the month of January. There’s an adult Religious Education class on ethics coming up in February; make room for that. Take a book of poetry on your bus or Metro commute. Pause for a moment of silence before your next meal. With regular practice, we may discover spaciousness and peace that was there all along.
Interpretations of the nativity story abound. It warms my religiously flexible heart to see so many ways of understanding a cultural narrative. Pageants, crèche models, and Christmas Carols may be broad interpretations of the book of Luke, yet they teach us to make room in different ways. Stories about animals are compelling to children and adults alike, something we can share across generations, making room for each other in the circle at every age. A story about unusual accommodations inspires creativity as we figure out how to share our hidden resources. When the stars are returned to their places and the manger is restored to the animals, may peace linger. May we find the room to be surprised by the presence of what is most sacred to us.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen