This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day can feel like a weird liminal space. We finished the Advent season of wondering and waiting, but maybe now we wonder and wait for the new year. A new year can mean a new start. For those of us in schools, it means a new semester. And here we are again, in another now-and-not-yet.
Today is my fourth wedding anniversary. For us, this season became even more sacred. My wedding, and everything it embodied, is forever tied to Christmas and the liminal space before the New Year. We got married surrounded by lots of candle light, Christmas trees, and family.
I got a lot of light out of this year’s Christmas. And as we held our candles and sang Silent Night on Saturday evening, the line “all is calm, all is bright,” stuck out to me. I find that a lot of things this time of year are bright -- even though it gets dark so early. But what is calm? I love my family, but I would not exactly describe them as calm. I loved my wedding, but that was not a calm event. And I imagine the birthday of the Christ child, lying in a manger, could not have been very calm. In the new year, I’d like to find a lot more calm.
Maybe you will spend some time this week leaning into the liminal space, reflecting on Christmas, waiting and wondering about the new year. I wonder where you are finding light and calm. I pray that both come easily for us in 2023.
We around the church take the importance of Christmas as a given these days.
But it wasn’t always so.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t mention a word about the birth of Jesus nor was Christmas part of the early church. Some did start gathering annually by the third century for a kind of commemoration of Jesus’ birth. Eventually the Roman Church in the 4th century fixed the date of December 25th for a feast day to honor Jesus’ birth. Yet, centuries later, some of our ancestors of faith on the Puritan side of the UCC family actually forbade the celebration of Christmas as too Catholic and as an expression of inappropriate frivolity. (Of course, they weren’t very good at most any fun or festivity.) It was the 19th century influence of the Oxford Movement, of Charles Dickens, and of retailers that won the day for our modern form of a gift-giving and family gathering Christmas holiday of import.
My many years around religious studies, churches, and Christmas tells me that lurking behind all of this is something deeper that makes Christmas important: the winter solstice.
Christmas is our Solstice.
Christmas is a connection of cosmos and Christ.
Throughout history, seasonality and the movements of the stars and planets were important to peoples all around the world. All cultures knew that we are part of the earth and that tracking the earth’s rhythms is essential for life. The peoples who lived far enough away from the equator knew that there is an importance in marking the travel of the sun. Life for so many depends on the seasonal return of the sun’s light and the new life it brings.
While our Easter holiday is wonderfully tied to earth through the cycles of the moon, our Christmas holiday is tied to the earth rhythm of the sun, to the return of the light. That is why it is the perfect day to celebrate the incarnation of the Christ Light in Jesus’ birth. The light of the sun comes amidst darkness and the Light of Christ also comes amidst the intangible darkness of soul and society. The sun returns when the Son is born and so the Son must be born when the sun returns. Each coming begets the birth and growth of Light and Life.
While we mark December 21-22 as winter solstice, the ancient Romans marked it as…. you guessed it…. December 25th.
Christmas is our Solstice.
Christmas is a connection of cosmos and Christ.
I look forward to sharing the return of the Light with you all.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, you must be patient
as you wait for the coming of the Lord.
Consider the farmer who waits patiently
for the coming of rain in the fall and spring,
looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth.
You also must wait patiently, strengthening your resolve,
because the coming of the Lord is near.
James 5.7-8, CEB
Waiting can be tough. Waiting in long lines at the grocery. Waiting with an impatient young child. Waiting for an exciting celebration. Waiting at the bedside of a loved one who is transitioning from this life to the next. Waiting for news from medical tests. Waiting for the grades to come out after a big test. Waiting…..
In Advent, we say we are waiting for the Christ Child to be born. Of course, this waiting is a metaphor because the Christ is with us even as we wait for the Christmas celebration. Still, the practice of waiting is good for our souls. We are a culture of instant gratification. So much is at our fingertips in this age of technology – information, goods and services, connection with loved ones through phone, text, and internet. It is good to be still and wait like a seed the farmer has sowed in the ground waiting for spring or fall rains. In the waiting we put down roots into the soil of our faith, not knowing what will come to fruition.
Mary said yes to the angel from God and then waited in the unknown mystery that is pregnancy for the birth of Jesus. Waiting in the unknown is part of our faith. It may feel like doubt or like God is not listening or like we are all alone. We acknowledge these feelings. They are real, but they do not get the final say. The final say is the love of God made manifest in our hearts, even in the waiting. The final say is the love of God incarnated in the Christ Child who announced to us as a man that God’s realm is among us always!
The institutional church is in a big waiting period after the changes of the pandemic. Each and every church that I know of or read about is “waiting” to see what is coming next in programming, mission and service, fellowship, worship, financial stability and staffing. The church as the Body of Christ is in a period of pregnant waiting with all the changes and pains and delights and discovery that pregnancy brings to a human body. At Plymouth we are very lucky to be welcoming new people, growing our programming with children and youth, developing new ways to be together in worship, re-inventing beloved fellowship and formation opportunities, looking towards the promise of a new settled associate minister. We are blessed!
And our blessings need the nourishment, the investment of our time, talents and treasures in the work of God through our ministries. We need to feed the soil holding the seeds of possibility in our Plymouth Body of Christ that are pregnant with new life and growing in ways we cannot yet see.
So, in this time of Advent waiting, I ask you to be still with the seed-like promises of God. How will you nurture these promises and answer their call? Answering the call to service through the ministries of our Body of Christ is nurturing the promise. Answering the call to pledge your financial resources to the work of God in the world through Plymouth’s ministries is nurturing the promise. (And our Stewardship and Budget and Finance teams are waiting for you to answer this call so we can put together a healthy budget for 2023. It takes us all to do this. It takes the village.) Answering the call to the Spirit of God deep within your heart and soul, a call to deeper relationship or new ways of living in God’s realm, is nurturing the seed-life promises of God.
With you in the waiting! Let’s see together how God’s promises unfold in the new year.
Advent is a strange season in the life of the church, one that comes with an invitation. Advent listens backward to the voices of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Micah, even as it anticipates the birth of the Christ child. The words of the prophets echo in our ears as we prepare to welcome an unlikely messiah, one who from a distance of 2,000 years continues to call on us to be the body of Christ in the world. (This is the moment of invitation to you.)
How are we Christ to our neighbors? There are so many ways, large and small, that we do this through Plymouth. We offer tangible help through Faith Family Hospitality Network or and help the Jan family from Afghanistan to adjust to life in a new country. For the last 18 years, the youth of our congregation have slept out on our front lawn each December to raise funds and awareness to help prevent people in Fort Collins from becoming homeless. This year was no different, as they and youth from First Presbyterian Church gathered for a vigil and braved the cold during the sleepout last weekend at Plymouth. There are so many ways we extend a hand of friendship, sisterhood, and brotherhood here in Fort Collins. These are ways of being Christ to our neighbors.
But what about people in other parts of our nation or world whose help is desperately needed? People whose faces we may never see, whose names we may never learn, who stories we may never hear? They are every bit as important as people assisted in Fort Collins. Your gifts to Plymouth enable us to contribute to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which helps fund all our international mission work, as well as the work of justice and supporting the mission of the UCC. What about the young children in Ethiopia who enjoy early childhood education because of your gifts to Lango Kindergarten started by Bob and Nancy Sturtevant in our congregation? What about the young women who have been educated by schools run by the Congregational Church of Angola and founded by Tom and Paula Dille and the Dille-Dunbar Foundation? What about refugees in Hungary who have fled war-torn Ukraine, supported by your generosity to the UCC? Even if you don’t know their names or see their faces, you are helping!
There are so many more examples that I cannot list them all here. Together, we at Plymouth have formed a movement that aims to heal God’s world, a concept our Jewish siblings call “tikkun olam.” How are you hearing the call to follow Christ to spread healing to God’s world? How are you following Jesus and being Christ to your neighbors? What can you do by joining hand-in-hand with your siblings in the faith at Plymouth? (Together, we are mightier than you might imagine!)
Advent is a season of contemplation and action. It is a season of anticipation and hope. It is a season of listening to prophets and preparing for God’s reign of peace. It is a season when we remind ourselves that Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love are the aim of our faith, and that it is our job to help embody Christ in the world today.
Together, may we make straight in the desert a highway for self-giving love and peace. May we lower the hills and level the playing field of God’s world to spread the realm of justice far and wide. And as we approach Christmas together, may we all sense the glory of God as together we live out our faith.
P.S. If you are not able to attend tonight’s sabbatical celebration in person, you can join the presentation via Zoom around 6:45. Just click on this link to register for the Zoom call.