“Now, you Unitarian Universalists don’t identify as Christian, is that right?”
“Well, there are certainly people in our congregations who are drawn to the teachings of Jesus and identify as Christian in some way. But, yes, I would say that as a denomination we are outside what I would call the Christian consensus. We respect Jesus, as we respect other prophets and teachers, but we don’t accord him special status or put him or his teachings at the center of our worship life.”
“OK. But then I see that you still make a big deal about Christmas. Why is that?”
It’s a good question, and answering it requires taking stock of a few points in our history and theology. The two historic movements that led to the religion we are today – Unitarianism and Universalism – both arose as Christian churches. But over the years for many historic reasons, both drifted outside of the Christian orbit.
We still honor that past, as you can see in the list of sources that we proclaim inform our living tradition, including among them “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The ethic of love set out in those scriptures remains a strong grounding for our spiritual life, but we don’t necessarily buy into what the Christian church has made of it over the years.
Christmas itself can be problematic. Scholars have observed that many of the stories surrounding the holiday, from its timing at the end of the year, to the traveling Magi and Herod’s campaign of infanticide, have little foundation in truth beyond serving as political expediency for one group or another.
That said though, there is also something beautifully true about the Christmas story. The Unitarian religious educator Sofia Lyon Fahs touched on it when she wrote, “Each night a child is born is a holy night.”
The Christmas story reminds us that each human life holds within it the potential for beautiful and amazing things. Each person is born fully worthy, fully whole, and new birth is cause for celebration. The rough manger, surrounded by curious visitors humble and great, over which joyous parents certainly hear hosannas of some sort, is a lovely image representing the kind of hope we all seek at the darkest moment of the year.
Christmas Eve is one of my favorite moments in our worship year. Our early service at 4 p.m. is full of story-telling, music, and fun with players of all ages in full costume. Our later service, beginning at 8:30 p.m. with a half-hour of wonderful music from our choir, moves on at 9 p.m. with a quieter, more meditative vibe. Gathered together with the midwinter dark and cold outside, we are given to reflect on the blessings of our lives, not least the community surrounding us that we continually create and sustain.
Of all that I will leave behind when I retire next June, I think that our Christmas Eve services are among those things that I will miss most. They have always served for me as a kind of hinge in the year, a moment when I feel most acutely how precious and precarious our brief lives are. But it is also a moment filled with deep gratitude for those I love and love me, for this congregation, for all the forces of hope and renewal that persist among us whatever the adversity.
Rev.. Mark Ward, Lead Minister