Christmas Pageant Homily
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Throughout time, we humans have told stories. We tell stories to make meaning, we tell them to remember the past, we tell them to share wisdom, and to help people connect with hope when we can’t quite seem to find it on our own.
This time of the year – it can be a little dreary. We can’t be outside as much, it’s cold which means you have to put on big bulky clothes or be cold. The days are shorter, the nights are long and it’s going to stay that way for a while. And, back in the day, this was the beginning of a long winter, when food supplies would start getting scarce, sometimes very scarce. And the prospect of long hungry days… that didn’t feel so good.
But all that dreariness is part of what makes this a great time to tell stories… of hope.
And all that darkness makes this a great time to tell stories… of light.
Like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.
We heard a little bit about each of these this morning. A little bit about the stories and the wisdom and hope that are part of each of these celebrations. A little bit about what they each mean.
Like Christmas. Not really about nailing reindeer to a roof – well, at least, that’s not the primary message. Not really even about Santa Clause coming to town with presents that make us happy although that can be a pretty exciting thought. Just the idea can leave us feeling hopeful about the joy and smiles of Christmas morning.
But. Santa coming to give us gifts is not the original story, or what the holiday is really about. Christmas is about someone – someone named Jesus – who gave a different kind of gift to the people of his time. Not toys and candy, but the gift of helping people feel special. He gave the gift of helping people connect with hope. What he shared with others was insight, and he helped them connect with their hearts, learn how to be kinder to each other, learn how to live well. And Christmas – the story of the miracle of Jesus’ birth, it’s all about hope. It’s all about how even when you’re poor, as Jesus’ parents were, and even if you start in the lowliest of places, like a barn as Jesus did, and even if your family has no status in the community, as Jesus’ parents did not, none of this has to matter. Or perhaps the message is even, sometimes those who start out from a place that is humble are able to see the most clearly and give most sincerely.
And the story itself – well, it’s full of miracles. Not the miracle of flying reindeer although that’s pretty cool, but the miracles of a bright star in the sky, of people called to come from far and wide in recognition of the birth of the holy – the birth of wonder, and possibility.
Christians speak of this as a miracle birth – this child of God and Mary, and as UU’s we often interpret this story as pointing to the miracle of any birth, of the specialness of every birth, of the miracle that is life. Of the hope that comes into the world when any child is born. Of the hope that came into the world when you, every one of you, were born.
And then there’s Hanukkah. Miracle of lights. A story of hope for a people and hope for the way they lived their faith.
In 160 BCE, about 160 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people in Jerusalem were told they had to stop being Jewish. They were told to stop praying the way they prayed and to stop worshiping the God they worshipped. The ruler of the day felt threatened by them – he wanted everyone to do things the way he said.
Although the people knew they had to pretend to obey, they didn’t really. For example, after it was dictated that studying the Torah, the Jewish Bible, would be illegal, they made little wooden tops called dreidels and had them lying around during study meetings. That way, when guards came by for surprise inspections, they could pretend to be playing a game, not breaking the law by studying their scriptures. Today, the Hebrew letters carved into the sides of the dreidel form an acronym that means: “a great miracle happened there.”
There was this miracle, of light. That special flame that we heard about in the pageant, the flame that lasted 8 days even though there was only enough oil for one. A flame to celebrate the winning of a long fight so that this group of people could be free to be who they were.
Although the story of Hanukkah is a minor holiday for Jewish people, it is, still, a reminder to all of us… to respect each other, to respect each others’ beliefs. And to remember when an oppressive government tries to tell some people what they can or cannot believe, that we can stand up for those being maltreated, we can say that’s not okay. And when we do that, we become part of the light, part of the hope.
And then there’s Kwanzaa. A holiday not quite as old as Christmas and Hanukkah. In fact, it’s relatively new. Just over 50 years old.
Where you might say Christmas is about the light of hope in every child, and where you might say Hanukkah is about the hope for a people and their faith, you might say Kwanzaa is about a people reclaiming themselves, reclaiming their roots, reconnecting with what’s important, and, in doing so, claiming new hope.
400 years ago, Africans were brought to this country as slaves. In that journey, and upon their arrival, they lost much of who they had been. They’d had a way of life, they’d had customs, they had languages and sayings and principles and values, and they lost them when they got here.
Kwanzaa is about getting some of that back. You heard about the 7 principles of this holiday in the pageant.
I’d like to tell a story today that lifts up the 3rd principle, Ujima, “collective work and responsibility”. A big, complicated phrase – hard to picture exactly what that means. But I heard this story from an African American man by the name of Leo Jones, of the UU church in Washington DC, that I thought described it beautifully. I’d heard the story before, but I liked his telling and want to share it with you today because it is about togetherness, and because it’s about children, and because it’s a story about hope.
Leo himself worked with children for much of his career – he spent 14 yrs helping schools in low income neighborhoods. He says it was the most frustrating job he ever had. He came to understand why students, particularly African American students, fail. Surrounded by the results of generations of poverty, by violence, joblessness, hunger, inadequate or no housing, and so on and so on. They are facing an uphill battle, right from the start. What if we were to do more to help them…
Because what if, Leo suggested, what if among this generation of children were a great human being – someone who could help us advance to the beloved community – one in which excellence is common place? Where all children receive what they need to thrive? What if we knew not just intellectually, but in our hearts and expressed in our actions that somehow, somewhere, among the children of tomorrow, lies real hope?
And so. That story.
Once upon a time – there was a village. There was nothing remarkable about this village. It was simply a village in which people were born lived their lives, and died, without fanfare.
About once a year the village played host to a prophet. A very wise man who the villagers loved and trusted.
Just as the prophet was about to leave one year, he said to the villagers, the Messiah is among your children. The messiah is among your children.
The villagers were perplexed. What did the prophet mean? They turned around to ask him more, but the he had vanished.
Despite their very best efforts, the townspeople couldn’t understand what the prophet had been trying to tell them, so the chief convened the council of elders. There was much debate but after several hours the council was right back to the beginning. Why did the prophet say, the messiah is among your children? They had no idea.
After several more hours of deliberation the council decided that he probably said it because it was true but since they didn’t know which child was the messiah they would test all the boys in the village in hopes of discovering which one it was. Each one demonstrated one thing they did very well, but none stood out. None appeared to be the messiah. Depressed the chief went home that evening and told his wife what had happened.
Who responded rather angrily, so the messiah must be a boy??
Well the chief couldn’t quite bring himself to tell his wife that she must be right – but he did call the council together and told them of his plan to test the girls the next day.
They were given the same test the boys had taken, with the same results, every girl did something very well, but none stood out at as the messiah.
The chief, despondent, reported his findings to the council and admitted that he had no idea what to do next.
This was a very serious matter, the prophet was never wrong, The Messiah must be among their children.
Finally they devised a plan. They would treat every child as if he or she were the messiah. They would give all the children the very best support the village had to offer. No child would be allowed to go hungry or homeless. They brought in the very best teachers, they provided medical care, they gave help to the parents. Everything they could think of was dedicated to the well being of the children.
And an interesting thing happened.
Word of their plan, their values, and their hopes reached people everywhere.
Scholars, artists, scientists, mathematicians musicians flocked to the village. Everyone wanted to move to that place.
Over time there were so many talented and well trained people, the village prospered and grew. It became a beautiful city that all of its citizens loved and were eager to support.
This is what Ujima means, our collective responsibility to work together toward a world that leaves no one wanting, that harnesses all of our talents for the goal of a just and beloved community.
Collective work & responsibility – sounds like a big phrase – but is full of hope & possibility when we realize we don’t have to do it alone.
So let us end with this, hopeful, question. The messiah is among our children, all the children. What will we do?