Updated: Feb 14
December 19, 2021
Preceded by video Joy by Tracey Thorn; and followed by Each Winter as the Year Grows Older sung by congregation
Winter ... a time of reflection A time of remembering The cold months Of the northern hemisphere
Exercise a powerful influence
On our collective consciousness
In ways that we know about
And ways we don’t know about.
Heading into another COVID winter
How do we see each other’s humanity?
Our faces hidden Behind masks.
The certainties of life are shaken and seem untrue Our nation once seemed whole
now broken by gun fanatics bent on murdering our constitution
The times of our youth of simple pleasures
Fade away With the complexity of age We long to return to those untarnished days
We focus on the tinsel and the lights O JOY....JOY.....JOY.
Yet ....I believe beyond believing That life can spring from death That growth can flower from our grieving
The dark world .... The world beyond the light
Brings foreboding to our hearts We gather up our fears And face down the coming years Hence ... we hang the lights up bright
Our Mother Earth holds us to herself
Gravity is our common bond We are held together in life’s embrace
Whether in country or in town.
We are connected to our ancestors By the rituals of winter solstice, Of darkness and light, of death and rebirth
We sing the winter songs of generations
Bringing comfort to our fright O JOY...JOY.....JOY
The seasons shows us life travels From spring to winter and then back again
Just as we think all is lost, the earth tilts it axis Facing Brother Sun O JOY.....JOY....JOY.
Last night the full Sister Moon Rose over San Francisco Bay In two nights the longest night of the year..... we are tied to the moon, the stars and to Mother Earth Our god is invisible Because God is everywhere and everything.
"I'll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me...Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams, I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."
For me, this year, this song brings up questions such as, "What is home?" Where is home?" "What does home mean?"
Throughout the years this song has meant different things to me at different points in my life ---but always nostalgic, and occasionally bringing forth tears.
I'd say it mostly suggested the home I grew up in with my parents and my two sisters. While my parents were still alive, I'd hear the song and think of them back in Ga in their home, aging, but still with us. That's where I went in my mind. But now, for me, this song, it's more figurative, more symbolic of what home is. But what is home, where is home, what does home mean? Living in my house until 7 years ago, which absolutely felt like home and was home to me...yet that wasn't the home I went to in my mind when I heard this song. And now when I hear I'll be Home for Christmas, not having that house any longer but living at the Sequoias, a senior community, I actually go to three places. The first is a nostalgic visit to my happy childhood experience of Christmas with my parents and my sisters and all our traditions. But second, I go to some illusive, supposed, place in my mind. It's hard to even put that place into words.
But the third place I go this year and the strongest --- I think of all those who can't go home, because home is no longer available to them for any number of possible reasons. I'm thinking especially right now of all those, entire communities, whose homes were just destroyed in the tornadoes in Kentucky. I'm thinking of those who have lost their homes in our wildfires and mudslides. I think of so many who've lost their homes in recent hurricanes or other climatic catastrophes. I think of men and women who are incarcerated or kids in juvenile hall who can't go home. I think of those in military service, both in this country and around the globe, who can't be home. I think of so many who lost their homes because of COVID. I think of the homeless, those sleeping outside in the cold and rain. I'm thinking of those on the space station. I'm thinking of those who have moved, temporarily or permanently, to care for a family member or friend. I'm thinking of those hospitalized or in nursing homes or hospices. Those in shelters. First responders who've gone to other parts of the country to help out. And the huge numbers of refugees, immigrants --- men, women and children struggling to find a safer place to be, to live, to have as home. The health care workers and first responders who have to work and can't be at home. All these people in their varied circumstances, when they think of home, what are they feeling? What are they thinking? For them Is home a physical place like a house or a concept or mental construct in their mind? Do they have a longing for another time? Is there a longing for home the way they dreamed it would be? Are their memories of home better than it really was, or on the other hand, worse than it actually was? Memories are very powerful. Our world and many of its citizens are grieving and hurting this Christmas. I want to embrace them in my heart. I pray that their grief can be healed.
So for so many this Christmas, who are pondering home or longing for home,
I light a candle for you that it might guide you to a place of more peace in your heart.
When I was a senior in high school in 1990-91, I had an assignment for a photography class to take black and white portraits of one or two people in my life. These were to be candid, showing the person in their daily life—not formal or staged photos. I chose to photograph my maternal grandparents. My grandfather—Gramps, as I called him— whose own father had been a professional photographer, was not hard to win over. Somewhat dubious about the candid scenes of my assignment, he gamely allowed me to photograph him eating breakfast and pruning the fruit trees. I shared one photo from that series in a sermon back in May. But my grandmother was another story. She allowed me to take one photo. It showed her decorating her and my grandfather’s Christmas tree. As I have looked at it over the years, this image has become a window onto my experience of Christmas at my grandparents’ house. I see in this scene an emblematic combination of my grandma’s love, care, and intense concern. It strikes me as the tip of the proverbial iceberg, pointing beyond that particular moment to the web of relationships and events before it as well as their reverberations, their continued presence and absence in the years since. This photo has in some way become Blue Christmas for me, layered with longing, nostalgia, joy, and grief.
Looking at this photo and I remember and I wonder. I remember decorating my grandparents’ tree, distinct and different from my mom’s. Grandma and Gramps’ was always a short tree, somewhat Charlie Brown style. It would sit in the garage until my sister and I would come out to assist with setting it up. On that day, with Gramps we would bring it in and put it on the low, oval table in their living room, in front of the picture window that overlooked their back yard. Then down the steps we would descend to Gramps’ somewhat finished basement. Opening a panel in the back of the room to an upward sloped storage area, I would climb in and shimmy up the rough cement, into the compartment’s dark reaches to grab old familiar boxes, pushing them down-slope to Gramps, waiting in the light. Then, back upstairs in the living room, with classic 50s Christmas hits playing on the 8-track, we would take out the decorations in all their midcentury modern oddity: white ceramic elves spelled “Noel” with their twisting bodies; small, perfectly triangular, bottlebrush evergreens tipped with white; a creepy 1950s Elf on the Shelf, almost too heavy for the tree. Beaded strings of purple awaited careful placement after the colored lights. Fragile glass ornaments in deep shades of green, blue, and gold had to be handled with care. Grandma supervised all of this decorating with a critical eye. This section of the tree needed more light. This ornament was too close to the others. Watch out – don’t step on the ornament on the floor! And on the afternoon of Christmas Day when we would arrive at my grandparents’ house after our morning family present-opening, above all else make sure to double check the wrapping paper before burning it in the fireplace, lest anything unintended go up in flame. And the damper—make sure that’s open as well, lest we get smoked out. Look out the window and check—are there sparks escaping the chimney? Looking at this photo, these layers of anxious memory are palpable. I find myself wondering about the layers of Grandma’s own memories, what was present to her in the midst of these gatherings. I am filled with gratitude for the life she lived, the support she gave, the love she gifted to all of us in the midst of struggle.
Christmas is an intense season, often filled with memory and longing, with dreams. It is indeed a season of joy. Even that joy can be challenging to hold along with the difficult emotions that can also emerge at this time, as if joy must be somehow pure and unadulterated. Yet joy is a capacious emotion. It is able to coincide with many others, even to hold a whole range in a resting richness. I look at my grandmother today, I hear the music playing in the background, I feel the warmth of that fire and smell the rich food cooking, and I feel deep, loving gratitude. She is at peace now, close to God’s own heart. Her fears are released. Her joy is now full, I believe, far beyond what I was able to observe in her earthly life. And in this moment, she bears witness to me to the rich complexity of this earthly life—the struggles we make our way through and the depth of connection to one another and to God, that truly rings out the good news of Emmanuel: God with us.