And so the story goes. There was a young woman named Mary – we call her Mary – in her language it would be Maryam. She was betrothed to Joseph, a simple carpenter. And it happened that she became pregnant before their marriage, not through relations with Joseph, but it is said by the Holy Spirit. However it came to pass, the punishment for infidelity in those days was death. And short of that, perhaps a public shaming that one would carry the rest of their lives. Joseph would have been well within his rights to insist on this, but he chose another route. Initially he thought he would just break off the engagement quietly. Then an angel appears to him and shares this story of conception by the Holy Spirit and his heart is turned. Joseph chooses compassion. i
Back in the mid-1800’s our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were doing their best to figure out how to handle this new idea of celebrating Christmas, honoring the birth of Jesus in December of the year. While they didn’t put much stock in the divinity of Jesus, they had no qualms about a belief in God. They found no biblical precedent for Christmas though, thinking it an “unfortunate conflation of pagan and papist sins of the church” according to Susan Ritchie, UU historian, in her little gem of a book, How the Unitarians and The Universalists Invented Christmas: An Anthology of Historical Unitarian Christmas Stories. They weren’t terribly fond of the contemporary celebrations back in rural England either. So they set about reinventing the story in a way that would be acceptable to their beliefs. ii
Unitarian novelist, Catherine Sedgewick, penned a tale of a young woman, Lizzy Percival, who was enamored with a local man who wanted her hand, but her father would have nothing of it. Through happenstance, at the time of the new year when glad tidings were being distributed like candy, she comes upon a woman who has just been told she must pay a huge increase in rent if she wishes to stay in her abode with her young children. Lizzy will have nothing of this and sets off to speak with the owner of the residence. With her gentle demeanor she makes her way into his heart. He claims to have had nothing to do with this, attributing the misfortune to a man who handles his affairs. He writes the woman a letter stating that she can stay for whatever her original arrangement might be and sends it home with her son who tagged along with Lizzy. He inquires as to where his guest might live and suggests he might see her later that day. Lizzy goes on her way, spends the day engaged in festivities and receiving guests at her home alongside her father. Late in the afternoon, the property owner shows up requesting a private audience with Lizzy’s father wherein they settle old differences. Turns out this man is the father of Lizzy’s heart’s desire! And so the story ends with all hearts softened and Lizzy’s father blessing her relationship, such instances of reconciliation the custom of the New Year’s observance.
Not too many years later, Unitarian writer and reformer, Lydia Maria Child spun a story of the poorest of the poor living in Germany, of addiction and mental illness and the effects on young children, of a bully and a generous couple who made a home for children so afflicted outside the city. The young ones are discovered in the streets caught up in illicit activities by this gentleman who inquires of their mother and takes them off to his place of love and goodness couched in Christian teachings, where the children work and play and everything is shared communally, and where love is the answer to any dilemma that arises. Eventually the bully comes along as well, but not without some relapses into poor behavior. He is won over though, by the love and acceptance he receives. And the addicted father, he too, makes his way into the light and love of Christmas where everyone makes little gifts for one another, placing them about the tree, and sharing freely with the newcomers. This is the Reader’s Digest version!
So, while the Unitarians were busily trying to make some sense of the Christmas message, separating it from the birth of the Christ child and attaching it instead to benevolence based in the worth and dignity of everyone, the love and acceptance that we affirm and promote, there seems a way in through the original stories that we may have overlooked. Jesus, it would appear, came by his rule-changing, sheltering, protecting love approach quite naturally, apart from the intervention of God. This Jesus stood for so many things at odds with his times, with the teachings familiar to his people. He came along with a new interpretation, a radical love on which he was willing to stake his life. He learned it at home, I think from his parents, from his father who before his birth prized compassion and benevolence over rigidity and rules.
All these stories point to the same guiding principle of love and benevolence as the way forward. This is the Christmas story, the one that I have embraced through all the iterations of my faith journey. I am passionate about it and all the more so in these times when fear and anger and othering run so rampant in our midst. Clearly, they are not working. Violence begets violence. But we have a message that turns hatred on its head, we of the questioning, countercultural faith, we of the alternative route.
There is a song that came together quickly in the fall of 2013 in an effort to support the Newtown Kindness Project, a response to the school shooting there in December 2012, a song by a group of the same spirit – The Alternate Routes. iii
To be humble, to be kind, a giving of the peace that we envision, to a stranger, to a friend, in such a way that has no end, wrote Tim Warren and Eric Donnelly. The chorus says, “We are love, we are one, we are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace, we are war, we are how we treat each other and nothing more.” It encourages boldness and bravery in the belief that our hearts can still be saved. They say that darkness can come quick, but that the danger is in the anger and in the hanging on to it. They see a world of endless possibilities and suggest that everyday folks like you and me are the heroes in the story.
Everyday folks, like Lizzy Percival who took up the cause of that oppressed single mom, and that kind, generous couple who provided shelter and meaning for the marginalized, everyday folks like Joseph willing to take risks and move from a place of compassion, everyday folks possessed of benevolent hearts. Everyday folks like you and me. This is the Christmas story and an invitation to carry it into your celebrations in the coming days and into the New Year. May this be a place of benevolent hearts broken open by our lives and times, choosing compassion even when it means risking security and privilege.
We are love. We are one. We are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace. We are war. We are how we treat each other and nothing more.
Blessed Christmas, everyone!
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, Christmas Eve 2023
i “Lessons from My Stepfather” by Matt Laney in Glow: 2023 Advent Devotional; The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 2023; p. 30.
ii “How the Unitarian and the Universalists Invented Christmas: An Anthology of Historical Unitarian Christmas Stories” by Susan Ritchie: Harvard Square Library, 2018.