This semi-secular Christmas Eve service celebrates the holiday’s magic in its ordinariness and mystery. We’ll sing songs, hear some great choir music, and tell stories of stars, especially one in particular. As always, we’ll end with a candlelight rendition of Silent Night. This year, we’ll recess to the narthex for sweets, hot drinks, and conversation. Guest musician Laura Silverman, just back from touring China, will join us on the piano.
Sounding of the Singing Bowl
Prelude Light One Thousand Christmas Lights (Choir)
Welcome [Rev Denis]
Welcome to our Christmas Eve Candlelight service.
Before I forget, I want to invite you now to do two things.
First, if you didn’t get a candle on your way in, please hold up your hand now, so we can get you one. You will need it for the end of the service.
Second, this would be a great time to turn off your cell phone, or to silence it if you plan on taking pictures with it. And you are encouraged to take pictures. Post them. Share them. Hopefully, you’ll even cherish them, the pictures you take here this evening.
If this is your first time here, on behalf of our staff, our board of trustees, and all of our members and friends, I want to especially welcome you to East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church. We are a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as such, we are a home for liberal faith in Northeast Ohio. We end every Sunday morning and Wednesday night worship service by joining hands and pledging ourselves to religious freedom, but more importantly to do the work of religion: to bind ourselves together as we do something that is getting harder and harder to do. We promise each other to stick together, even when we don’t agree.
That’s a tough one, because our beliefs are all over the map. Some of us are Christians and some of us are Jews, and some of us are atheists or agnostics. Some are all of those things, and some are something else entirely. Some of us are devotees of the Great Buddha, and others sing in praise of the compassion of the Hindu gods, and I think it’s safe to say we are all big fans of the work and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
And so we gather on this evening, and join with hundreds of millions in this country and Billions more around the world, to celebrate his birth.
This evening, our guest pianist Laura Silverman, who is just back from a working tour in China, will be playing and accompanying the choir, and all of us as we sing together. The Carols we’ve selected for this evening are probably familiar enough that you can follow along with the printed lyrics in the order of service. But if you want or need the music, you can open your gray hymnals.
Let’s start now by rising, in body or in spirit.
Call to Worship Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Immanuel Kant, the Prussian German who was perhaps the most prominent philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, once wrote:
“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
We are awed by the stars in the sky as much as we are by our own ability to to recognize the good and the true as the ground of our being. We are most moved by the greatness of our beliefs. And our insignificance in the vastness of the universe.
And it’s that tension that we gather to name and to celebrate this evening. The vastness the humbles us and the beliefs that embolden us.
May we be here with both, to see them with fresh eyes.
Chalice Lighting Patrick McGovern
We light our chalice this evening with the words of Nathanael Johnson from Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails, and Other Wonders
“It’s simply not possible to always see the world fresh and in full, like a child, while also making money, paying bills on time, and taking care of a family…But doing this work and occasionally acting like a two-year-old pays dividends of awe and pleasure. It doesn’t take very much time to notice that you live within nature…Wonder doesn’t come from outside after driving somewhere spectacular, it comes from within: It’s a union of the natural world and the mind prepared to receive it.”
Please remain seated now, and open your hymnals.
Reading 1 “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Tracy K. Smith Rose Bouch
Our first Reading is from a poem called “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” by Tracy K. Smith.
Perhaps the great error is believing we are alone,
That others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons, They live wondering
if they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they — we — flicker in.
Maybe their dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flicker on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
One notch below Bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight so nothing escapes, not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
for the first time in the winter of 1959.
Special Music Laura Silverman
Reading 2 “Circles of Life,” Suzy Kassem Kathy Deane
Our next reading by Suzy Kassem. It’s called “Circles of Life,” from her monograph called Rise Up and Salute the Sun
Reading 3 Matthew 1:18-2:12, English Standard Version Patrick McGovern
Our final reading this evening is from the English Standard Version of the Christian bible, the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, verse 18; through chapter 2, verse 12.
Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Homily “Starry Night” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
You probably already know how Matthew’s particular telling of the birth of Jesus ends. After the Magi, the wise men leave, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary and Jesus and flee, to keep them safe. It takes Herod a while to realize the Magi aren’t coming back with information, and a while to give up on finding the family. He commits a horrifying act of tyranny. He orders the murder of all the baby boys born in the preceding two years.
Even in the ancient Middle East, without trains, planes and automobiles, people could still get away quickly, with the countless stars of the vast sky as their navigational guide.
Miracle of Miracles, I am going to refer to Science fiction. It just seems right, since we’re talking about stars, and since so much of the genre is profoundly theological. After all, one of the purposes of science fiction is to explore what science itself can’t: the answer to the question “why?”
I don’t want to talk about Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica, or so many other works that seemed to be all about war. There’s enough of that in the world today, and in the Bible.
I want to talk about the Star Trek, not just because its creator, Gene Roddenberry was a UU and it’s mission was simply “to boldly go where no one had gone before” and to explore new worlds. I want to talk about it because it debuted on the eve of another humble birth that matters to me, even if it was a minor event in the world. You see, Star Trek first aired on September 8, 1966. The night before I was born.
There are two stories I want to share, both from The Next Generation, which aired from 1987 to 1994.
The First was called “the Child,” and it’s the story of an accelerated pregnancy experienced by an an unmarried woman aboard the Starship Enterprise. As she sleeps, a small bright light enters the ship. The light has an interesting quality. It’s like a tiny star zipping about, first outside, winding its way around the various parts of the body, exploring. Then, it’s almost magically inside, darting around crew members, hiding behind other light sources. It’s playful, childlike, that light.
And it sneaks into the room of Counselor Deanna Troi, under her sheets, and into her body. She wakes up not just pregnant, having experienced, as an unmarried woman, a non sexual conception. She wakes up very pregnant. Like, the fetus is several months along. It’s a super-accelerated gestation and a couple days later she gives birth to a baby boy whose development is even faster. Within another couple days, he has the physical appearance and cognitive abilities of a boy aged 10 or 12 years. And he is a curious boy, full of wonder and insight. In fact, that was the sole reason the light entered Counselor Troi’s body. To satisfy its curiosity about life in a body. And the light was wise enough to know that its presence, I guess its effect on the time space continuum, was harming its hosts. And so, in order to save an entire race of people from suffering and even extinction, he let himself die.
An act of self sacrifice.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The second story I want to share is widely considered to be the most beloved story every, among fans of all things Star Trek. It’s called “Inner Light.”
A strange probe arrives right in front of the giant windshield of the Enterprise, and somehow enters the body and mind of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who loses consciousness immediately. In the 25 minutes the crew is trying to figure out what is going on and how to remove contact between the Captain and the probe without killing the man, the probe accomplishes its mission. To have Captain Picard live 40 years on its home planet, long enough to conduct research and teach its inhabitants, as the planet slowly dies in drought.
More importantly though, the Captain learns about the planet. Its customs, values, and extinction. And in the meantime, he experiences something he never experienced in his human life: romantic love and fatherhood. A family of his own. When he returns to the starship, he remembers everything, and has a souvenir: a flute he learned to play while he was there, a symbol of the fragility of a planet, and the value of a people.
That’s what science fiction does. It remind us to stop and wonder, in awe and reverence, at the world around us. To see in the night sky the limitlessness of the universe, and the possibility that lies there. Stories about life and death, desperation and self-sacrifice, political intrigue and genocide, living in the moment and making our place in history remind us how completely tiny and powerless we are in the midst of that every-expanding universe.
These stories survive because they remind us to live in wonder. to constantly learn. To let people in. To seek angels in our midst.
As Nathanael Johnson said, it’s not possible to be like children and always see the world fresh and full, to dream up new things, new ways of being. To take pleasure in the union of the natural world and an open mind. But science fiction has a way of doing that, inviting us into a creative look at humanity and our future.
You know, Star Trek featured the first flip phones. They were flat little communicators that intrigued lots of people, and as the communication industry evolved from the trim line phone being state of the art into cellular technology, for decades strove to bring to life that model. For a while the flip phone was the reality. Everyone . Science fiction becomes science reality because of the millions of geeks see things on the screen or on the page and say “awesome.”
Science, and science fiction, are born of awe. And like art and religions, it seeks to inspire awe as well. And so we continue to tell the stories that remind us of who we are, how much we need each other, and how thrilling it is to dream big and watch our visions for the future become reality.
We’ve always been like that.
And so, this time of year, when there is so little light, we create light everywhere we can. In our homes, in our yards, on the streets, and thanks to technology we could only imagine in 1966, on our hats and clothes and beards. This is a time when we look again to the stars that are so easily forgotten in the midst of so much light pollution, and we find wonder there. Maybe even a bit of joy in the darkness itself.
This is the time when we find wonder in family. The birth of children. The procession of generations. The miracle that we can find anything at all to say to one another when every topic seems so charged with with negative energy.
This is the time when we have compassion for families far from home, traveling at the mercy of governments that neither want them nor feel particularly bound to treat them fairly, and hope that some source of light might arrive, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
But right now, we are just grateful for what we have to celebrate on this day. The birth of a child, the coming to light of life that can shake the stony earth.
Bond of Union (Rev Denis)
On this special night, it’s especially important that we remember what it is that brings us all together, under these twinkling lights in the protection of this beacon: The promise we make to one another every time we join hands and speak these words
We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, which transcends all creeds, not to think alike but to journey together.
Benediction (Rev Denis)
Tonight under this beacon,
We’ve engaged in rituals by singing carols and telling stories
We’ve risked being vulnerable, just by showing up,
And we’ve held the hope for those who’ve needed our presence.
We have yet to light candles for one another,
and share cookies, coffee and cider.
But when we leave this place,
May we each carry with us the light of this chalice
And the light of the candles we hold in our hands.
May we each be the beacon that shines into a world that so desperately needs our care,
Not just at Christmas
But all year long.
To quote my colleague Maureen Killoran,
May joy be your companion,
whether you are with others or alone.
May love be your strength,
and may the gift of community dwell in your heart,
for here, in this place, you will be welcome always,
whenever you choose, whenever you need.
As we sing the last song together, so that we may prevent fire or injury, please light your candle by tipping it unlit into the lit candle of the person before you, and hold yours upright as you pass the flame along. At the end of the song, I will extinguish the chalice and recess into the narthex, where I invite you to join me for refreshment and conversation.
Extinguishing the Chalice (Rev Denis)