Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ordinary Miracles: Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas and the Slaughter of Innocents: Another Reflection by UUCF member on Newtown, CT killings

“Ordinary Miracles”

Ashley Horan , Consulting Minister,

Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Fond du Lac, Wi -- December 16, 2012


Reading I  “The Moment of Magic” -- Rev. Victoria Safford

Now is the moment of magic,

when the whole, round earth turns again toward the sun,

and here's a blessing:

the days will be longer and brighter now, even before the winter settles in to chill us.

Now is the moment of magic,

when people beaten down and broken,

with nothing left but misery and candles and their own clear voices,

kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,

and here's a blessing:

the dark universe is suddenly illuminated

by the lights of the menorah,

suddenly ablaze with the lights of the kinara,

and the whole world is glad and loud with winter singing.


Now is the moment of magic,

when an eastern star beckons the ignorant toward an unknown goal,

and here's a blessing:

they find nothing in the end but an ordinary baby,

born at midnight, born in poverty, and the baby's cry,

like bells ringing,

makes people wonder as they wander through their lives, what human love might really look like, sound like, feel like.

Now is the moment of magic, and here's a blessing:

we already possess all the gifts we need; we've already received our presents:

ears to hear music, eyes to behold lights, hands to build true peace on earth

and to hold each other tight in love.



Reflection I: The Miracle of the Returning Light

Miracles. Magic. Blessings. All terms that get thrown around an awful lot this time of year. And all terms that some Unitarian Universalists might take issue with. Some of the naturalists and humanists and atheists among us might say, “Don’t we believe in reason and science? That nothing happens that is not explainable by natural laws?”

And some of the mystics and theists and Pagans among us might reply, “There are things that science simply can’t explain. The natural order of the Universe is evidence of the Divine, not in contrast to it. Miracles and magic and blessings abound.”

It’s always a challenge to be in relationship with those who believe differently than we do, but it can be particularly difficult during this “Holiday” season. Whatever you celebrate--whether you think the holidays are full of magic or malarkey--there are some great spiritual lessons that can be found in the stories of this season.  Lessons that neither require you to believe in any power beyond the natural order, nor to forsake such beliefs. For today, let’s call them “ordinary miracles”--the magnificent gifts that we notice around us when we engage in that most challenging of spiritual disciplines: paying attention.

Ordinary miracle the first:

Brú na Bóinne, Ireland. 5,000 years ago. In the warm months, this is a lush, green river valley, but it is winter now. The winds are cold, frost browns the grass, and the people huddle together in their houses, wondering if they will ever be warm again.

One winter morning, long before the sun has risen, the people of the village rise and wrap their warmest skins around them. Mothers bundle their babies close; elders move slowly to work the frost out of their stiff joints. Together, they file out of the village and down into the valley, their torches flickering in the frigid wind.

They see almost nothing ahead of them for a long time... but then, someone whispers, “Look. There it is.” Through the inky black of the pre-dawn night, a massive, domed outline begins to emerge. The youngest ones ask what it is, and the elders explain, “That is the cairn where the remains of the ancestors rest, and their spirits dwell. It has long passages leading to interior chambers... Beautiful carvings lining the walls. It took 300 of us almost 20 years to build it,” they whisper, “hauling sand and stone from far away.”

As the procession draws closer, other streams of flickering light snake toward the mound from the hills on all sides--people from the neighboring villages who have also risen in the dark and cold this morning. There must be thousands, gathering silently around the mouth of the tomb. As they approach, the people extinguish their torches, and thick darkness envelops the crowd.

Among them, there are some whose hearts ache at the sight of the looming mound--they remember the loved ones laid to rest within. Others rub their hands and pull their furs and skins closer around them, cursing the cold. Perhaps it has been a hard year, the harvest small and the frost early. Everyone huddles together in the dark, which seems like it will last for all eternity.

But slowly, slowly, the sky begins to lighten. Dusty rose and deep violet at first, then fiery orange and fuchsia and red as the sun lifts itself over the horizon. The people watch intently as the first rays hit the opening above the cairn’s stone doorway.

This Solstice day only--the shortest day of the year--the light aligns perfectly with the long stone passageway. The rays pierce through sixty feet of stony darkness and illuminate the inner chamber. The people watch for seventeen long minutes as the light of hope and and resurgent life penetrate even into the very home of death, deep in the cairn.

They knew it would happen today, as it does every year. And yet, as it does, they feel the throbbing pulse of something out of the ordinary--or maybe the essence and the energy of the ordinary. Call it magic, call it awe, call it paying attention: but as those rays pierce the darkness, precisely and exquisitely illuminating the depths of the cairn, the people raise a wild, joyful cheer. They sing a song of praise, and say prayers of thanksgiving. The world has turned once again--the dark of winter will not last forever.

Ordinary miracles. The perfect cycles of the sun and moon, leaning always toward balance. The things that become clear in the light, and the quiet wisdom we find in the dark. The impulse deep within us to gather together in reverence--small beings, made of earth and breath and starlight, momentary participants in that vast cosmic dance that circles always round, and round, and round.


Reading II “Hanukkah” --Rev. Lynn Ungar

Come down from the hills.

Declare the fighting done.

Be bold - declare victory,

even when the temple is wrecked and the tyrants have not retreated, only coiled back like a snake prepared to strike again.

Come down. Try to remember a life gentled by daily acts

of domestic faith - the pot

set to boil, the bed made up, the table set in calm expectation that when the sun sets

we will still be here.

Come down and settle.

Unlearn the years of hiding.

Light fires that can be seen for miles,

that dance and sparkle and warm

the frozen marrow. Set lamps

in the window. Declare your presence,

your loyalties, the truths

for which you do not expect to have to die.

It would take a miracle, you say, to carve such a solid life

out of the shell of fear.

I say you are the stuff

from which such miracles are made.


ReflectionII The Miracle of the Sustaining Light

Ordinary miracle the second:

It is a hundred and thirty nine years before the common era. The land of Israel has been conquered and subsumed into the Syrian empire, ruled by the tyrannical Antiochus IV. As any oppressor knows, the best way to crush the rebellious will of a dominated people is to strip them of their culture and their hope--so the king removes the Jewish high priest. He sics his powerful military on them at the slightest whiff of dissidence. He outlaws worship, defiles the temple, burns the scrolls of Jewish law, and forces the people to break their laws of diet and Sabbath. It is a campaign of humiliation and terror.

In a village called Modin, the ousted high priest has settled to live out his final days. Antiochus sends his mercenaries there--they capture the old man and bring him to the center of town, where they have built an altar. “Make sacrifices to our gods!” they cry, but he refuses. Instead, he draws his sword--his sons and his friends spring to his side. Some are killed while standing their ground; others escape to caves in the hills. The soldiers are chased away, the altar smashed, and the Jews flee.

They begin to form an army. A resistance, a few thousand strong. The old priest calls forth as their leader a young man--son of Jacob and Sarah--called Judah Maccabee, whose name means “He who is like you, O G-d.” They march forth, knowing they will likely meet a bloody death at the hands of the 40,000 soldiers who have been ordered to crush the whole Jewish people.

And yet, in battle after battle, the Maccabees prevail. They push the Syrians back until they have reclaimed the holy city--Jerusalem.  When the fighting is done, the survivors stand before the Temple. As they enter, they weep. It is fouled, defiled, broken, vandalized.

But Judah takes a plank of wood, and another, and another. He builds a new altar, consecrating it on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, in the Jewish year 3622. To mark the sacred space, they must light a menorah--the traditional candelabra that burns day and night. The old one has been destroyed, but they fashion a new one out of cheap, flimsy metal. When they go to add the oil that will feed its flame, they see that there is only one small vial left-- enough only for one day and one night. It will take eight days to press and purify a new supply.

Here, they pause. They have lost so much, suffered so much. Custom says the light must burn--always, without ceasing. Yet it has been dark for so long now--ever since the temple was defiled. These are extenuating circumstances, aren’t they? Can God really expect them to live as normal, make their sacrifices and perform our rituals? What is the use of custom--of tradition--of normalcy in the wake of so much trauma and destruction?

But Judah strikes a spark; kindles a tiny flame that he lifts to a single wick. They will light the lamp. They will reclaim their routines, even in the swirling aftermath of chaos. They will create sacred space, even in the burned-out ruins of war. In the wake of devastation, they will live as defiant witnesses to the enduring, sustaining power of hope. Of worship. Of community.

Ordinary miracles. Not the lamp that burned for eight days, not the military triumph of a rag-tag army. There is no miracle--no magic--no blessing in war and slaughter. But... in the delicate seedlings of hope that still, stubbornly, push their way through the cracks of even the most broken of hearts. In the resiliency of memory, the tenacity of tradition, the fierceness of a community that knows the oppressor may conquer their bodies and their lands, but never their spirits.

“It would take a miracle, you say, to carve such a solid life

out of the shell of fear.

I say you are the stuff

from which such miracles are made.”

Reading III “For So the Children Come” -- Sophia Lyon Fahs For so the children come,

And so they have been coming.

Always in the same way they come— Born of the seed of [humankind].

No angels herald their beginnings;

No prophets predict their future courses; No wise men see a star to show

where the babe is that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.

Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs—

feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.

They ask where and how will the new life end—will it never end?

Each night a child is born is a holy night—a time for singing, A time for wondering, a time for worshipping.


Reflection III The Miracle of the Redeeming Light

Ordinary miracle the third:

Two thousand some-odd years ago. Ancient Palestine, in a small village called Bethlehem--a place important to nobody but the Jews, whose ancient scriptures prophesy that there, the Messiah will be born. Such an earth-shattering event will no doubt occur with great fanfare and celebration:

as the prophet has said, “He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government there will be no end” (Is. 9:6-7).

But life is often more ambiguous than prophecy. A young woman--a girl, really, no more than 14 or 15--disgraced and shunned by her people because she is unmarried and with child. A young man, her beau, overwhelmed yet steadfast, faithful to their love and her honor even in the thick morass of his doubts. When the contractions begin, the pain she feels is real and deep and far from glamorous. Her son is birthed in blood and sweat on the floor of a stable, away from family and the comforts of home-- mundane, routine, and utterly human.

And yet, as these young parents gaze at their child, they know he is precious. That his life will be special, and he will do great things. They will do anything to keep him safe, to shelter him from a world so full of fear and violence and oppression. They love him as they have never loved another creature. And for a few moments, everything is perfect and safe and full of magic.

Ordinary miracles. The first cry of a baby, announcing itself to the world. The parent who holds their newborn child, heart filled to overflowing with a love deeper than anything they have ever known. The hope each new life brings--every baby born with unbounded potential to save our world, create more love, build peace and justice. Every child, born one more redeemer.

But miracles are not all there is. One early morning, the young father awakens in a cold sweat. “I dreamed the king was going to kill our son. We’ve got to take him--got to run away.” And so, in the early pre-dawn light, the little family runs.  They make their way, on foot and donkey, to Egypt--the land their ancestors fled so long ago. They leave all they know, lose all they once had, but it is a small price to pay for the safety of their child.

Then word comes--their fears were not unfounded. King Herod, frenzied with paranoia, has issued a decree: kill all the boys, two years or less, in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Perhaps he fears the loss of power; perhaps he seeks vengeance; perhaps he simply has never known love. Who knows why people commit unspeakable acts--the motivation is less important than the impact.

The little family hears the news with mixed emotions--horror at this Slaughter of the Innocents, grief for friends and family who have suffered such loss, relief their own son has been spared, bewilderment that such unthinkable violence could happen in the place they once called home.

There is a strange and terrible parallel between this tale from long ago and the emotions so many of us are holding today in the wake of Friday’s horrific shooting. Whatever the era, whoever the perpetrator, however close or far away from us it happens, the Slaughter of Innocents is an affront to everything we hold sacred-- the antithesis of a miracle. It is not a part of any divine plan, not a test of faith, not God’s choice to spare some and forsake others.

It was then, and is now, incomprehensible. Heart-breaking. And worthy of our anger and our grief.

And yet... it is not all there is. Violence does not stop time, and it cannot quell life’s throbbing impulse to spring forth. While we grieve, another child is born somewhere, full of potential and hope and promise. Born one more redeemer.  Never a replacement, not a canceling out of evil, but an opposite; a reminder that life is good and sweet and persistent and will not surrender in the face of evil.

Ordinary miracles. The way our children make us better--more open--less selfish then we ever would have been alone. The way our hearts burst and overflow with compassion for people we have never met, across the chasms of time and space. The human impulse to respond with service and help and love even in the face of the most unspeakable tragedies. The fact that, in spite of all that would break our spirits and corrupt our souls, the vast majority of us do not succumb--we do not allow the divine spark with which we were born to be extinguished.

Ordinary miracles.  The ways we can heal--as individuals and as communities--even after our hearts have been broken wide open. The fact that in spite of everything, we can still proclaim the words of Sophia Fahs: “Each night a child is born is a holy night—a time for singing, time for wondering, a time for worshipping.”

There is much to mourn, my friends, but in spite of it all, we are not lost. We are redeemed--brought back from the brink of despair and meaninglessness--by life’s perpetual renewal; by hope’s invincible light; by love’s unfathomable depths that bind us together, hold us close, and never, ever, ever let us go.

May we all feel that love. May we all be redeemed.

May it be so. Blessed Be, Ashé and Amen.


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