December 24, 2020
The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ
Timothy Egan published an opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago, comparing the next three pandemic months to the 1805 winter that Lewis and Clark, and their crew, spent at World’s End (what is now Astoria, Oregon) where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. He referenced observations from Dr. Fauci’ and Dr. Redfield Centers for Disease Control, wherein Dr. Fauci called this month “a surge upon a surge” and Dr. Redfield said that the coming season had the potential to be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.” I’m going to add – at least in living memory.
Frankly, the description of World’s End in that early 19th century winter – only a dozen days without rain – was grim, though no deaths were reported. Grim, in a different way, different than this pandemic. But still illuminating and offering up its lessons.
Grim. Certainly seems like the right word for this pandemic. How many lives have been lost? Here, in the U.S. nearly three and a quarter thousand. Here, on the planet: nearly one and three quarters million dead. Those are just statistics – for some of you, those numbers have the name of a loved one, a precious loss during a difficult year that is not finished with us yet.
So, what do either grim history or grim present circumstance have to do with a little old lady lonely in her weather-tight home, knitting warm mittens for school children? I will answer that question, but want to bring into the mix one more thing: the Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. You know it that song, right?
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight
It turns out that the lyrics most of us know, the ones that have become the norm, are much more upbeat than the original ones. In fact, Sinatra, upon hearing the original lyrics, basically said to lighten it up if he was going to include it in the Christmas album he was making. So now, thanks to Old Blue Eyes, we have:
…hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Written during World War II, the original lyrics, while wishing a merry little Christmas, also stated blatantly, melancholically
It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past
Not exactly a catchy tune for a Hollywood hit film. Judy Garland didn’t want to sing such morbid lyrics. In the end, it was changed for “Meet Me In St Louis” in which she was starring.
There’s a line that I love from the original. It’s the one that Sinatra wanted out, the one that was replaced by hanging a star on the highest bough:
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
That’s us now.
That’s this Christmas, with its disappointments and distances.
That’s this year, with its losses of life and livelihoods, purpose and stamina.
That’s us staring down the long tunnel of pandemic in winter when we think we know what it is to live in pandemic times, but now have to learn what it is to do it in winter.
We’ll muddle through relying on each other – not just reaching out and providing support, but also finding our way to receiving it as well.
We’ll muddle through with mutual aid and showing up on Zoom even though we would much rather be together.
We’ll muddle through by making or buying meals for those who are sick; by knitting or purchasing warm items for those who need them; by delivering Christmas presents to families living on the edge, having been pushed there by hostile immigration policies and a xenophobic federal government.
We’ll be like Old Sarah from the story – noticing when there is a need; doing what we can with the skills and capacities we have; giving when we can whether we know the recipient well or at all. That’s what we have done, in a nearly literal way, by partnering with Elijah’s Promise to create our “Mitten Tree.” Gratitude to those of you who have donated warm items – not just mittens, but also scarves, hats, gloves – as part of this holiday season.
Maybe we won’t be exactly like Old Sarah but will be like the unnamed source of new yarn – making sure that good continues in the world, even if we aren’t the direct source of it, even if we remain anonymous. That’s what we do with our weekly Be The Change donations. That’s what you do when you donate to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund.
Maybe…we’ll be like Old Sarah, knitting our little corner of the interdependent web of all existence, making it stronger, building relationships within this congregation and outside of it; noticing and honoring all sentient beings; surrendering to the truth that we cannot make our way alone; that we never make our way alone.
Which brings me to the origin story of this holiday. Not the Pagan one. Or the secular one. But the religious one. The Christmas story.
It was all so complicated:
The questionable parentage,
the awkward journey,
the not knowing where you will sleep,
or when the baby will come,
or what his life will look like—
even what the world will be like
when he is grown.
Life is usually that complicated.
It was all so simple:
Keep walking. Stop when you can.
Breathe. Through the pain, breathe.
Hold him. Feed him. Keep him warm.
Cradle his head in the palm of your hand.
These are things we all know.
It was, it is, so complicated
and so simple:
Love what does not belong to you.
Love what will be broken.
Love what mystifies you.
Love what scares you.
Love the aching flesh
no more and no less than
the brilliant star.
Love what will die
and what will be born again
and die again
and be born again
Whichever story you choose – an origin story or a children’s story; a mid-century Christmas song from a movie or an opinion piece in the Times – whichever story we choose, let us light candles that burn the whole year long.
Candles for love that does not belong to us and that will be broken, despite all our best efforts. Candles for what mystifies us and scares us. Candles for this aching mortal flesh. Candles for a love that will be born again and will die again and be born again, over and over, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, beyond our surrender, beyond our understanding.
Candles of joy despite all the sadness; candles of hope where despair keeps watch. Candles of courage for fears ever present and candles of peace for tempest-tossed days. Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens and candles of love to inspire all our living.
Candles to keep us company as we muddle through somehow.