A message delivered December 15, 2019
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California

Reading:  “The Moment of Magic” by Rev. Victoria Safford  READ IT HERE

Message: Feel the Presence of a Hope by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Gail Johnson Vaughan spoke last Sunday of the ineffable nature of transcendent experience – that words are only ever symbols for or approximations of experiences or senses that powerfully transcend our ordinary awareness and knowing. “God,” she pointed out, is one of the words, one of the symbols people use for all that we sense beyond what words can capture.

The celebrations and stories of Yule, Hanukkah and Christmas – both the sacred and the secular versions of Christmas – are also symbols for what words cannot adequately capture. They are stories and holy days and accumulations of rituals that help us know, or find, or remember somehow, who we are and our place in this world, in our communities, and in the larger story of life.

For me, they are all valuable metaphors.

Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” comes readily to mind: READ IT HERE

Our winter holy days and holidays arrive each year very purposefully when light is in shortest supply in our part of the world. A good number of people have shared with me recently that the time change and the long nights grease a slope down which they slide, with helplessness and hopelessness, toward depression.

These winter holy days and their symbols and stories serve as poems of hope, at heart, each a reminder that buried somewhere within every “now” is “a moment of magic,” a reminder that the light can yet hold, though it appears we have no fuel left, a reminder that it is possible at any time to realize, “Here’s a blessing.”

One of the great powers and staying powers of the Christian story is its message that the transformation of the world and of our our selves can arrive in the most impossible package – in this case a tiny, helpless, currently homeless baby, born to a very young, unwed mother and a working class adoptive father, in the most unexpected and yet common and accessible of places, a stable, the place of very ordinary animals and ordinary people.

The choir is about to sing, in Latin, “O Magnum Mysterium” – “O great and wonderous, improbable mystery, that animals should see the newborn hope for the world lying in a feeding trough.”

Whether or not you believe it is historically true, and no matter where various traditions in Christianity have taken it, it is a story and a metaphor that conveys – beneath the level of words – an accessible, compelling and important truth, a message of hope in troubled and troubling times: that an answer may arrive, when, where, and in whom we least expect it.

Music O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen   LISTEN HERE

I have sometimes been a person who “tie[s] a poem to a chair with a rope and [who tries to] torture a confession out of it.” My own relationship to these winter holidays and holy days weaves in and out from year to year, between the awe of “O Magnum Mysterium” or awe in the extraordinary universe into which we have been born (stuff of stars that we are) and, on the other end of the spectrum, “Bah Humbug!”

In the spirit of this month’s theme of awe, I believe that it is most helpful, if we can bring ourselves to do it, to hold these holidays and their stories “up to the light like a color slide,”

“to press an ear against [their] hive.”

‘to walk inside [each holiday’s] room and feel the walls for a light switch.’

‘to waterski across their surface[s] waving at their [ancient, anonymous] author[s] on [a far] shore].

Interrogating these holidays and traditions does have an important place in each person’s spiritual and intellectual journeys, and only you can know if this is a year you really do need to tie any of them to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of them.

If this is not one of those developmental moments in your journey, I expect that you may find more blessing and more hope by gently dropping your imagination in and allowing [it] to probe its way out.

One of my favorite poetic approaches to the Christian story of Christmas comes from Universalist minister Carl Seaburg. Though he was an outspoken proponent of disciplined theological scholarship, his own theology was once described as “a lyrical Universalism.” In fact, he wrote the text to a dozen of our hymns. “Is it not our business to be artists of the spirit?” he once asked.

The many and anonymous authors of religious traditions are all artists of the spirit. Here is Carl Seaburg’s “artist of the spirit” take on the Christian story of Christmas, his invitation to drop our imaginations into its metaphors, into its tangible images of sky, humanity, sorrow, searching, longing, and love, without telling us exactly what it means.

In the gentle of the moon, in the garnet of a star, feel the presence of a hope where the crowding shepherds are.

Soon the apple tree will bud, and the crimson fruit will fall, but within the stable shed, there’s no thought of that at all.

Touch the treasure of a faith that the mythic Easterns hear. See the measure of a love come candescent down the air.

Music  In the Gentle of the Moon by Carl Seaburg, arr. K. Tarsa 

May you feel the presence of a hope this season,

in the circle of family, friends or community with whom you gently crowd around what matters,

in the gentle of the moon and the sky and reassuring annual rhythms of the solstice,

in the treasure of the faith that you hold, after a lifetime of searching,

in the measures of love you are present enough to notice coming candescent, glowing, down the air when and where and in whom you least expect.

So may it be.  Blessed be. Amen.