Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 25, 2005

 “Christmas Homily”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


This time of year, our expectations are so high. The images around us are images of happy families huddled around fireplaces under a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah menorrah or a Kwanzaa kinara. The lights on lawns give a light-hearted air to the neighborhood. People bake cookies and buy gifts and there is so much talk of giving and receiving. We are supposed to shop for just the right gifts, be thrilled with each gift we receive, remember the sick and the poor, feel religious feelings of piety, remember the pure baby Jesus and the loving parents who didn’t mind being in a smelly cold stable with every strange shepherd in the area coming in to wake the kid up and probably give him the flu.

The expectations are so high.

As I was thinking about what to say this morning, I came upon a Christmas sermon written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888. What fascinated me about what he chose to write for Christmas was that he asked us not to set our sights high for our lives and our behavior, but that we set our sights low.

He reminded his listeners on that Christmas day over a hundred years ago that our dissatisfaction with our lives comes from wanting higher causes, because we don’t recognise the height of the causes we already have. Trying to be kind and honest seems too simple and too inconsequential. We’d rather set ourselves to something bold, some arduous task, some accomplishment with great flourish. We would rather topple a government or cure a disease; end gang violence or racial unrest. But the task before us, which will be our task for as long as we live, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience.

To be honest, to be kind — to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make the people around you a little bit happier for your presence, to renounce things when necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends without compromising your integrity, to remain friends with yourself, without compromising your integrity — these things are task enough for any person.

Stevenson warned that a person dissatisfied with their endeavours is a person tempted to sadness. In the midst of the winter, our lives often run lowest and we are reminded of the empty chairs of our beloved ones not with us. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial, are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim, he said; it’s another thing entirely to maim yourself and stay outside the kingdom. And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. Gentleness and cheerfulness come before all morality; they are the perfect duties. And it is the trouble with moral people that they too often have neither one nor the other. It was the moral people, the Pharisees, whom Jesus could never put up with. If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it: they are wrong. Stevenson says if your morals make you dreary, then you should conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of happier people.

There is an idea around among moral people that they should make their neighbours good. One person I have to make good: myself. But my duty to my neighbour is not to make them good, but to make them happy, as much as I can. In our own lives, we cannot expect happiness, we can only gladly welcome it when it comes. Somehow or other, though we don’t know what goodness is, we must try to be good; somehow or other, though we cannot tell what will do it, we must try to give happiness to others.

Stevenson suggests that every grave be marked with the words: HERE LIES ONE WHO MEANT WELL, TRIED A LITTLE, AND FAILED A LOT: — an epitaph of which we can all be proud.

I think that Stevenson’s thoughts on Christmas may be even more important for us today. While I love the Christmas season, and the call to good family life, generous giving, gracious receiving, and charitable hearts, I for one also need to be reminded that we are all doomed to failure. Once in a while, we really get it right, and that feels great and spurs us on to the next right thing. But each year that baby gets born anew. Each year, that little Christ child is small, innocent, dependent on Mary and Joseph, and full of amazing potential. Just like us.