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A Revolution of the Spirit – 12/24/2016

In his novel, Hogfather, Terry Pratchet, the British fantasy-satirist, now of blessed memory, tells a story about Death. Not simply the very real fact of life, death, but the embodiment of that fact: a grim, yet affable fellow who appears as a skeleton in a black robe, carrying a scythe, and who’s duty it is to usher on the souls of the departed, when it is time for them to depart the mortal realm. In this story, Death has to sit in, temporarily for the Hogfather, another fictional character clearly styled on the person called, in the United Kingdom, Father Christmas, and who we know better, here in the United States, as Santa Claus. So it is that Death dons the red suit and the white beard and sets about the new task before him: delivering presents to all the children of his world.

Things do not go smoothly, as you might have guessed. When a little girl asks him for a gift, he hands her a sword. Not a toy sword, mind you; not a play sword made of wood or of plastic, but a very real, full-sized, excruciatingly sharp metal sword. Immediately, the nearest adult scolds him for it. “You can’t give her that! It’s not safe.”

Death – whose every line is always deadpan – explains, “It’s a sword. They’re not meant to be safe.”

Another responsible voice pipes up, “She’s a child.”

“It’s educational,” Death provides.

“What if she cuts herself?” the concerned fellow asks.

Answers Death, “That will be an important lesson.”

Tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate Christmas, and coincidentally, the beginning of Hanukkah as well. Both occasions are meant, in our culture, to be times of merriment and joy. Opportunities to gather together with family and friends, invitations to express our generosity and care towards each other, and especially a time for children – to enjoy treats and presents and be taught the songs and rituals of this season. Peace and hope and happiness are the most common watch-words of these festivals, and I wish all of that for each of us. But like Death’s gift of a sword to the girl in the story, neither Christmas, nor Hanukkah, is meant to be safe, and it would be a disservice to our children to pretend otherwise. Allow me to explain.

The Rev. Tim Yeager, labor organizer, peace activist, and Anglican priest, sets the scene for the Christmas story with these words,

Once upon a time, in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, there was a people with an ancient culture, a storied past, and a great literature, who had been conquered by a technologically advanced imperial power. They were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts of local peasants and slaves that were put down mercilessly.”[i]

Very nearly the same introduction could be used for the Hanukkah story as well. It occurred in exactly the same place, only about two-hundred years earlier, under a different empire with the same crisis of corruption, collaboration, oppression, and the merciless attitude of all tyrants towards dissent. In both stories, this predicament is not new. The people are not freshly conquered; they have labored under the yoke of empire for some time already. But there is something catalyzing in this moment, which is why the story starts here. In the Hanukkah narrative, that catalyst is a new, draconian edict from the Greek emperor Antiochus, forbidding the practice of the Jewish faith. This sparks the revolt that eventually leads to the expulsion of the Greek forces. In the Christmas story, King Herod, a collaborator who depends entirely on the occupying forces of Rome for his power, has just heard a rumor that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. So, willing to commit any evil to protect his throne, Herod turns with violent force against all the children of that city. Just after the traditional end of the Christmas story, when the shepherds and Magi have all gone home, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have to flee from their home country, to be refugees, for a time, in neighboring Egypt.

Both Christmas and Hanukkah are stories of revolution. In Hanukkah, that’s quite literal. In Christmas, it is a revolution disrupted. The teacher Jesus will come of age, and preach his message of peace and justice, and be struck down by Rome for it. Both stories have this quality of tragedy about them. For the Maccabees that led the revolt against the Greeks went on to found the Hasmonean dynasty, remembered for excesses and religious intolerance of its own, as well as for a power struggle which ultimately invited the forces of Rome into the land of Judeah. And only a handful of centuries after he preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the followers of Jesus would choose to accommodate themselves to the empire of Rome, rather than seek any longer to dismantle it. The leadership of the Christian movement chose to embrace the brutality of the imperial machine, so long as its emperors would kneel before the cross, rather than their former, pagan altars.

The progression from a revolution of the oppressed to an empire of oppressors is always the same. It begins by the replacement, in our ideals, of justice and mercy with strength alone. Once strength has been made the only object of our worship, there soon follows a confusion, such that we cannot even recognize strength any longer, and have to settle, instead, for cruelty.

But take heart, dear friends, take heart. For none of these tragedies has the final word on this shared holiday, tonight. Not if we are willing to take into ourselves the painful but important lesson that though hope can triumph, in our lives and in our world, it never triumphs without first being fought for. It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”[ii] In every time of crisis, whenever any people grow weary of being oppressed, the holy spirit of revolution still dwells within, waiting to be born.

The familiar carol, “O Holy Night,” which we will hear from our choir and perhaps sing along with in a moment, was written by a Christian but set to music by a Jew, and its rarely sung third verse, as translated from the original French, by an American Unitarian abolitionist, contains these lines,

Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease![iii]

Merry Christmas, and a Happy Hanukkah, to you, dear friends. Please remember this night, and in the year ahead, that these holidays were not meant to be safe. But they were meant to be beautiful, and hopeful, and glorious. May they be so this year, for us and for all the world. Amen.



[ii] The Gospel According to Matthew, 10:34

[iii] Credit is due to Rev. Yeager, again, for this observation


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